Editorials, Opinions

Editorial: U. must address inequality in its innovation strategic plan

By
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

In June, the University unveiled the Brown and the Innovation Economy Strategic Plan, an initiative to support economic development and entrepreneurship in Rhode Island. The University aims to promote job creation and innovative commercial activity in the local economy by supporting talent development and retention and building a regional network of business leaders, investors and technology developers. We applaud the University for articulating a clear commitment to enhancing the vitality and long-term prospects of the Rhode Island economy. As the wealthiest institution of higher education in the state, the University has long played a significant role in Rhode Island’s economy. Still, as the University embarks on the ambitious process of realizing the strategic plan’s central objectives, it must address the issue of local inequality and ensure that its efforts will yield broad-based growth that delivers positive outcomes and opportunities for all Rhode Islanders.

The strategic plan commits the University to forging strong, long-term partnerships with students, policymakers and businesspeople in the surrounding community. For example, the University’s Office of Industry Engagement and Commercial Venturing will support the Rhode Island Innovation Hub, a collaboration between industry and academics to support innovation and the commercialization of new technologies. In addition, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship will administer Brown Venture Founders, a program designed to incentivize University graduates to launch their startups in Providence. The strategic plan’s other goals include deepening ties with industry, facilitating cooperation between University researchers and businesses and commercializing discoveries in biomedicine.

While it is impossible to precisely predict how much the University’s strategic plan will drive economic growth, the literature suggests that University expenditures — coupled with the creation of highly concentrated districts that host technology developers, researchers and investors — can make a substantial contribution to the local economy. Universities well-integrated in the commercial fabric of their host cities generate more patents and startups than schools in suburbs, rural areas or college towns. And for every $1 spent by a university in an urban area, the average income in the surrounding city grows by 89 cents. Given these realities, it is safe to say that the strategic plan gives the University a solid chance to support the development of a vibrant and innovative Rhode Island economy.

Yet, while the University has made ambitious commitments to supporting local entrepreneurship and commercial activity, its strategic plan fails to make any mention of inequality — a particularly acute problem in Rhode Island. Providence is one of the most unequal cities in the United States, having simultaneously experienced precipitous declines in manufacturing and rapid growth in well-off neighborhoods such as College Hill. The statistics are startling: In one low-income tract in downtown Providence, children are predicted to have an annual household salary of $23,000 as adults. Black low-income residents of Federal Hill are projected to make $12,000 per year. But in the tract that includes much of the University and Rhode Island School of Design, children are predicted to have an annual household salary of $72,000.

These disparities in economic opportunities are caused by multiple factors including local crime, poverty and access to education. In general, American cities and towns featuring large universities, despite their aforementioned contributions to local commercial activity, often experience considerable inequality. In Syracuse, New York, the number of households in higher income brackets increased during the 2014-15 school year, but one in two children still lives in poverty. In Richmond, Virginia, the average household income in the tract that includes the University of Richmond is $73,542; in another tract, almost 50 percent of residents are below the poverty line, with a median household income of $9,583.

Of course, the University cannot reasonably be expected to solve all of the entrenched injustices and obstacles to opportunity that create inequality in Providence or Rhode Island. But the University does have a responsibility to support the kind of economic  growth that extends opportunity to all of the neighborhoods in Providence, and it should develop a strategy for doing so. We certainly do not have all the answers, and we fully acknowledge that spurring innovative growth that delivers prosperity to all segments of society will not be easy. But in asking the University to critically examine how it might combat inequality through its strategic plan, we are fundamentally concerned with the character of Brown and its role in community life in the years to come. As John Logan, professor of sociology, told The Herald, the University “can be perceived as a progressive force, helping to revitalize the city, or it can be seen as participating in a kind of growth whose benefits will be reaped by some kinds of people and not others.” We hope that the University selects the former route in its efforts to improve innovation and economic activity in Rhode Island.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19, Rhaime Kim ’20, Grace Layer ’20, Mark Liang ’19 and Krista Stapleford ’21. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.