Commentary: Universities should step up to lead the region | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Universities should step up to lead the region

Jul 7, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 7, 2008 - The assault on the corporate independence of Anheuser-Busch calls to mind the shifting winds of power and influence in the metropolitan area and its possible connection to articulating a future vision and mission for St. Louis.

The era in which August Busch partnered with downtown bankers and other corporate moguls to organize Civic Progress as the priority setter and weathervane for St. Louis appears to be waning. In addition to the absence of home-owned big banks, the corporate stage is less local and more national or even global. Thus the erstwhile focus on the local community among the large corporate chiefs is far less intense.

Aside from the political leadership of the area, whom should its citizens look to step out and lead an effort to define the future of St. Louis and who should assume an organizing role?

A logical answer might be found in examining the source of financial power and job growth in St. Louis. Among the most significant sources of economic and intellectual ferment are the providers of higher education and medical care (often combined in Washington and St. Louis universities). These institutions, their boards and associated actors are joined by smaller private and public universities and colleges that form a core of higher educational excellence, attracting attention from areas beyond St. Louis. Might these institutions serve as a vital part of new leadership?

Along with their boards and support activities as well as the research organizations that take their life-blood from the universities, new sources of civic energy may develop.

If a new leadership cadre embraces the obvious need for the area to embrace a truly progressive and bold set of initiatives. a new and potentially exciting vision can result. The history of the St. Louis community is replete with big and significant achievements (although not sufficient to preserve St. Louis' former place in national significance).

Construction of Eads Bridge, the Arch, Union Station, founding of the Zoo-Museum District, the establishment of Gateway Greenway matched with the Metro-East Parks and Recreation District, the development of the Cortex initiative, the Botanical Garden, Opera Theatre and the development of MetroLink all come to mind. Each represents a ground-breaking concept that had be formulated, financed and sold to a skeptical audience.

However, one would be hard-pressed to identify a current list of "big idea" projects designed to knit the area into an integrated, functioning, organism offering economic opportunity, quality of life and intellectual and social stimulation.

To the degree that the list exists, it is either championed by these institutions or by persons largely identified with the university communities. From where else did the improvements in the Midtown community, Cortex, the Danforth Plant Science Project and the twin Greenway and recreational projects in Missouri and Illinois stem?

In recognition of the new potential lines of influence and economic power, the universities and medical institutions and their associates must step still further to the fore and exercise a more expansive vision.

Goals that are important for the institutions and the entire area include:

- Improvement in the regional transportation system including an improved financing of public transit.

- Improvement and additional diversity in elementary and secondary education.

- A more comprehensive and rational financing of health care from Missouri and Illinois.

- Stabilization for the financing of the regions' cultural institutions.

These are among the issues that are of primary importance in recruiting faculty, researchers and students. In turn, the process promises an on-going flow of civic energy.

St. Louis must offer a reason for college graduates to remain or return from educational institutions elsewhere. It must offer majority and minority ethnic groups economic and social opportunities. It must demonstrate progress and hospitality to ideas, innovation and acceptance. The university communities embody these values and must act to export them to the community at large if the area is to prosper.

The growth and health of the community demands a revived sense of mission and vision if St. Louis is to achieve the excellence found in other cities of its size and historical memory.

John Roach is a lawyer who has long been involved in transportation and other civic issues.