Texas Perspectives

How Cities and Universities Can Defy Old Stereotypes of Town-Gown Conflict

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Next month, 50 medical students in Austin will show the country what can happen when a university and the city around it collaborate to bring fresh ideas to ongoing challenges.

It’s been decades since a major American research university has created a new medical school from scratch. But the entire community has come together to launch the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin with the goal to rethink health care. That will begin with this inaugural class.

The private sector is often the incubator of new ideas, whether through Fortune 500 companies investing in research and development or venture capital-backed startups creating the next great tech breakthrough. The foundation of these innovations is the knowledge and talent developed at great universities.

And when universities and their cities defy the old stereotypes of town-gown conflict, we can take on everything from health care to energy production to our next great goal — transportation.

Decades ago, the sociologist-turned U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked how to create a world-class city.

“Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.”

Moynihan understood that a university is an investment whose benefits are realized for generations to come.

In his hometown of New York City, world-class universities such as Columbia helped create a world-class city. And, today, Cornell University and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology are building a new tech campus on city-owned land. The partnership pursues a vision laid out by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is expected to anchor additional scientific research and economic development for generations to come.

Similarly in Austin, the community has been a full partner in creating the Dell Medical School. Voters in 2012 authorized the local health care district to invest $35 million a year to establish a school to develop a new model for medical education that is highly engaged, combines science and clinical experiences, and is team-based and multi-professional.

This spring, local leaders went further and created an Innovation Zone at the nexus of the UT campus and downtown Austin. This will be a space for established businesses and enterprising startups to become part of the health ecosystem burgeoning around the medical school and adjacent teaching hospital.

But our town-gown partnerships aren’t limited to health care.

The university, city and private industry also collaborate on addressing energy and water use issues through Pecan Street Inc., which helps utilities, technology companies and researchers bring innovations to market faster. We nurture startups in the clean energy program at the Austin Technology Incubator, a university-industry partnership that adds to the city’s economic strength.

And now the university is actively supporting the city in its campaign to become the U.S. Department of Transportation’s first-ever Smart City Challenge winner. Austin is one of seven finalists for the grant, which will be announced this summer and would bring $50 million to develop a fully integrated transportation network that uses data, technology and creativity to shape how people and goods move.

Innovation has already changed the way we share and receive information and must play the same role in redefining how we travel between work, home and play. By combining our talent and resources, the city and university can develop new technologies and business models to reduce the impact that traveling has on our daily lives and the world around us and increase accessibility.

“Keep Austin Weird” is more than just our city’s slogan. In Austin, we know that what makes us different also allows us to make a unique and vital contribution to the state and nation.

 “What Starts Here Changes the World” is more than just our university’s motto. It embodies our mission to use scholarship and research to improve society. 

By coming together, we can collectively use these two mindsets to embrace progress — to apply our weird and innovative ideas to change the world for the better.

Gregory L Fenves is the president of The University of Texas at Austin. Steve Adler is the mayor of the City of Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Huffington Post.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.