GO BEARS! A look at American universities

American communities love their local universities, says Professor Andrew George. Why is this, and what could we be doing differently on this side of the Atlantic?

Recently I visited my son, who is studying at the University of California, Berkeley.

Spending time in the city of Berkeley was an eye-opener for just how some American universities are regarded by their local communities.

Berkeley is a university town, with cafes and bookshops catering for students and the young people who are either graduates or are employed by the university or businesses associated with it. However, the connection is greater – for much of the public there is an evident pride in, and connection to, the university. Every cafe and shop displays pennants, banners and logos of the university or its teams. This extends from the immediate environs of the university right across San Francisco.

When we went into a restaurant in central San Francisco, the waiter saw my son’s T-shirt and greeted us with a “Go Bears!”, the slogan of the university team. This might be one canny salesperson, but it felt like there was a wider community that wanted to associate with the university, to feel part of it.

Much of this is associated with sport. When there is a big football match, it is shown in many of the establishments that line Telegraph Road and the other streets around Berkeley. Local people know about the match; the results and who the key players are. The university makes more seats at the game available for non-students than students. The only university sporting event in the UK where there is anything like that level of outside interest is the Oxford and Cambridge boat race.

This infiltration of the university into the local culture is greater than sport; it also embraces a pride in the university’s research achievements and the quality of its education. The university also provides a cohesion for the local area, giving it a sense of identity and purpose. There is an attachment of the heart, as well as the brain.

Emotional connection

In the UK, some universities dominate the town that they are in. Most are embedded in their local community by the economic and employment benefits they bring, as well as a myriad of social and cultural ties. In travelling around the UK, I have met instances where people who are not directly connected to the university (such as taxi drivers and shop owners) are grateful for the benefits the university gives. Similar findings are seen in the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission report.
But I’ve not come across the almost visceral connection that I felt in America.

Much of this will be due to the different cultures across the Atlantic.

Americans value institutions that form part of their local communities; they will also be proud of, and knowledgeable about, their local high school, community college or big businesses that provide employment and a sense of purpose to the area.

I was surprised just how much an American colleague knew about a big local employer that she had no connection to. In the UK, we tend to be more detached from local institutions.

I recently asked neighbours about two of our local universities – they struggled to remember where they were located.

America is, of course, a massive and diverse country, and what I have observed will not be true everywhere. The marginalised in society may well feel alienated by their local university.

However, in the UK we tend to emphasise the downside (the effect on parking, noise from students) rather than the upside of having a local institution of learning and scholarship.

The lack of emotional engagement has not always been there.

Sheffield was founded following £50k (£15m in today’s terms) fundraising from steelworkers, coalminers and the local population in penny donations.

Other British civic universities were founded because people wanted a university in their area.

Universities were often founded as part of the place they were in, but as the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission report indicates they have in recent years become relatively dismissive of place while they have strived to be global or national universities.

UK universities are strongly associated with the liberal elite camp, with little connection to those outside that grouping. This polarisation is not healthy for society, nor for universities

Belong, don’t just engage

However, as UK universities stake their claims to be ‘anchor institutions’, they should consider how they can develop a relationship that is more than transactional with the communities that they work in. They need to move from being just civically engaged to being truly civic institutions that belong to, as well as contribute to, the local community.

Sport is probably never going to be as important in the UK as the USA. Traditionally, universities have provided cultural opportunities such as art, theatre and music. This may be an important way to connect to some in society, but more will be needed. Universities need to be more visible parts of their local community, and as well as telling people how useful and important they are, university leaders should find out what the community wants and needs from the institution, and build relations with locals (which is not the same as building relationships with local government and industries, important though that is).

Universities also need to be part of their community. As many already are, campuses should be open to the local population.

In UC Berkeley all lectures are public, and my son tells me that people will come and listen. I assume that only a small number do this, but the fact that they can is an important symbol. The university that I used to work at ran a large firework display every year; hundreds of people came onto campus who otherwise might not. It may also be important to think about providing a hook for people to connect with – what is the ‘Go Bears!’ equivalent of any British university?

The obvious question is, ‘So what?’ Universities could argue that they do not need a deep connection to their local population. They need to show economic benefit and ensure that the local council doesn’t object to any of their planning applications. Connecting with and helping build the local community is not an essential function.

But recent years have seen a divide in our society, with increasing inability to communicate between the two camps. Universities are strongly associated with the liberal elite camp, with little connection to those outside that grouping. This polarisation is not healthy for society, nor for universities.

A cultural connection between universities and the communities they are based in will help develop a dialogue. This is vital if they are going to be the intellectual and cultural centres of the community.

Professor Andrew George MBE is an executive coach and a consultant in research, education and ethics. He holds a range of non-executive positions in the NHS, research, the charitable sector, further and higher education. He was previously deputy vice-chancellor of Brunel University London and director of the Graduate School and the School of Professional Development at Imperial College London.


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