Can Maseno University discover, run a 'Univercity' in Kisumu city?

Students outside the Maseno University’s gate in a file image. [Courtesy]

The rise of corporate university has been seen in some quarters as being defeating to the traditional mission of the university. However, today, higher education’s tides of influence have spread far beyond the campus. Universities are now dominant employers, real estate holders, policing agents, education and healthcare providers in major cities in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK.

The University of Southern California, for instance, is the largest private sector employer in Los Angeles. Colombia University and New York University are two of the largest landowners in New York City. The University of Chicago fields one of the largest private security forces in the US. The university has grown from one small, noble part of the city to serving as a model of the city itself. It is precisely the commercial amenities historically associated with university life – concerts, theatres, shops, restaurants, fully wired networking, high tech research – that I am touting as a desirable urban experience around the university.

It may be the case that urban universities be saved by gentrification or can be the drivers of gentrification but what I can say with certainty is that universities are looking for new revenue streams. Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o, is seeking to remake Kisumu City into a high-tech and a high-density model for Maseno University. In this juncture, 'UniverCity' in Kisumu will emerge when the interests of higher education administrators, government officials, business leaders and professionals converge in the new service and information economy.

The urban planning model of 'UniverCities' provides needed capital to institutions of higher education. University-based urban planning is also celebrated for creating a vibrant public life that attracts wealth creating entrepreneurs and the workers they employ. In a nutshell, the faith in higher education as an urban growth engine has grown globally.

Thus, we must ask ourselves what makes universities good for our cities? The presumption that higher education is a public good has for too long distracted critics and scholars from getting to the heart of the matter. The quaint notion of Ivory Tower is dead, as universities in many parts of the world take on a baron-like stewardship over surrounding neighborhoods to help shore up their physical stability in times of economic change. Caricatures of universities as Ivory Tower bastions of tenured academic leftist radicals and snowflakes out of sync with reality abound, but higher education’s footprint in some American cities like Boston, New Haven and Los Angeles tell a different story.

How are blossoming universities acting in the public good when the public is paying for their economic competitive advantage? Higher education is a key growth machine in today’s cities because it has been given the keys to drive the urban economy forward. As a new city is emerging before our eyes, UniverCities sit at a critical crossroads between their educational mandate and their economic footprint. We must have thought-provoking and transparent discussions about how higher education institutions can best serve as a public good, especially now when increasing tuition fees even at 140 per cent at once does not rattle anyone.

Just as University of Toronto and John Hopkins University have in recent years formulated a new academic discipline devoted exclusively for the study of cities called urban science, Maseno University should, in the wake of Africities Conference in May this Year, formulate a new course for the exclusive study of Kisumu City. The students graduating with urban science of Kisumu City should be absorbed by the county as planners and resource mobilisers. Suffice it to say urban universities must give back to their cities and to the vulnerable populations within them.