In the 2011-2012 school year, The University of Alabama had an economic impact on the metro area of Tuscaloosa worth approximately $1.6 billion, including payrolls, local procurement and student and visitor expenditures. In a city with a total economic output of $8.7 billion in 2011, we’re talking serious money.
Now imagine if we made maximizing that impact a priority. For half a century, the compounding effects of globalization, de-industrialization and more recently, a growing government fiscal crisis have been crushing local economies. As a result, cities have become more reliant on specific private employers in their communities (usually nonprofits) whose missions are intertwined with those of the surrounding area. These organizations are what we call anchor institutions.
Anchor institutions are referred to as such because, predictably, they can’t move. The University of Alabama can’t exist anywhere else in the world. Combine that with the University’s sheer size, especially compared to Tuscaloosa in general, and one can begin to understand why the University has such a crucial role to play.
We traditionally think of colleges and universities as having only one true job: the education of their students. That can be a dangerous notion. Indeed, many institutions of higher education that see themselves in such a light have a tendency to wreak havoc on the communities in which they exist. Not only do they take up massive amounts of space (thus forcing up the value of the surrounding land so that many residents can’t afford it), they also tend to be huge contributors to traffic and pollution. In addition, the way colleges and universities hire workers and procure supplies and equipment has enormous effects on the economic health of the surrounding community.
The University of Alabama does not yet truly comprehend the position it is in. To say that the University doesn’t care about Tuscaloosa is far-fetched – of course it does. The University and Tuscaloosa share a similar culture, they depend on each other in many ways and both the residents of the city and the students of the University know that. However, to care is not enough. For us as students, faculty and administrators to make the greatest difference in this city we have come to call home, we must learn to treat it as such. That means going beyond the often shallow “community service” that we occasionally do because we need the hours. We figure out how to use the massive resources we have at our fingertips to foster genuine progress and social change.
New problems call for new solutions. Indeed, we have in our hands a very fine solution. It’s time to rethink our community.
Chisolm Allenlundy is a junior majoring in philosophy and economics. His column runs weekly.