Evaluating Universities’ Urban Strategic Goals

In this post, I outline a framework to assess universities’ strategic goals and institutional practice as the related to the mediation, centrality, and difference: the core categories of the New Urban University as a mode of critique, strategic orientation, and base for concrete tactical interventions. The following forms the basis of a content and discourse analysis that can be used to assess how universities’ strategic goals might be aligned and leveraged for sustainable, progressive, and socially-just urban futures:

Urban Universities Framework 1

Strategic planning in higher education, as in the broader field of spatial planning, has come to connote “a more interactive, proactive, selective, and visionary form of planning” (Albrechts and Balducci, 2016, p. 16) and an adaptive response to endemic processes of neoliberalization (Olesen, 2013). Although subject to variations in definition and practice, strategic planning is used by university leadership as a policy instrument to direct long-term institutional priorities, establish internal benchmarking indicators, and restructure broad ways of operating in response to changing external drivers, relations, and societal expectations. Building upon foundational missions (which identify the purpose and values of an institution) and vision statements (which express its desired future position), strategic plans are key brand statements that encompass the full range of a university’s institutional and structural initiatives (Gaffikin and Perry, 2009, p. 129).

As higher education institutions (HEIs) pursue diverse modes of organizational restructuring and roll-out highly-variegated spatial strategies, they have a tremendous capacity to catalyze local economic growth and inform broader debates on responsive, adaptive, and sustainable urbanism through their research and teaching. However, the size and complexity of universities make it difficult for urban communities and decision-makers (both near and far) to identify, access, and mobilize the knowledge they hold. To move beyond narrowly territorial conceptions and instrumental public policy, urban university practice can be assessed through nine indicators, each drawing attention to terrains of engagement that can serve as potential points of synergy between urban and university space and society.

Activities reviewed through the mediation category focus on issues of knowledge production and dissemination within universities.

  • Internal coordination considers extant or proposed institutional mechanisms to connect research, teaching, and engagement across the university. Interdisciplinary teaching and research, prominent and well-resourced research centers, and cross-campus societal ‘Grand Challenges’ (global health, sustainable cities etc.) help integrate and focus university activities while presenting clear ‘front porches’ to external actors to access academic expertise. Coordinating and institutionalizing university activities provides a foundation for sustainable partnerships and strategic engagement. Are key societal challenges being used to galvanize university activities? What research centers are being developed and prioritized? Is facilitating interdisciplinary education and research a key strategic principle?
  • Knowledge exchange: identifies how universities are approaching the mobilization, transfer, and exchange of academic knowledge. Strategically prioritizing knowledge mobilization opens new avenues within universities to reward and encourage the realization of impact (social, economic, political) from academic scholarship. This builds the active role and capacity of the university as an actor beyond questions of training and education. What mechanisms are being established (technology incubators or accelerators, commercialization and enterprise offices, policy institutes etc.)?
  • External relations: assesses if universities are prioritizing the development of targeted and sustainable relationship with external partners. External partnership are significant as they further integrate universities into wider networks of collaboration and exchange. This helps universities become adaptable to the needs of broader stakeholders, integrates possibilities for new forms of teaching (bringing ‘real world’ into the classroom), and raises awareness of what universities do, and have to offer, for relevant public agencies and communities. Who are universities looking to connect their activities with? Are there specific connections linking to public agencies, city plans, or development agendas?

The second category, centrality, examines the spatial strategies being prioritized by universities. Where interactions happen are a significant determinate on institutions capacity to inform both urban inhabitants and urban decision-makers.

  • Institutional networks: Building university partnerships and institutional networks enables the mobilization of knowledge and individuals. This opens mechanisms to transfer expertise between different contexts and raises awareness of the global nature of urban sustainability challenges. Similar advantages may also be realized by effectively leveraging multi-campus locations with an urban region, or through domestic or international branches. How are universities prioritizing inter-institutional partnerships around research, student mobility, staff exchange, as well as any attempts to leverage multi-campus facilities or branch campuses (including domestic and international)?
  • Campus development: Campus developments are a primary mode of university spatial development. Where facilities improvement need to be made, there are possibilities to approach the campus as a classroom demonstrating new technologies (e.g. through green construction and manufacturing techniques) or new spatial planning practices. Investment in the hard and soft infrastructure of university campuses also offer scope to open facilities to the public and key stakeholder groups. Does the university face estates challenges, particular surrounding where their territorial footprint interacts with broader processes of urban development?
  • Community: Universities operate with diverse understandings of their internal and external stakeholders. Oftentimes they seek to foster academic and learning communities that build internal institutional affinity. However, some universities operate with a strong sense of their wider communities and stakeholders who are interested in, and interact with, higher education institutions. Does the university prioritize enhancing community relations and processes of place-making? What types of relationships are strategically central?
  • Scalar orientation: Universities are operating near and far and in new ways. This brings divergent scalar strategies into frame as institutions prioritize and seek to balance local, national, and global visions. Gauging universities’ scalar orientation and spatial imaginaries highlight potential disconnections with their local urban settings but also offers opportunities to actively develop synergies with diverse public and private actors in order to leverage global connections, expertise, and city-university strategic goals. Is the university’s position in the city central to its institutional mission and strategic planning? What scales of engagement are articulated? How are local, national and global visions articulated and balanced?

The third category, difference, considers whether universities are actively engaging wider communities of urban stakeholders (as students, partners), investing in technologies to facilitate broadening mandates, and increasing the availability of academic knowledge through open access publications, online repositories, e-learning etc.

  • Opening access: Universities are experimenting with ways to increase participation among groups that have not traditionally engaged, or had access to, university resources and programs. Bringing differing communities, stakeholders, and ideas together, broadens the base of the university’s own ‘community’, and forges new interfaces that can be used to harness academic knowledge for sustainable urbanisms. Is there evidence of established mechanisms to target non-traditional students? Are issues surrounding widening participation being addressed? Are there clear approached to rendering the university more porous?
  • New pedagogies and technologies: Advances in e-learning, ‘flipped’ classrooms, and ‘blended’ courses present adaptive tools that can accommodate the diverse ways in which students learn while the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs), short courses, and executive education programs offer the potential for universities to provide flexible education programs while developing potentially lucrative new revenue streams. Open access publications and online repositories provide further mechanisms to increase the availability and impact of academic knowledge for urban stakeholders. Are universities exploring new technologies to promote teaching and research? Is investment in IT facilities a priority? Are there proposals to develop and invest in open access forums for academic work?

By highlighting the areas where universities are looking to enhance their capacities or address perceived deficiencies, these indicators function as signposts that articulate HEIs’ roles, priorities, and actions in their own terms, while opening interfaces for external stakeholders to engage them in new and novel ways. One of the key benefits of this schema is that it draws attention to the fact that different institutions understand and interact with their urban contexts in differing ways. As such, it presents a framework to deepen and extend often simplified and instrumental accounts of town-gown relations. By offering a comparative methodology to assess universities’ urban orientations, goals, and spatial strategies, evaluating university strategic planning in this way opens avenues for sustainable and mutually beneficial connections to be forged across academic and civic divides.

Jean-Paul Addie


Albrechts, L., and Balducci, A. (2016). Introduction. In L. Albrechts, A. Balducci, and J. Hillier (Eds.), Situated practices of strategic planning: An international perspective (pp. 15-23). New York Routledge.

Gaffikin, F., and Perry, D., C. (2009). Discourses and strategic visions: The U.S. research university as an institutional manifestation of neoliberalism is a global era. American Educational Research Journal, 46(1), 115-144.

Olesen, K. (2013). The neoliberalization of strategic spatial planning. Planning Theory, 13(3), 288-303.



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