If Hamilton waits for McMaster to embrace downtown Hamilton, we might be waiting for a long time. Better to create our own institutions from the ground up.
By Mahesh P. Butani
Published July 18, 2011
The presence of institutions of higher education in our downtown core is a critical precondition for its economic growth. Such institutions provide the much needed lifeblood for revitalizing downtowns. They ferment new intellectual vigour in our communities. Their presence stimulates body heat on the streets and attracts new residential and commercial investments.
In the game of 'chicken or egg' that Hamilton's downtown has been caught up in since the seventies, without the chicken there are no eggs!
While many Hamiltonians may pray fervently that McMaster extrapolates from this scientific revelation and reinvents itself into a real city university, the odds of this happening are politically stacked against it. Since there is zero competition, there is zero motive to evolve.
Even if there was a newfound will at McMaster under the new direction of its President - if only a fraction of what Judith Rodin found at the University of Pennsylvania - or even if there was a shift in political winds at Queens Park, the machinations of the byzantine power structure of the higher education industry in Ontario will continue to ensure that any new real education ventures by McMaster in our core are stalled or endlessly mired in subterfuge.
"...the higher education industry [in Ontario] is one in which those who consume its product do not purchase it; those who produce it do not sell it; and those who finance it do not control it." -- Professor E. G. West
Hamilton has been keenly aware of this missing vital precondition to trigger growth in its core, yet for decades it has been unable to influence its realization. In the face of such heavy odds, how does Hamilton take charge of its own destiny?
Petitioning McMaster, or for that matter even Mohawk, may be a start but is a waste of time. If they haven't sensed such fundamental truths necessary for revitalizing the downtown core in the last thirty years, chances are they will not sense it in the next thirty. It is like asking our Board of Education to become stewards of our core.
We can sit back from here on and wait for events to buffet us as we slowly watch this city's core turn into one giant healthcare-centric economy which retires every evening to the suburbs. Or we can exercise the one clear option presently available to all of us, which is to start building for ourselves, from ground up, many small locally relevant and diversely based, private schools and colleges, and even small scale specialized private institutions of advanced learning in creative fields by crowdsourcing real innovations. A new kind of local education industry that lift the rest of "all of us" in its tide.
I don't mean this facetiously at all. We have the skill sets within our community to do this. We are just paralyzed from all the absurdities thrown at us repeatedly over the years.
Very simply, one can make use of technologies like email to directly invite diverse institutions in Canada and abroad to come to Hamilton. Or use forums like Kickstarter, Jovoto and others to creatively solicit ideas, partners and even start-up funding for developing small sustainable learning institutions that aim for transformative changes in our core.
No one has failed taking such an approach to education institution building before - for in all probability such an approach by the people of a city may not have been yet undertaken. Our ability to turn Hamilton towards a real Knowledge economy rests solely on our willingness to take such small steps with confidence against all odds.
Or we can simply kick back and wait for the magical trickle-down effects that our academics and innovation gurus have been promising us for years.
If you do opt out for this, just remember that there is a fast-flowing river called 403 between Longwood and our Core which may capture and redirect the flow from all the trickling, so don't be surprised if your wait ends up being long.
Imagine the look on the faces of our academia when they watch on CNN Live a heartrending story of a beleaguered city that finally got tired of waiting for Godot, and decided to take ownership of its own destiny!
Solicit individually or, even better, as a team. Be forthright about the opportunities, and fair about the conditions and challenges faced in core. Research the institutions being approached for synergies and find funders online worldwide. Develop a strong idea and value proposition. Partner with local incubators and media companies to package your ideas well - and take a chance on this!
You may surprise yourself with the power of adopting a simple stance to complex problems.
From a thousand proposals sent out by Hamiltonians all over the world, if ten step up to the immense opportunities our core offers - imagine the impact your simple stance would have on this city's fortunes.
The political levers required to facilitate you will begin to magically turn on their own once such an exercise gets underway. Remember, everyone wants Hamilton to succeed, but it was a small private school called Columbia that pioneered real body heat on our downtown streets back when it was empty.
Who knows: you may even be known as the founder of the institution you have initiated, or you may just wish to be the silent spark behind the institution you have helped form, in which case you can enjoy the privilege of that special silent smile, as you one day walk past your institution of higher learning to see it pumping vitality into our core.