Together with the global city, the urban university is on the rise. The long-standing ideal of the cloistered university in the bucolic setting is being supplanted by a new image of the bustling institution in the urban setting. Schools such as Columbia, Imperial College London, ETH Zurich, and Tsinghua University, among others, are reasserting the desirability of the urban setting for globally competitive universities. But what is it about the university that seems to enjoy a symbiosis with the global city? What is the role of the university in these localities?
The role of the urban university is to develop what we might call “cultural technology.” Perhaps unexpectedly, I am borrowing this term from Lee Soo-man, the founder of one of Korea’s most successful record labels, and a major force behind the global rise of K-Pop music (I concede this may seem like an attempt to channel Malcolm Gladwell). In Lee’s case, cultural technology is a method of training his musical acts to achieve a “perfect localization” no matter the market into which their music and their public personas are introduced. C.T. as it is called, is a vast program to hone each artist’s image and presentation to match local attitudes while still maintaining the global feel that makes such acts alluring. Whenever Girls’ Generation perform in Shanghai or Los Angeles, they are equipped with specific cultural instructions to allow them to maximize their commercial outcomes in particular environments.
The comparison between this training and the function of the university may seem strange, but it is useful for conceiving of the somewhat intangible offerings at stake. By seeing culture as a kind of technology, we can imagine the university as a lab for the innovation of culture. Universities in global cities engage students and faculty in dialogues that support the development of this cultural technology.
As faculty members advance their research projects, they are doing so in environments that are increasingly calibrated towards a global awareness, and located in increasingly dynamic global cities. The students who receive instruction from these professors represent a generation with a markedly international ambition, tailoring their areas of study to match. At the bare bones level, most universities now feature some analog of the Global Core. Taken together these processes of knowledge production and knowledge acquisition represent an attempt on the part of the university to create the artfully scientific “perfect localization” Lee Soo-Man describes. Columbia and NYU produce a cultural technology unique to New York. But given that New York belongs to the category of global city much like London, Sao Paulo and Hong Kong, its cultural technology shares interfaces with those of other leading cities, rendering it of international relevance and utility. Perhaps this is to say that in the coming decades the only true global universities will be urban ones.
It would be wrong to claim that suburban or rural universities can’t play this role, they certainly can. We could hardly exclude institutions like Dartmouth or Cornell from these discussions (the latter recently went to great lengths to secure an urban campus in New York). But there is something about an urban environment that better lends itself to the production of cultural technology. Consider again the international student body. In facilitating cross-cultural exchange and common educational experiences for students from a wide range of national backgrounds, urban universities build stronger foundations for transnational networks to emerge, and lower transaction costs in the engagement of those networks. At the simplest level this entails the creation of a cosmopolitan fabric. As students, interacting with international peers gives us a better sense of the mosaic of cultures and affinities we will encounter in our increasingly globalized careers and lives as members of an active citizenry.
A non-urban university may be able to offer the same benefits at the level of campus-life. However, it is the global city that offers the greatest ability to magnify the importance of these shared experiences vis-à-vis the creation of cultural technology. If your interaction with a Chinese peer gives you an initial, interpersonal awareness of Chinese culture, then the art museums, restaurants, and theatres that a city offers can hone that awareness in a broader contextual sense, while the active presence of multinational companies and international bodies can reaffirm the importance of those cultural inputs as part and parcel of global forces. In this way the university enmeshes with larger projects of cultural technology at play within the city, rendering them more durable and more impactful. If the global city provides the full toolbox for the production of cultural technology, the urban university is perhaps the most critical tool.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. He contributes regularly to The Canon.