The other day, I made a long comment on a post at the blog commonly known as “Gelman.” The original post is by the blog’s namesake, Professor Andrew Gelman. Gelman referred to a newspaper piece by Professor Edward Glaeser on the idea of developing an applied sciences center in New York City. Glaeser makes some rather strong claims for the power of universities to promote economic development in the cities to which they are attached. Blogger Joseph Delaney had put something up in which he expressed doubts about Glaeser’s general claims, challenging those who would defend them to explain why New Haven, Connecticut, home of Yale University, is such a dump.
Gelman is impressed by Delaney’s post. He also picks up on a paragraph in Glaeser’s piece that includes a quote from New York’s late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan:
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York is often credited with saying that the way to create a great city is to “create a great university and wait 200 years,” and the body of evidence on the role that universities play in generating urban growth continues to grow.
Gelman doesn’t dwell on Moynihan’s words; he makes it clear in the comments (here and here) that what really interests him is the question of the economic impact of universities on their urban environments in the (moderately) long run. Many other commenters (for example, this person) expressed doubt as to whether any answer to the question could be tested quantitatively, considering how few “great universities” and “great cities” there are at any point in time. In my comment, I suggest that if we take Moynihan’s words literally (admittedly, a rather silly thing to do) we might be able to develop a quantitative test of his hypothesis:
Well, if we take Moynihan’s claim literally, what we need are two lists: a list of “the great universities” as of year n, and a list of “the great cities” as of year n + 200. Of course we wouldn’t want to top-of-the-head either of those lists, so as to avoid some kind of Clever Hans effect.
I haven’t looked for any list that anyone has put forward of “the great universities” as of any particular year, but it sounds like the sort of thing many historians would be fond of producing. And lots of people like to make lists of “the great cities.” Once we have a list, however subjectively it was generated, we can look over the items, try to find quantifiable characteristics that most or all items on it share, and having found such characteristics we can refine the list by adding other items that share them or deleting items that don’t share them. So we can try to work backward to foundations.
As for Yale, I doubt very much that you could find any reasonable criterion by which it either was or had been a “great university” in 1811. Nowadays, sure, but in its first centuries it was a backwater. Would any American university have qualified as “great” in 1811? The faculty of the College of New Jersey, later renamed Princeton University, had been home to quite a few distinguished scholars from Edinburgh in the late eighteenth century, and Columbia had produced a lot of impressive alumni by 1811. Still, it would seem a bit much to call either of them a “great university” at that early date.
Other commenters, such as universally beloved public figure Steve Sailer, have brought up the idea that it isn’t great universities that make the cities attached to them great, but great cities that make the universities attached to them great. Here again, I’d ask to see two lists: the world’s “great cities” as of year n, and the world’s “great universities” as of year n + whatever number you like. New Haven continues to be a counterexample; while Yale may never have been on any list of the world’s “great universities” until the middle of the twentieth century, it undeniably has a place on any such list today. Yet New Haven has never been anyone’s idea of a “great city.” How many seats of the “great universities” have been?
Of course, one challenge in analyzing such lists would be deciding which universities are attached to which cities. It may not be controversial to say that Cambridge, Massachusetts is part of Boston, and so to give Harvard as an example of a (currently) great university located in (what I’d call) a great city; but what about San Francisco and the two great universities in the Bay Area? Is Berkeley really part of San Francisco? You go through Oakland to get from one to the other, and Oakland is most definitely not part of San Francisco. Is Palo Alto part of San Francisco? The relationship between Stanford University and San Francisco is often cited as one of the things that makes that city great, but Palo Alto is in fact 35 miles from San Francisco at their closest points, and Stanford’s campus is further than that. San Jose, a very different city, is only half as far, and it’s southward to and beyond San Jose that Stanford-based tech entrepreneurs have usually gone.