Monday, March 24, 2008

Who's Your Audience?

As an academic on a national job search, I read Richard Florida's latest, Who's Your City?, with mixed emotions.

Florida is an economic geographer whose previous books on the creative class have become simply inescapable. And a good thing, too – Florida is a lucid writer on an important topic, and much of what he has found is both obviously correct and well worth learning. In studying the factors that make some cities thrive economically while others stagnate or slide, he has isolated a particular kind of cosmopolitanism as an actual economic force. To oversimplify, his theory of 'how to spot the next boomtown' boils down to 'follow the gays and artists.' Places open to alternate lifestyles are open to creative people generally, who prefer to flock together. Put enough creative people in one place long enough, and economic sparks will fly.

Alternately, drive the creatives out, and economic decline is inevitable. Some of his descriptions of the dynamics of cities in decline will strike denizens of higher ed as sadly familiar – people doing things in tired ways because “that's how they've always been done,” newcomers held in suspicion, and decisions made based on internal factors rather than actual engagement with the outside world. And since people tend to move much more frequently in their twenties than in their forties, if you drive them away in their twenties, you're unlikely to get most of them back. Age-based cascades become self-reinforcing.

His previous books on the creative class were primarily analytical and explanatory. They could be used to make personal decisions, but they clearly weren't intended for that. This one starts with the sociology, but moves awkwardly to self-help. The conceit of the book seems to be that once you understand what goes into making an area hot or cold, you can use that information to locate yourself where the action is likely to be. Better life options, real estate appreciation, and general coolness await those who correctly spot the next Seattle. To that end, the book includes a series of (admittedly nifty) maps, and several top-five lists broken down by stage of life and sexual preference. Ever wonder what the top five medium-sized metropolitan areas for empty-nest gay couples are? This book will tell you. (The answers aren't always intuitive. #5: Rochester, NY. Really?)

As an academic, though, there was something both frustrating and troubling about the whole enterprise. As Florida acknowledges in passing, certain professions aren't particularly place-specific. Education, health care, and law enforcement, for example, can be found pretty much anyplace you find a significant number of people. In higher ed, below the superstar level, many of us take jobs where we can find them. When a relatively flat national market confronts a 'spiky' economic landscape, you have a choice: have decent purchasing power in an out-of-the-way or out-of-fashion place, or struggle mightily somewhere where other people are in hot industries. Buy in a cold area, or rent in a hot one.

The top R1 universities can pay top dollar to lure superstars despite the price of housing in, say, Berkeley. But that's a very narrow segment of the higher ed market, even though it gets most of the attention. Community colleges, for example, can be found in all sorts of communities, both hot and cold. And most of them define part of their mission as serving the community in which they're located.

If the community seems to be in decline, should part of the mission of the cc be to facilitate individual escape? Given Florida's correct insight that age-based losses are hard to recoup, doing right by individual students could have the unintended side effect of hastening the decline of the service area. That's a tough sell to local taxpayers. “Help us drain this festering craphole of young talent!” It doesn't look good on a billboard.

That's not Florida's fault, of course. But the idea that you should simply go where the action is strikes me as impracticable for most of us in higher ed, and of dubious wisdom even for those who could. In my grad school days, I was physically close to a great deal of sophisticated culture, but couldn't afford almost any of it. Ever since, I've been a little skeptical of the idea that it's 'hot metro region or bust.' Given the income scale non-superstar academics face, it seems to me that there's something to be said for the cheaper regions. And that would be true of any industry in which paychecks tend to be modest. Being house-poor (or apartment-poor) in a hot area renders you unable to take advantage of most of what makes it hot.

Without quite meaning to, I think Florida walked directly into a really fundamental dilemma: the economic world is spiky, but the nation-state is flat. The two don't play well together, and higher ed is just one sign of that (and a minor one, at that). Self-help is fine, but those best situated to take advantage of it need it least. There's a much bigger issue at hand here. I'm glad Florida did so much to outline the problem. I just don't have a clue how to solve it.