OPINION: The unique role colleges, universities play in the economy

- Last modified: January 11, 2013 at 9:12 AM

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The Lehigh Valley is no stranger to fiscal cliffs.

The national “Panic of 1857” delayed construction of the iron works essential to the start of what would become the region’s dominant industry – steelmaking.

Devastating as it was, the decline and almost unimaginable demise of that industry 150 years later helped to position the Lehigh Valley well for future precipices.

The recession of 2008 hit many areas of the country hard. The Lehigh Valley was not immune, but the recession’s impact did not compare with the loss of jobs, business opportunities and tax revenues associated with the closing of “The Steel.”

The current fiscal cliff is less menacing than it might have been because of the diversification that has occurred since the last steel was rolled in Bethlehem.

Manufacturing is resurging, but health care, education and tourism have also become major contributors to the local economy – an economy that includes a healthy mix of small businesses and large companies.

Colleges and universities play a unique and important role in this economy.

Together Northampton Community College, Cedar Crest College, DeSales University, Lafayette College, Lehigh Carbon Community College, Lehigh University, Penn State Lehigh Valley, Moravian College and Muhlenberg College employ more than 7,500 people, spend more than a billion dollars each year and bring millions of grant dollars to the Lehigh Valley annually.

Our impact does not stop there. We also prepare the workforce, educating more than 35,000 students every year – students who become business leaders like David Shaffer, a 1977 graduate of Northampton who is co-president of Just Born, Inc. Our schools also churn out engineers, doctors and nurses, computer and automotive technicians, teachers, architects and chemists.

Businesses turn to us when employees, managers and even CEOs need further training, for energy audits such as those provided by Northampton’s Emerging Technologies Center, and for consulting on new product development and improvement of operating efficiencies.

But wait… there’s more.

Author Richard Florida describes the presence of colleges as one of the key components for creating an innovative culture and fostering an entrepreneurial, creative class.

One need only look around the Lehigh Valley to sample the richness of art, theater, dance, and music fostered by the colleges and universities in our midst.

Zoellner Arts and Williams Arts Center bring world class artists to the Valley, and the DeSales Shakespeare Festival provides a wonderful opportunity for theater lovers from across the region to experience extraordinary performances in our own backyard. Artists who have graduated from Northampton and other area colleges have earned national acclaim, and all nine colleges and universities sponsor performances and exhibits that provide the Valley with a virtual smorgasbord of talent to enjoy.

Our colleges and universities also are home to sports venues that serve as a showcase for athletes. Among the Valley’s sports fanatics (I count myself as one), who can forget Lehigh’s basketball victory over Duke last spring, the annual excitement generated by the Lafayette-Lehigh football game, or the satisfaction of watching local high school stars performing at the next level, like the women on Northampton Community College’s basketball team presently ranked No. 1 in the country? (I had to get that in!)

Last, but certainly not least, the Valley’s colleges and universities challenge us to come together as a community to engage in the important issues of our time by hosting speakers who stretch us individually and collectively to fully experience the world in all its complexity.

The Lehigh Valley is fortunate to have such a rich array of colleges and universities. We have nationally ranked research universities, liberal arts colleges, state universities, and community colleges. Each has its own specific mission and areas of focus, but all of us play a significant role in moving this region forward.

As a group, we are changing the trajectory of the lives of the students who attend our colleges, and in the process both preparing the workforce that will serve the existing companies in the Valley and attracting new companies to our region.

As my former boss, Greg Farrington, the prior president of Lehigh once said, if you were to put us on eBay the bidding would be extraordinary.

But the good news is none of us is going anywhere. We are deeply rooted in this community and have no plans to move. Instead we consistently look for ways to intertwine ourselves with the community we serve.

Dr. Mark H. Erickson returned to the Lehigh Valley in July to become president of Northampton Community College after seven years as president of Wittenberg University in Ohio. He earned his doctorate at Lehigh University and served in several senior positions there from 1990-2005. He is a member of the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board, and the Lehigh Valley Industrial Park Board of Directors.

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