Those students are worth the hassle

March 18, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 03/17/10students

This spring, take time to hug a student.

I know, I know. They talk funny. They wear weird clothes. They drink too much and hog all the taxi cabs on Saturday nights.

But if you’re holding your breath for May and the annual exodus of students from town, you might want to take a moment to consider what your house would be worth if they weren’t here.

As we peer out from this economic downturn and think about our next great steps, let’s not forget the university that has offered us a buffer from the recessionary pain that has hit other North American towns.

While other cities have watched their housing prices dip dramatically, Guelph’s real estate market has avoided any major downward swings despite steep job losses across its manufacturing sector. Why? In large part, that’s because universities are a stable presence in unstable times.

The university doesn’t close up shop and move to Mexico for cheaper students. It doesn’t lock out everyone because of a bad quarter. It doesn’t need to appease investors and show that it can slash costs dramatically in the face of crashing revenues.

Universities have steady payrolls and an almost never-ending demand for their products. And while most universities have been affected somewhat by the recession, and have trimmed budgets and a few jobs, they remain on the whole insulated in a way that companies that depend on the market can’t be.

Just ask Rochester. Or Cleveland. Or Pittsburg. Or any other city that is banking on the future of its university after watching its old-line manufacturing base rust and corrode and drive residents away by the thousands.

The Eastman Kodak Company used to employ more than 60,000 people in Rochester in 1982. Today? The company, once a manufacturing giant, has slashed its workforce to 14,000. But Rochester is still grateful to Kodak, only not in a way you might expect.

By 2006, the University of Rochester quietly surpassed Kodak to become the biggest employer in the city. It owes a big part of that growth George Eastman, the inventor of rolled film and founder of Kodak. Before he shot himself in the heart in 1932, he gave the small university some $50 million.

That endowment helped turn the university into “a superstar of economic growth,” according Patricia Malgieri, Rochester’s deputy mayor. While Eastman’s own company bled jobs because of swings in the market, the university he helped build grew steadily.

It’s the same story in Cleveland, a once-bustling manufacturing town that now puts its hopes in its universities and research.

In 1910, there were more people living in Cleveland than there are today. By 1950, its population had swollen to more than 914,000 residents. Today, there’s less than half that many, as people fled a city where heavy manufacturing jobs were vanishing. As many as one in 10 homes are vacant.

For decades, the city’s location at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River on the shores of Lake Erie had made it an ideal place to build things. They worked in steel, chemicals and other goods and shipped them by rail and through the Ohio and Erie Canal.

But today you won’t find anyone talking excitedly about manufacturing in Cleveland. Instead, they talk about Case Western Reserve University, and the research in biotechnology and fuel cells that is finally drawing new money and smart people to Cleveland.

Universities can’t single-handedly revive an economy. But they can offer stability that companies never can. So next time you think about shaking your first at a student, try saying thanks instead.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at, and past columns can be read at

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