Since I arrived at Paul Smith’s College more than a decade ago, we have made an all-encompassing commitment to live up to our slogan: Every day, we strive to be the College of the Adirondacks.
Of course, the Adirondacks are a big place, and our college is small. So we fulfill that pledge by taking our mission well past our campus borders. Our Adirondack Watershed Institute, for instance, helps communities throughout the park address water quality issues. Our students frequently tackle matters that affect business and local government, such as doing market research for the new Community Store in Saranac Lake, or evaluating tourism opportunities in the North Country. And earlier this year, we assumed control of the Adirondack Visitor Interpretative Center in Paul Smiths after New York State shut its doors, in order to preserve that invaluable community resource.
I am proud of what we do to make the Adirondacks a better place. Yet we need to do more. If our remote corner of the Empire State will ever become as good a place to live and work as it is to visit, economic development needs to be much higher on our to-do list.
We cannot do that alone, however. Building that kind of success is a goal the community needs to embrace in unison—and up to now, we have all fallen short in articulating a common goal for what we want our future to look like.
To a certain extent, that is hardly a surprise. The Adirondacks are diverse in many ways, and iconoclasm here runs deep. It is part of our charm. We need to begin working together on these things, though, as nobody will work on them for us. The dangers of inaction are evident. The state’s financial problems will continue to exact a toll on our local communities. Population inside the park’s borders continues to decline. If we want our grandchildren to settle here, we need to build the kind of sustainable communities that will make that possible.
I have always been inspired by the deep willingness of so many of our community members to jump into civic ventures. So many of our most beloved institutions exist because of these types of commitments. But mere participation is not enough to ensure our future vitality. We need a plan. We need a voice. And we need to commit our resources to that end.
Among our richest resources, fortunately, are our institutions of higher education. Our region is home to not only Paul Smith’s but North Country and Adirondack community colleges, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and more. I know that we are all willing to be part of our economic, social and cultural growth—to ensure that as our own fortunes rise, so do those of our entire community.
This type of town-gown relationship is not a novel concept. People such as Richard Florida have been pushing it for years. His oft-cited 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, makes a convincing case that in areas where economic growth was outstripping the regional or national norms you could find that colleges and universities were playing a central role by bringing the 3T’s inherent in a college environment—Technology, Talent and Tolerance—to the region.
And, to be sure, this type of work is already being done in the region. There is significant traction already with the success of the Common Ground Alliance and the work of the Adirondack Park Planning Initiative Steering Committee commissioned by former New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alexander “Pete” Grannis. Both of these groups want to see the Adirondack community prosper.
But we can all do more. I’d challenge our regional partners to challenge us—Paul Smith’s College and the other higher education institutions in the Adirondacks—to help work toward this success. We are ready to come together, organize and strategize as we look for the mechanism through which our collective resources can be focused on enhancing community development. But the community needs to want that to happen. It is clear across the nation that higher education is, more and more, playing a central role in the economic success of the communities in which its institutions are located. It is critical that the Adirondack communities embrace this model and ask us to be their partners in solving the region’s needs.
John W. Mills, Ph.D., is the ninth president of Paul Smith’s College. Dr. Mills, formerly the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Paul Smith’s College, holds an undergraduate degree in Zoology from the University of Rhode Island and a Ph.D. in Biology from Brown University. He has taught at Dartmouth Medical School, Harvard Medical School, Temple University School of Medicine, and Clarkson University. He has also served as a visiting professor at the University of Copenhagen, and has held administrative and research positions with Massachusetts General Hospital, University of Munich, and the Trudeau Institute (Saranac Lake, New York).
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