Urban engage­ment is not a periph­eral endeavor, but rather an inte­gral part of Northeastern’s teaching and research mis­sion, said Pres­i­dent Joseph Aoun during a recent panel dis­cus­sion with Boston Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Robert Brown and Tufts Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Lawrence Bacow on the role uni­ver­si­ties play in the eco­nomic devel­op­ment of Greater Boston.

The panel, “Uni­ver­si­ties as Eco­nomic Dri­vers,” was mod­er­ated by Paul Grogan, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Boston Foun­da­tion and held at the Boston Fed­eral Reserve Bank. The pan­elists addressed mem­bers of the Urban Land Insti­tute, a non­profit research and edu­ca­tion orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to cre­ating and sus­taining thriving com­mu­ni­ties, and others inter­ested in real estate development.

There is no ques­tion that when people think of Boston, they think first about higher edu­ca­tion,” said Grogan. “It is the dis­tinc­tive marker of our com­mu­nity. Higher edu­ca­tion is not only an enor­mous industry, it under­lies most of our other vital indus­tries such as health­care, travel and tourism.”

Aoun under­scored that urban engage­ment should “not be thought of as an extracur­ric­ular activity.” He men­tioned that last year North­eastern stu­dents per­formed more than 110,000 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice, but stressed that he prefers to think of this as “ser­vice learning.”

Urban engage­ment is part of the edu­ca­tional process,” he said. “You cannot ask stu­dents to begin acting as engaged cit­i­zens when they leave the uni­ver­sity; you have to do it while they are students.”

The pan­elists dis­cussed the highly com­pet­i­tive nature of modern higher edu­ca­tion and how this com­pe­ti­tion might impact urban engage­ment. Com­pe­ti­tion between uni­ver­si­ties for the best ameni­ties and the most qual­i­fied stu­dents, fac­ulty and staff heighten costs, Bacow said.

In most other indus­tries, com­pe­ti­tion drives cost down,” he said. “In ours, com­pe­ti­tion drives costs up. We know how to make edu­ca­tion cheaper at our insti­tu­tion. It’s called larger classes, it’s called less hands-​​on learning, it’s called sim­pler facil­i­ties, and it’s called less oppor­tu­ni­ties in terms of stu­dent life.”

The uni­ver­sity leaders agreed on the impor­tance of forging impor­tant rela­tion­ships with com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions, but also spoke of cur­rent bud­getary pres­sures. “Every dollar I give someone is a tuition dollar I charge someone else,” Brown said. “So this ten­sion between the cost of higher edu­ca­tion at our insti­tu­tion and what we do inter­nally or exter­nally are directly linked by that fact.”

North­eastern pro­vides sev­eral direct ben­e­fits and resources to the com­mu­nity, Aoun said. Each year, the Uni­ver­sity pro­vides more than $10 mil­lion in schol­ar­ship money for Boston res­i­dents who come to North­eastern. He cited Northeastern’s new Foun­da­tion Year pro­gram, which pro­vides Boston Public School­grad­u­ates three semes­ters of uni­ver­sity study to increase their chances of grad­u­ating from col­lege. He also men­tioned rel­e­vant uni­ver­sity research—such as projects on trans­porta­tion and housing—and the fact that uni­ver­si­ties pro­duce stu­dents and ideas that create eco­nomic growth.

We have to look at it in terms of the diver­sity of what’s being done,” Aoun said. “We should cel­e­brate this part­ner­ship between the city and its institutions.”