An urban university is a U.S. term for institution of higher learning that is socially involved and serves as a resource for educating the citizens of the city or region in which it is located. That is, the urban university must be “of” the city as well as “in” the city.
At one time the term urban university might be used only to describe institutions located in central cities, but this is no longer the case. Urban sprawl and the advent of edge cities has not so much made urban obsolete as to change conventional notions of what constitutes urban. Today an urban university is one located in an urban agglomeration irrespective of political boundaries or administrative definitions.
An urban university operates with a closely meshed and intertwined mission, milieu, and environment. An operational definition of the urban university would incorporate both its setting and the clientele it serves. The Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities suggests several criteria applying to such institutions in the United States:
- Location in a major metropolitan area
- Dedication to achieving excellence through teaching, research, and public service
- A diverse student body reflecting the demographic composition of the region
- Responsiveness and service to the local region as part of the university's mission
- Serves the region not only by providing an educated citizenry and workforce, but also as a cultural and intellectual resource
- Engages in partnerships with other local organizations
- Uses practical experience in the urban setting to enhance students' education
More than six dozen universities in the United States would qualify as urban universities under these criteria. Columbia University, New York University, University of Chicago, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Pennsylvania, University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte), UAB, Portland State University, Wayne State University and University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee are examples of well-known urban universities.
The term is also often used to refer to public institutions with large part-time and commuter student bodies. Such usage sometimes tacitly assumes relatively low academic standards as implicit in the student body's low income and part-time, commuter status. Clearly such criteria are not necessary to the definition of an urban university and may reflect subtle racism and classism that tacitly equates certain groups with lower academic abilities and achievement. Insofar as this is true, urban universities have been criticized for contributing to institutional racism.
The history of university-community relations in 20th century America was characterized by periods of optimism and innovative action followed by disillusionment. During the years when cities were rapidly growing as a result of immigration and migration from the countryside, academics contributed to the search for solutions to urban problems and played a major role in the Progressive movement. After World War I, research became increasingly esoteric, its focus shifting to national and international issues, until, with the 1960s, efforts to find accommodations with a restive local community spawned a wide variety of new programs. The advent of new technology appeared to satisfy needs for both research and jobs, but it also produced new frictions. In the present decade, new models for partnership and cooperation have evolved and community involvement has been linked more closely with the educational mission of the university.
See also 
- Wisconsin Idea
- Kerr, Clark. 1967. The Urban-Grant University: A Model for the Future. Lecture given to Centennial Meeting of The City College Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, New York, October 18, 1967
- Sheldon Hackney, "The University and its Community: Past And Present," Annals of the American Academy o Political and Social Science 1986 (488): 135-147