If you want to know how higher education affects the local economy, you could do a lot worse than talking to George Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College. Pruitt has led TESC since 1982, making him the longest-serving public college president in the country. He has seen the fruits of his college’s partnerships with the business community, as well as the struggles of decades of economic development efforts in Trenton, where the college’s seven-building campus is located.

And as you might expect, Pruitt firmly believes that colleges and universities are the lifeblood of the local economy, their contributions far outweighing their costs. “Just think of what Mercer County would be like if it didn’t have Princeton, TCNJ, Rider, Mercer County Community College, and Thomas Edison. Just think about what New Brunswick would be like if it didn’t have Rutgers,” he says.

Pruitt will appear Thursday, October 22, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Trenton Country Club as part of a panel of higher education leaders at Trenton Business Week. The panel, part of the annual Trenton Business week, will address “The Role of Higher Education in Economic Development in the Capital City Region.” Other panelists include Gregory Dell’Omo, president of Rider, Barbara Gitenstein, president of the College of New Jersey, and Jianping Wang, president of Mercer County Community College. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.

Pruitt will also be honored by New Jersey Future on Thursday, October 29, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Trenton City Museum. The nonprofit planning group is citing Pruitt and Thomas Edison State College for efforts to restore and develop several historic and new buildings in Trenton’s downtown area. For information visit www.njfuture.org.

Pruitt became president of Thomas Edison in 1982, just a decade after it was founded, so he has had the unique opportunity to shape the development of the school. Thomas Edison has somewhat of an unusual mission, being focused on adult students and active-duty military personnel. By the college’s charter, no student younger than 21 can be enrolled unless they are serving in the armed forces. The average age of students there is almost 40. Most of its students are distance learners, rarely if ever coming to campus, and many are studying while serving overseas in the military. “I always felt I was doing something special, because the institution was so special,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt grew up in Chicago where his father was a mortician and his mother was a housewife. As a student at the University of Illinois in the 1960s, Pruitt was part of a group that demonstrated against the low number of black students at the school — less than 300 out of a student body of 35,000. He later transferred to Illinois State, where he again joined a group of protesters. They took over an administration building and issued a list of demands.

“The university sent people to negotiate with us, and what came from that was a very good dialogue about access and opportunity for underserved students,” he said. “The university offered me the opportunity to come work with them and go to graduate school.”

From then on, Pruitt found himself on the other side of the student protest movement, negotiating with students on behalf of administrations. After working for Illinois State, he became dean at Towson, where in the late 1960s he was confronted by students who occupied administration buildings demanding that military recruiters be kicked off campus.

“I was a lot better at it than those protesters were,” Pruitt says. “Sometimes I wanted to tell them how to do it right. I certainly understood them and knew how to respond to them.” Pruitt says he is proud of the fact that the demonstrations at both Illinois State and Towson happened with no violence. Although Towson sympathized with the protesters’ criticism of the Vietnam War, he refused to kick the recruiters out.

“We absolutely defended the right of the military or any other legitimate employer engaged in legal activity to make themselves heard at Towson. For a college or university to be a free marketplace of ideas, it cannot censor or make judgments about political doctrines and various points of view simply because you disagree with them,” he says. “I would defend the right of free speech no matter how despicable the speech was. A college and a university has to be a forum where we can compare and contrast and debate various points of view. If you don’t do it on campuses, then you do it on the streets, and a democratic society can’t survive or tolerate that.”

TESC has faced controversy with its expansion of its nursing school in downtown Trenton. The new nursing school building is replacing the dilapidated Glen Cairn Arms apartment tower on the corner of West State and Calhoun streets, but critics say the city’s bottom line will suffer if more non-taxable nonprofits such as TESC take over valuable real estate.

Pruitt says that the school contributes far more than it takes, and that overall higher education is good for local economies despite the lack of property tax revenue. He called critics of the expansion “severely and badly uninformed.”

“If they look at the economic benefits of the institution versus the costs, there is no contest about the net positive benefit of colleges and universities” he says. “There is a reason why public policy for the last couple hundred years has been to make colleges and universities tax exempt organizations.” Pruitt argues that the economic activity generated by learning institutions outweighed the property tax loss, and that if taxes were imposed, tuition would be even more expensive than it is now.

Like many colleges, Thomas Edison has a history of collaborating with private sector companies. In the early days of the school, it worked with AT&T to developed a management training course for AT&T employees. It currently has arrangements with PSEG, JetBlue, and healthcare companies.

“Our economy today depends less on the goods and services we produce than it does on the quality of our human capital,” Pruitt says. “And we are the principal developers and producers of human capital. If that fails, then the rest of it all collapses.”

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