Universities can have a profound impact on the economy of a region, Silicon Valley being a prime recent example. But this is usually difficult to see as they are spread pretty much everywhere now. Hence the interest in looking at older data, where universities were less common and economic activity differed a lot more across regions.
Davide Cantoni and Noam Yuchtman go way back, up to the 14th century in Germany. They compare the establishment of new market places to the founding of universities and find a surprisingly strong correlation when looking at the distance from the nearest university. Of course, you may think this is all endogenous. If a city or region develops, new market places emerge and there is critical mass or wealth for an institution of higher learning. But the authors argue there is causation from universities to markets. Indeed, the Papal Schism of 1386 was an exogenous shock that allowed the creation of universities, and they exploit the trend shift in the granting of markets around this date. The intuition of the causation is that universities provided training in law, which facilitated the creation of legal institutions and ultimately the enforcement of contracts. So, once more, institutions matters, but this is also an interesting counterexample to the intuition that lawyers create demand for there services with no economic or social benefit.