The Town and Gown Phenomenon – Part 1

by Maureen (Riegert ’90, M.A. ’00) Taylor

Town and gown. These words evoke images of quaint communities and velvet robes of the academy in thoughtful coexistence. Yet the flesh and blood reality of any relationship between a diverse town (i.e., city officials, community leaders, and residents with demographic influences related to socioeconomics, politics, religion, ethnicity, age, etc.) and a gown (i.e., a college or university replete with distinct attributes derived from institutional heritage and mission as well as community makeup) provides a window into the complexity involved in defining the scope of the exchange.

Often unions of paradox, such partnerships are wrought with challenge and intricacy based on vying viewpoints. Most, if not all, towns contend with the competing value of an elevated reputation and recognition derived from being home to a university versus the perceived cost affiliated with goals related to increased enrollment and construction plans. On the university side, administrators bristle at the seeming lack of the town's willingness to comprehend the intrinsic value of the university and its commitment to local issues by virtue of proximity and outreach efforts.

Although aware of the prestige and perks offered by the university or college, townspeople are frequently annoyed by students who may be boisterous, incensed about building sites that contribute nothing to the city's tax base, and aggravated by traffic gluts created by large bodies of students and faculty. Conversely, people in higher education institutions may feel the townspeople exhibit antagonism, do not appreciate their efforts to educate the populace, frequently do not support the college's events or athletic offerings, and do not offer students or faculty special services.1

How then can any city and institution of higher education forge mutually beneficial ties that speak to shared vision rather than self-serving agendas? How can both remain authentic to mission and committed to engagement?

For nearly 800 years, local politicians and campus leaders have attempted to answer these questions. The earliest descriptions of the town and gown relationship date back to 1249 and are characterized by rivalry, violent clashes, and looting.2 An infamous altercation between University of Oxford students and residents of the city that now bears the same name occurred on February 10, 1354, beginning with earnest celebration and ending in the death of several young people and ransacking of the colleges.3 Today's town and gown landscape looks far calmer, but the issues that bind as well as divide are multifaceted. Beyond the tension that arises over a bustling campus, rancor erupts over the "perceived walls dividing insulated centers of higher learning (the ivory towers of the academia, the bubble) from the 'real world' of everyday life."4 College critics also point to schools' tax-exempt status (a real sore spot), classifying the standing as a free ride that reaps financial benefits for the institution without legitimate community activism or the application of university expertise to matters beyond the campus' confines.5 Personalities can also fuel friction between municipality and university.

In response, academic representatives quickly cite the institution's positive economic impact on the town. Although exempt from property taxes, Pennsylvania's Bucknell University boasts about the almost $2 million paid in state income, local wage, and some property taxes on property not used for educational purposes, and estimates that as the city of Lewisburg's second-largest employer, direct expenditures exceed $80 million.6 The University of Southern California's figures are even more robust: $3 billion annually.

Economic impact aside, alleged elitism together with visible expansion efforts strain even the best relationships. Consider when Boston University, Boston College, and Northeastern University, Boston, attained national prominence in the 1970s and '80s and embarked on aggressive development endeavors, displacing area residents and businesses in the process. "It wasn't a case of [schools] simply moving into a neighborhood and becoming part of it - it was taking people who lived there and moving them out," said Thomas O'Conner, noted Boston historian and Boston College professor.7 Similar scenarios played out across the country and continue to this day in Atlanta, Georgia, and Boulder, Colorado, among others.8

But many college presidents are committed to changing this assessment, enacting approaches that champion good stewardship, or as William Hednut III, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC, calls "good cityship."9 Fashioning strong and mutually supportive connections with the community is feasible, according to Steven Sample, Ph.D., president of the University of Southern California, when following a few simple principles:

The first is having the willingness on both sides to make a full-fledged, no-holds-barred commitment to partnership. The second is localizing and focusing community outreach. The third is having a well-thought-out strategy. The fourth is having mutual respect for each other. And fifth is having a dash of entrepreneurial spirit looking for new ways to solve old problems, and taking some risks in doing so.

"Our neighborhood effort is not a matter of noblesse oblige," said Sample. "Rather, it is an approach that says: We live here together. We are neighbors. We have some resources that can help the neighborhood. Let's do it together. It's not what USC is doing for our neighbors; it's what USC is accomplishing with our neighbors through community-based partnerships that counts."

Transforming the so-called detached ivory tower into a real urban laboratory, however, requires more than good intentions. The conversion calls for genuine alliances with city government, local businesses, and citizens as well as a clear idea of how and when university missions naturally intersect with community aims. Forward-thinking universities now seek out opportunities to establish such connections, thus minimizing chasms that may separate the two. Such inroads take considerable time and demand clarity of purpose on both sides.

Occidental College President Theodore Mitchell, Ph.D., notes how his Los Angeles-based institution shapes and impacts the city, calling the "interdependent relationship" a source of pride as well as strength and opportunity for the college and community.10 Moreover, he believes a healthy town and gown relationship enables students to sharpen and develop their sensibilities in citizenship and leadership, particularly through intentional service. "Students are changed by their community experiences," said Mitchell. "Often a liberal arts education is slammed as esoteric; yet our kids get their hands dirty while getting their heads filled. Service learning and volunteer efforts are very relevant, even more so than technology-driven endeavors."

At Bucknell, nearly 75 percent of the student body engages in volunteer work.11 Meanwhile at Occidental, student service exceeds 70 percent, with 40 percent offering more than three hours per week. USC’s 10,000 students, in turn, provide 300,000 community service hours annually. The University of La Verne, La Verne, California, reports similar contributions.

But communities need more than semester-driven volunteerism to combat societal ills and solve minor problems. To uncover real needs of the trifurcated residential community Occidental serves (wealthy Eagle Rock, struggling Highland Park, and mammoth Los Angeles), Mitchell established a community breakfast within 30 days of becoming president. The monthly event now draws between 10-50 local leaders and activists, including representatives from state senators’ and congressmen’s offices. “This is a great way to work out issues in open, face-to-face communication,” said Mitchell.

The relationship between our off-campus student residents and their neighbors poses a challenge for us. In this setting, I speak to neighbors’ concerns and discuss what we’re doing to address problems related to alcohol, noise, trash, etc. People respect this and it creates good will. Since I refuse to tell students not to make any noise after 8 p.m., I work instead to create tolerance on both sides.”

The gatherings also identify real community needs. Mitchell then weighs them against the college’s commitment to support education and environmental projects to determine involvement. This strategic focus has led to extensive participation in the Re-envisioning the L.A. River Program, which blends 19 non-governmental L.A.-based organizations and 9 Occidental departments. Other involvement includes the Farmers’ Market Salad Bar Program, which encourages Los Angeles Unified School District schools to grow and use organic produce; and adoption of two local elementary schools that now benefit from donated computers and book shelves to tutoring aimed at improving literacy, among other targeted efforts.

This also means knowing when to say no. “Recently, we discovered a tremendous need in Northeast Los Angeles for continuing education and enrichment classes,” said Mitchell. “But my faculty reminded me that they couldn’t teach these courses and Oxy students too. So instead of giving up or ignoring the problem, we turned to a creative solution: As of January, UCLA (the University of California, Los Angeles) began offering extension courses on our campus to deal with this need.”

At USC, Sample transformed 200 community projects that lacked focus in 1994 into 300 strategic outreach endeavors that today target a specific geographical area, involve key stakeholders, and encompass education, health care, economic development, and the arts. The University of La Verne’s projects center on education, counseling, and cultural exchanges, including running the city’s local cable station. “For more than a decade, our communication department has operated LVTV, providing all the community- and public-service programming,” said University of La Verne President Stephen Morgan, Ed.D. “This is a great laboratory for students, and at the same time, provides the city with quality programming that wouldn’t otherwise be available to La Verne residents.”

Expansion in an urban locale almost always ruffles feathers. Morgan acknowledges that the reality of a land-locked institution dictates that “we must seek out opportunities to acquire uncultivated land, while striking a balance of not overwhelming residential areas and community properties.”

This tightrope walk is familiar to many college presidents and leads to innovative solutions. In La Verne’s case, it meant locating the law college east of Ontario, California, and acquiring leased space for continuing and adult education programs throughout Southern California.

Mitchell contends that all colleges offer their communities three important resources: convening places – neutral ground to bring people together to talk about community issues and express different points of view; new ideas – institutions of higher education are charged with solving great societal needs; therefore, inject ideas into the public debate; human capital – students and faculty imbued with hope, energy, and enthusiasm can provide the momentum and intellectual resilience needed to tackle pressing concerns, while simultaneously bringing textbook theory to life. USC’s Sample adds that universities contribute to their cities and region through graduates produced, expenditures made, and research conducted. Morgan identifies another unique benefit: “Education is a clean industry that does not require strict regulation and yields great cultural and learning opportunities not just for students, but also for area residents.”

With urban renewal money drained and corporations no longer demonstrating city attachment, colleges have been called upon to take the lead in revitalization efforts. A champion of campus-community cooperation is Hartford, Connecticut’s former Trinity College president Evan Dobelle, who invested almost $9 million of the college’s money to eliminate crack houses and create a “learning corridor,” which accommodates a performing arts center and three public schools.12 At Bucknell, most Lewisburg improvements result from students’ hard work – from installing a stop sign to hosting a children’s festival.13

But not all endeavors are well received. Aurora, New York’s Wells College is embroiled in a bitter battle with a coalition of townspeople and college members concerned about the school’s revitalization plans. “This is an academic institution telling us what is good for us and telling us we should want it,” said Karen Hindenlong, a village resident and Wells alumna. “I think they should know better. There was a village before there was a college.”14 The intent behind each effort – even those strongly opposed – seems to be to erase the lines that separate where the campus ends and the community begins.

The University of La Verne has fared far better in its attempt to blur lines. “The city gave the university money to refurbish a vacant Wells Fargo Bank site. The condition was that two-thirds of the property had to be commercial, while the remaining third could serve university needs,” said Morgan. Today, the location provides two sources of revenue generation: a bakery and a coffee shop, while the remainder functions as university office space. Another venture links the city and university with the local high school. The construction and upkeep of a community pool a mile away from the university represents more than a means to assist La Verne students and area residents, but exemplifies how different parties can combine their resources and collaborate to meet diverse constituents’ similar need – facility for high school and college students use during the school year and for residents in the summer.

“Transforming the so-called detached ivory tower into a real urban laboratory, however, requires more than good intentions. The conversion calls for genuine alliances with city government, local businesses, and citizens as well as a clear idea of how and when university missions naturally intersect with community aims.

Synergy now exists in many places throughout the U.S. and abroad where hostility between town and gown once flourished. The investment involves not only dollars, but also intellectual capital.15 “What used to be the town and gown gap has become the town and gown relationship,” said Thomas Galloway, dean of Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture.16

Guelph Mayor Joe Young believes the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, put the city on the map as its largest employer with a growing worldwide reputation. The institution brings commercial and industrial activity to the area. Given this reality, he champions a team approach. “Diverse sources of input are very good because they help us see challenges and solutions from different vantage points. This kind of participation and expertise is helpful,” said Young.17

A recent report released by USC’s Southern California Studies Center details findings from a two-year inquiry on challenges facing the region and state. The report contends that mounting obstacles call for residents to “grow smarter and more civic-minded.” Sample believes institutions of higher education must be at the forefront of the dialogue and the remedy. But neither does he shy away from the motivation behind USC’s community involvement: “We have an agenda, and we don’t hide it. We proclaim it proudly in our mission statement . . . Our ‘agenda’ is teaching and research, and our commitment to community service helps fulfill that agenda.”

The success or failure of a complicated town and gown relationship seems to boil down to one factor: communication – how well the parties do it, how often, through what vehicles, for what purpose, etc. “There’s no such thing as communicating adequately,” said Morgan. “Colleges and universities must be engaged in ongoing, formal and informal conversations with their communities. This even means asking cities for advice about future plans. This demonstrates that the players are long-term partners.”

Mitchell agrees, but identifies when a college or university must stand its ground. “In our case, it comes down to assessing whether Oxy is really serving the community. If so, sometimes one must exercise leadership and push forward an agenda which may not be agreeable to the city,” said Mitchell. “This college will never be held hostage to a referendum. I’m determined that the community learn about the college’s interests as well.”

Maureen (Riegert ’90, M.A. ’00) Taylor is director of strategic communication in the Office of University Marketing and Creative Media. [email protected]