The Town and Gown Phenomenon – Part 2

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

Azusa City Manager Rick Cole understands the advantages and pitfalls of the town and gown relationship. He has studied the phenomenon as a consultant, advised his alma mater, Occidental College, about the issue in the 1990s, and now lives with its reality amidst a town seeking redefinition and a university pursuing growth.

“When a city envisions itself as a learning community and draws upon academia as a resource to analyze itself critically and the university responds, synergy exists,” said Cole. “An isolated program, study, or project doesn’t promote this exchange. Azusa Pacific University needs to think of Azusa not as a pond you extend a fishing line to once in a while and occasionally reel in, but rather as an entire marine community that requires holistic study to appreciate its nuances, and thus, approach it more comprehensively.”

APU President Jon R. Wallace, DBA, believes Azusa Pacific University’s purposeful placement in the East San Gabriel Valley community of Azusa extends far beyond the token involvement to which Cole alludes. Instead, Wallace seeks substantive opportunities that bind university and community long-term. “We must look beyond the community that exists at APU, and understand and embrace what it means to be part of the vibrant community beyond our campus. Our Christian faith is built on the commandment, ‘Love God and love your neighbor.’ The question becomes then, what kind of neighbor is God calling this university to be?”

Even with good intentions on both sides, proximity alone does not yield benefits. “Is having an outside resource like a university, research hospital, or major corporation in your community a guarantee of cross fertilization? No, not in California’s highly mobile culture that makes anything within 20 miles close,” said Cole. “But when you entertain the possibility of having a thriving university district, bookstores, and organized programs, then incredible partnership is possible.”

To date, the most obvious component of this exchange remains service. APU community service and service learning hours range from more than 108,000-180,000 hours per year. Every Azusa Pacific University student contributes at least 15 service hours per semester in order to graduate, thus equaling a minimum of 120 service hours by matriculation. This year, 1,000 students were directly involved in the Azusa Unified School District (AUSD). In addition, the university’s economic impact exceeds $26.25 million a year. But are mere hours and dollars enough?

“Our relationship with the city isn’t simply about numbers – of dollars we contribute, hours we donate – it’s about people working together to create an engaging living-learning environment that encircles the entire community, from City Hall and Azusa’s public schools to area businesses, residences, and this university. I firmly believe that the city of Azusa, along with Azusa Pacific University, can achieve results together that are difficult or unattainable alone,” said Wallace. “The Azusa community is facing some difficult issues related to our public schools as well as the business sector. These are not only city government challenges. As part of the community, we must share in and address these issues jointly. As a community of disciples and scholars, our mission calls us to support and be involved in our city and with our neighbors.”

AUSD Assistant Superintendent Cynthia Cervantes McGuire, a 27-year-veteran Azusa educator, believes APU’s service-learning experiences address fundamental problems versus simply throwing money at apparent challenges. In addition, service-learning projects afford APU students a rare glimpse inside the school system, exposing them to issues confronting education and encouraging empathy. “In Azusa, many children have working parents or come from single-parent homes,” said Cervantes McGuire. “Service programs that connect area kids with adult role models are invaluable. Such programs connect kids with people who see beyond tough socioeconomic situations, champion them, and present education as the key to a bright future.”

Cervantes McGuire praises APU’s College Headed and Mighty Proud (C.H.A.M.P.) Program, fashioned 11 years ago, which demonstrates to at-risk fourth graders that college is a possibility. Cole also admires the program, but challenges the university to do more. “APU should conduct research using C.H.A.M.P. and ask – ‘Why do some kids do well and others do not?’ That kind of investment could reap rich results for the community and university.”

Cervantes McGuire also suggests that the university not solicit the school district with every grant opportunity that arises, but instead come to AUSD with programs that speak to district needs, not just a university agenda. “Beverly Hardcastle Stanford, director of APU’s Center for Research in Ethics and Values, approached me to participate in a 2003 conference on character education,” said Cervantes McGuire. “This fits with the district’s emphasis on diversity and character building. Her thoughtful invitation showed that she did her homework.”

A.V.I.D. (Advancement Via Individual Determination) also fits with AUSD and APU objectives. This international program, begun 21 years ago by a San Diego teacher, is aimed at B and C grade middle and high school students. The APU/AUSD collaborative version debuted this year at Center Middle School for sixth graders. Next year promises expansion not only into the seventh grade, but also into two other schools.

“Azusa Pacific University funded five scholarships for high school graduates from Azusa. Last year, there weren’t enough eligible students,” said Cervantes McGuire. “So the university agreed to channel those untapped funds into A.V.I.D., which helps parents and kids know what it takes to be prepared for college. That move provides meaning for today. And potentially, cultivates future APU scholarship recipients.”

The landscape is already changing this next academic school year. For the first time, the university awarded all five scholarships. “The Celebrate Azusa/Nancy Moore Scholarship was presented to Azusa High School students James Ramirez, Kimberly Standley, Trianne Castro, and Elba Gomez, and Gladstone High School student Heather Mendoza,” said Ginny Dadaian, director of student financial services and Azusa resident. “Granting these funds to community residents strengthens the university’s connection to the community and extends the opportunity of higher education.”

In the broader sense, Wallace sees APU becoming the place in the East San Gabriel Valley where parents and students investigate higher education as a whole. “Education attracts industry, and an educated workforce makes an impact on its community. Many graduates choose to stay in the local area as public school teachers, employees of local business, and members of area churches. Their ongoing commitment to building healthy communities and neighborhoods makes a positive difference,” said Wallace.

City Council member, Diane Chagnon, hails Azusa Pacific’s education outreaches and involvement in the Azusa Public Library’s reading programs. In addition, she commends the university’s Child and Family Development Center, the Neighborhood Wellness Center, and the Canyon City Classic, among other endeavors. Having Azusa city representation (Roy Bruckner, community development director) on APU’s Master Plan Committee also garnered Chagnon’s approval. “All of APU’s participation contributes to the city’s overall well being,” said Chagnon. “The university’s ability to acquire rundown apartment buildings and fix them up for student housing improves the properties’ value, provides cosmetic improvement to the area, and may even reduce crime. On the down side, the sale of such property to APU removes the parcels from the city’s property tax books. This causes heartburn for many people.”

As do other expansion proposals. Ed-Pac Drive-in Theater Corporation’s transfer of ownership of the Azusa Foothill Drive-in to Azusa Pacific University in August 2001 unleashed a new round of debate, testing the scope of town and gown relations. For more than a year before this transfer, however, the university involved the city in discussions and obtained community members’ input through forums and informal dialogue. At the same time, the mayor sought the aid of the L.A. Conservancy in a bid to declare the site a state historical landmark. In a four-to-one decision on November 19, 2001, all city council members except the mayor voted against endorsing this action. In addition, Cole submitted a compelling letter in support of the university on this matter based on the city council’s fall vote. Nonetheless, the state was not swayed and issued a unanimous decision on February 1, 2002, to recommend historical designation and declare the property eligible for listing. The university now becomes subject to a far more stringent environmental impact report prior to development.

“Some of the proposed developments have folks concerned about noise, traffic, lighting, environmental issues, and preservation,” said Chagnon. “I believe many of these same issues would exist if a private business or person acquired these same areas.”

“While the state commission’s decision does present additional challenges for the university’s plans to develop that property, it affirms our desire to work closely with the city and our community neighbors in envisioning, articulating, and enacting a plan for the future,” said Wallace. “At the same time, I am coming to understand that you cannot always win the support of everyone all of the time.”

Such matters do not quell Cervantes McGuire’s desire to seek out partnership opportunities between AUSD and APU. “My primary concern is the children of Azusa. I am not going to walk away from APU’s help and resources,” she said. “Nonetheless, I challenge the APU community to consider diversity and the perception of the institution in the community. I do not ask APU to lose who it is, but rather to try to understand the heritage of the Azusa community as well.”

To facilitate a better working relationship, Cole identifies three building blocks: leadership (beginning with President Wallace), communication, and interaction. “Jon Wallace articulated that Azusa is APU’s hometown, which leads to a shared identity. The Clause’s [APU’s student newspaper] weekly coverage of Azusa news validates this statement,” said Cole. “Improved communication is an obvious need. Finally, the more genuine the interaction, the more mature the relationship becomes – trust evolves, problems are solved, connections emerge, lessons are learned, and natural exchange results.”

But such openness and transformation takes the buy-in of the entire APU community and time. “Jon Wallace’s commitment to Azusa is definitely a higher priority for him than his predecessor. However, nothing really significant happens in less than five years, and he is just one person,” said Cole.

“I’m learning that my role as president includes engaging members of our surrounding communities in responsible and timely dialogue,” said Wallace. “Sometimes, the most important conversation is the most difficult one. As I interact with and listen to those who do not agree with my side of the argument or view the university with distrust and skepticism, I discover new insight and help foster a sense of mutuality, instilling trust.”

“APU should always be open to what the opposition has to say because they do have valid points. Remember you cannot please all of the people all of the time. But you can strive to do what you think is best for the entire city – then you’re headed in the right direction,” said Chagnon.

There is also a perception that the university is in a hurry to achieve its goals and get past scrutiny. “There’s impatience present. As if APU is asking the city and community, ‘What part of our long-term commitment don’t you get? We’re sincere. Isn’t it self-evident how great we are for the city?’” said Cole. “Yet at the same time, the university is asking for and doing things that compel deeper conversation about the mutual benefits of development. People question if the ‘Azusa is our hometown’ refrain is a sales job until the school gets its land-use entitlements and then goes back to worshipping God, educating students, and raising funds, forgetting about Azusa in the process.”

“Over the last 15-20 years, the picture of APU by many in our neighborhood has moved from a sleepy Bible college on the corner to a growing and thriving university. To meet the need for additional academic buildings, housing, parking, and athletic facilities, we need to truly partner with Azusa – city officials, residents, and business owners alike,” said Wallace. “My goal is that our life together as neighbors will endure and prosper because involvement in our city community speaks to the heart of this university’s four cornerstones: Christ, Scholarship, Community, and Service. Our place in this city enables us to live out our mission to train disciples and scholars to impact the world. We’re very fortunate.”

Cole, Chagnon, and Cervantes McGuire all reiterate a common theme at work here too: People fear change. “The bottom line is, it takes time for two insular institutions [the city of Azusa and Azusa Pacific University] to get to know each other,” said Cole. “What’s happening now is like they are sharing a hotel room and just getting to know each other at the same time. Comfort with this level of intimacy takes time.”

Cole does not advocate more involvement but rather strategic participation. “In the paradigm that calls for the university to do more, exchanges revert to charity with those with limited resources,” he said. “This feels patronizing and paternalistic and feeds into self-serving opportunism of good-natured people on the city side.” Instead, Cole supports a partnership built on shared vision.

“In the 21st century, the more brainpower you have, the more advantaged both the university and the community become,” said Cole. “Azusa Pacific University draws some bright people who contribute to the value of the town. I’m interested in attracting some of those iron filings with the city magnet. Why? Because small cities lack deep pockets, and we rely on creative solutions.”

“Our faculty and staff enjoy living in Azusa. We’re seeing a significant movement in the demographic profile of new university employees and where they are choosing to live. I am very excited to hear from faculty and staff about their involvement in the Azusa neighborhoods that they live in as well as their dreams as city residents of what this city can and will become,” said Wallace.

Besides demographic shifts, at play here too is the fact that Azusa is in the process of redefining itself. “We are not trying to change who we are as a city, but rather trying to become incredibly better at what we are,” said Cole. “An outstanding university like Azusa Pacific University is an outstanding resource – what’s even better is that we do not have to recruit it, pay money to lure it, or tear down acres to attract it.”

Yet talk of APU’s economic impact elicits sharp criticism. “Economic models are overrated,” said Cole. “The real value APU offers the city may work more like this – a kid takes a job in a local business and develops a business plan for the owner, a college student decides to start a small shop right in Azusa, an APU student tutors a kid who wouldn’t even consider going to college other- wise. You get the picture. Azusa Pacific University’s value lies in those intangibles.”

Cole’s vision calls for innovative thinking about how to encourage interaction. Such consideration even involved a field trip for the Azusa City Council in early February. “We went to the university district in Riverside. Picture Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, coming to Azusa,” said Cole. “I foresee a pedestrian-oriented area that draws students and staff off campus, not so that merchants can riffle pockets, but to entice interaction. College towns are exciting places to live, especially for people just out of college. This could become a real draw for the San Gabriel Valley. After all, right now where can people go after dinner to relax? A stroll through Home Depot?”

Wallace envisions a similar model. “The walls that once separated the university from the city are gone. Instead, I can imagine a scenario in which we share common space. I’m not sure what this looks like yet, but think of what family rooms and screened in porches are really meant for; that’s the kind of familial connection this university wants with the community,” said Wallace. “At New York University, students and residents live together – students walk out of class and are immediately enmeshed in a lattice of apartment complexes and small businesses. I’d like to replicate something in Azusa that cultivates this same degree of community.

“I love this city,” said Wallace. “My perception is that Azusa will become the model for healthy cities in the East San Gabriel Valley. As the downtown business sector reclaims its vitality, as Azusa Unified schools continue to improve and develop, and as new housing attracts responsible growth, this university will find ways to support and contribute to this community we call home.”