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Cultivating Town and Gown Relationships for Development Success

By William Hatcher

This past week, my university held an open forum with our community’s mayor. The purpose of the forum was to solicit input from students about revitalizing our downtown. The event is part of a “town and gown” initiative spearheaded by our president and the community’s mayor. Attending the event got me thinking about what public administration has learned when it comes to the benefits but also the barriers of campus and community partnerships. While not the case in my community, relations between campus leaders and city leaders can often be strained. When these relationships are strained, communities fail to take advantage of the important benefits that come from having institutions of higher learning nearby. Public administration and community development has sought to address this problem and provide evidence-based advice to help leaders cultivate town and gown relationships.

Town and Gown Barriers

The Princeton Review publishes a ranking of communities with strained town and gown relationships. While the methodology has flaws, the list does highlight a number of the common issues that hamper meaningful campus and city partnerships.

First, disagreement may arise over financial issues. For example, as the Atlantic Cities reports, Brown University has been in conflict with its city, Providence, Rhode Island, over a voluntary tax that the university has been paying to help keep the city’s finances in the black. The city’s argument is that the university stresses local services. The university believes that it has paid more than its fair share and that its economic contributions to the community more than make up for services used.

Cities and campuses often find themselves in conflict because of safety concerns. A few years ago, relations were put to the test between the University of Southern California and Los Angeles when two students were killed during an armed robbery. In many cases, the circumstances causing strained relations are not so tragic and are produced from lifestyle issues and traffic congestion. The party atmosphere of many college environments is perhaps the issue that can place the most strain on town and gown relationships. This is an issue at many colleges from community colleges to Ivy League ones. Historically, Durham, NC and Duke University have feuded over how to handle noisy house parties held by students living in neighborhoods around campus. Princeton Review often places the same universities in both its party school ranking and strained town and gown ranking. For example, Lehigh University has been included in both lists a couple times, demonstrating the link between partying and strained community relations. Traffic congestion and parking can also upset local citizens. When this is the case, focus needs to be placed on how traffic issues and lack of parking are problems often linked to economic growth.

When relations become strained, community and campus leaders have difficulty moving beyond the cost associated with institutions of learning. In the examples above, leaders are failing to emphasize the benefits of this important asset in their communities. The assets model of development can help guide communities away from strained relations to meaningful partnerships by calling for a constant focus on local assets and not needs or cost. The assets model of development calls for communities to strengthen local capital. Having an institution of higher learning is a huge asset that positively affects many forms of local capital.

Cultivating Town and Gown Relations

Campuses contribute to a number of local capitals, in particular labor capital (i.e., the local workforce), financial capital (i.e., the community’s economic worth and tax base) and social capital (i.e., the social bonds and trust among a community’s citizens). Campuses bring consumers, jobs and educated residents. These jobs help communities build their tax bases for needed local services. Educated citizens, with stable middle class jobs, are likely to pay taxes to the local community and contribute to a community’s social capital by being active in local groups.

In an article published in The Innovation Journal, Lawrence L. Martin, Hayden Smith and Wende Philips survey the literature on university and community partnerships. The authors give examples of partnerships and discuss factors that may help cultivate these relationships. The following types of partnerships may occur:

  • Service learning, where students volunteer in a community as part of academic credit.
  • Service provision, where faculty and staff conduct long-term service projects in a community.
  • Faculty involvement, where faculty become part of local initiatives in a coordinated way.
  • Student volunteerism, where students volunteer their time but do not receive academic credit.
  • Community in the classroom, where courses seek to enhance community building.
  • Applied research, where faculty and staff use their research skills to address local problems.

According to the authors, these types of partnerships rely on adequate funding, clear communication between leaders and reachable goals. Funding is the crucial and often limiting factor. Partnerships need a certain level of funding to create an organizational capacity, such as having employees on both sides paid to work on the projects, needed to achieve success. When there are success stories, town and gown coalitions need to communicate that information to the wider community.

Within the public administration literature, there are a number of case studies of communities that have navigated these factors and implemented success partnerships. Town and Gown Relations, a recent book edited by Roger L. Kemp, contains over 40 case studies of successful partnerships between campuses and cities. Simply looking at the tables of contents shows how diverse the partnerships can be. The authors give examples of cities working to revitalize their downtowns, building programs to emphasize the importance of sustainability and environmental protection and developing community visions. A number of the town and gown relationships seek to improve citizen input in local decisions, which is a key component of constructing plans for development. Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh have worked together to development mechanisms to include the public in local planning in a meaningful way. In most of these communities, there is a constant focus on how campuses are assets, not costs, and developing them for local capital.

A Symbiotic Relationship?

A few years ago, the Atlantic Cities published an article discussing how a panel of four college presidents answered the question: Do cities need universities to survive? Among the panelists, there was consensus that cities can survive without universities. But examples from community development show the importance of town and town relationships for cities to succeed. The benefits of highly educated community members, improvements to physical design made by campuses and contributions to the local tax base are assets that universities bring to their communities. By constructing meaningful local projects, well-cultivated town and gown relations can expand these assets.

William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be contacted via [email protected]. (His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.)

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

2 Responses to Cultivating Town and Gown Relationships for Development Success

  1. Pingback: The 21st Century Renaissance:   It starts from universities opening their gates.    | engclass12

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