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Town-Gown Relations: Common Best Practices

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Roger L. Kemp
February 16, 2016

During my public service career, I have been a city manager and an adjunct professor in three states and on both coasts of the United States. I always had an interest in town-gown relations: how officials in communities and schools relate to one another, and how they work with citizens and students to resolve issues before they become problems. For the reasons outlined below, there are many mutually advantageous opportunities to work together on joint projects and programs.

handshakeEveryone benefits—public and school officials, as well as the citizens and students they serve—when proactive town-gown practices are used. The search of literature in this field reveals many best practices. This research resulted in a new reference volume cited below. The case studies presented in this book came from joint projects and programs undertaken by cities and schools throughout the U.S. and Canada.

These evolving and dynamic town-gown best practices are highlighted below.

  • Adjunct faculty members and class speakers can come from the municipality in which the school is located. 
  • The city can provide internships for students, who might apply for entry-level jobs after graduation. 
  • Students also seek career mentors and advisors, who can come from their adjunct faculty members, as well as the speakers for the school’s program that are employed by the city. 
  • One university formed a program advisory committee consisting of primarily adjunct professors (from many of the cities located around them), who could also provide internships, serve as mentors and advise students on their future public service career options and opportunities. 
  • Some cities provide free space for a local college or university to hold public administration courses. While mostly city employees enroll in these programs, they are frequently open to the public. 
  • Some city and school officials jointly form town-gown advisory committees, which consist of public and school officials and community representatives. The community representatives may come from local neighborhoods, businesses and student groups and associations. 
  • Town-gown advisory committees are great vehicles to examine and discuss the issues that are associated with projects such as transportation, parking, community parks in the campus area, as well as possible municipal bikeways and walkways that are located in the campus neighborhood. 
  • Town-gown advisory committees typically review and discuss community concerns before they become citywide issues and problems, and make joint recommendations to their respective public and schools officials. 
  • Town-gown officials work together to seek funds from government for both separate and joint projects and programs.

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There are multiple opportunities for communities, and the colleges and universities located within them, to participate jointly in mutually advantageous town-gown programs and projects. These positive practices, which are rapidly evolving, reflect joint efforts where everyone benefits.

In the past, town-gown officials have had misunderstandings based on different loyalties and priorities, and the fact that they have separate governing bodies. Over the years, few mutual discussions were held between public and school officials, as well as citizens and students. Today, town-gown officials are increasingly working together for the benefit of both of the groups they represent.

Town-gown officials increasingly recognize the positive impacts the academic community has on their municipal government, as well as the value of the public services provided to the campus by the municipal government. These benefits include joint employment opportunities, payments for services, mutual city-school projects, programs and services, and knowledge of the other revenues and taxes generated by the schools located within municipalities.

These evolving town-gown programs and services benefit the members of the municipal and academic communities as noted below.

  • The citizens, who are educated to realize the economic benefits provided by their school. 
  • The students, who are educated to realize the public service benefits provided by their community. 
  • The public officials, who benefit from the solutions jointly resolved by their citizens and the students working together. 
  • The school officials, who also benefit from the solutions jointly resolved by their students and the citizens working together. 
  • The governing bodies of the cities and schools benefit by working together to resolve mutual concerns before they become community issues and problems. 
  • Such community and school issues and problems frequently go away because of these joint participatory efforts by the community’s citizens and the school’s students.

This field is dynamic and additional best practices will no doubt be analyzed, approved, initiated, grow and be reported on in future years. The readers of this article should stay tuned for more information about the dynamic and evolving field of town-gown relations, where everyone benefits—the citizens and the students, the municipal and public officials, as well as the members of their respective governing bodies.

ASPA is a great professional association to promote these best practices, since they represent both the academic and practitioner communities—folks that teach and practice public management in cities throughout the nation!


Author: Roger L. Kemp, Ph.D., ICMA-CM, has been a career city manager and a career adjunct professor in three states. He is a professional in residence in the Department of Public Management  at the University of New Haven and a distinguished adjunct professor in the Executive MPA Program at Golden Gate University. These best practices are reflected in his book, Town and Gown Relations: A Handbook of Best Practices (McFarland, 2013). Roger can be reached via e-mail at <[email protected]>.

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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.

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