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Town and Gown Relations: The Best Practices in the World

By Roger L. Kemp

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The UniTown Network recently held its first annual Town-Gown Relations Conference for representatives of cities and universities in the European Union. The City of Ferrara (Italy) and the University of Ferrara jointly participated in this conference. Special attendees included Tiziano Tagliani, Mayor of the City of Ferrara and Pasquale Nappi, President of the University of Ferrara.

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

The UniTown Network of the European Union is headed in the right direction with their efforts to get municipal and school officials involved in working together. During the opening session of the conference, I shared some of the most common town-gown best practices. The case studies presented came from joint projects and programs undertaken by cities and schools located in the United States and Canada. Below are highlights of these evolving and dynamic town-gown best practices:

  • 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 they graduate.
  • Students can seek career mentors and advisors, which can come from adjunct faculty members as well as city employees who are speakers for the school’s program.
  • One university formed a program advisory committee consisting of primarily adjunct professors (from many of the neighboring cities), who could also provide internships, serve as mentors and advise students on their future public service career options and opportunities.
  • Some cities provided free rooms/space for a local college or university to hold courses for their public administration program. While mostly city employees enrolled in these programs, they were frequently also open to the public.
  • City and school officials jointly formed town-gown advisory committees, which consisted of public and school officials, as well as representatives of the citizens and students that they serve. These groups typically discussed local concerns and resolved them before they became community problems.
  • The members of these advisory groups, by design, usually consisted of representatives from existing community, neighborhood, business and student groups and associations.
  • Other major issues of concern that town-gown officials can jointly work on include mutual transit projects, joint parking facilities, 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 are great vehicles to examine and discuss the issues that are associated with such projects.
  • Joint Town-Gown advisory committees typically review and discuss community concerns before they become city-wide issues and problems and make joint recommendations to their respective public and schools officials.  Their recommendations are often advisory in nature.
  • Town-gown officials work together to seek funds from higher levels of government for both separate and joint projects and programs, especially when they are mutually advantageous.

Town-gown officials increasingly recognize the positive impacts that 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 other revenues and taxes generated by the schools located within municipalities.

italy 2There are multiple opportunities for communities, and the colleges and universities located within them, to participate in these town-gown (UniTown) programs and projects. These positive practices evolve rapidly and reflect joint efforts where everyone benefits – both the citizens and the students, as well as public and school officials who consider and approve their recommendations. Some of the benefits of these evolving town-gown programs and services are noted below:

  • Citizens are educated to realize the economic benefits provided by their school.
  • Students are educated to realize the public service benefits provided by their community.
  • Public officials benefit from the solutions jointly resolved by citizens and students working together.
  • School officials will also benefit from the solutions jointly resolved by students and citizens working together.
  • The governing bodies of the cities and school will benefit when citizens and students work together to resolve mutual concerns before they become community issues and problems.
  • Community and school issues and problems frequently disappear due to these joint participatory efforts by the community’s citizens and the school’s students.

This field is dynamic and additional best practices will be analyzed, approved, initiated and reported on during the coming years. The readers of this article should stay tuned for more information about the dynamic and growing 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.


Roger L. Kemp, MPA, MBA, PhD, ICMA-CM, has been a career city manager and a career adjunct professor. He is presently a Practitioner in Residence, Department of Public Management, College of Business, at the University of New Haven. Kemp is also the author of Town-Gown Relations:  A Handbook of Best Practices, which discusses the best practices shared in this article. He can be reached  at [email protected].

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