The Ever-Vexed Town-Gown Relationship

It's been a difficult one since the days of Plato, but there are ways for colleges and universities to build synergy with their communities.
July 27, 2015
By N.J. Slabbert  |  Contributor
A scholar at the Washington D.C.-based ArMel Scientifics Center for Technology & Public Policy.

On the morning of May 13, more than 1,500 Yale University students clashed violently with armed police in Yale's home city of New Haven, Conn. Fortunately, this turmoil wasn't recent: It happened back in 1952. But it wasn't an isolated incident. That year the Harvard Crimson newspaper reported: "For two centuries, Yale and New Haven have periodically come together in gory frays." And the Yale Daily News explained: "Yale is like a glittering showgirl in a roadside diner. Her beauty and expensive clothes overshadow the fact that New Haven, to its year-round inhabitants, at least, is a mill town. Its citizens are mainly factory workers who take home factory workers' wages. This is the basic cause of strife."

The "town-gown" relationship has been divisive since the dawn of academia. More than two millennia ago, Plato's academy outside the walls of Athens enjoyed physical and intellectual detachment from urban concerns. That kind of physical separation ended when medieval universities started sharing town amenities, but academia remained aloof from towns and above civil law because learning was run by priests. A long history of town-gown antagonism ensued. England's Oxford University and local townsfolk fought so horribly that a breakaway university was formed at Cambridge. In the 14th century, dozens of Oxford scholars died when townspeople stormed the campus.

In our time, campus protests rocked America in the 1930s and 1960s. France's 1960s student riots triggered a national election. But even without this kind of drama, town-gown relations continue to vex both university and civic leaders. Townspeople often see scholars as elitist, students as transients with unsettling attitudes, and college administrators as manipulators of local politics for aims that may run counter to community interests. And then there's the disruption that gentrifying campus expansion can inflict on poor neighborhoods.

Some colleges work actively to combat these perceptions. Drexel University President John Fry says his institution aims to become the nation's most civically engaged university. Its Center for Neighborhood Partnerships in Philadelphia offers residents of a poor black neighborhood, Mantua, welcome free services such as Internet coaching, help in finding work, legal aid and money-management advice.

Many U.S. colleges provide interesting case studies in what to do -- and what not to do -- in building sound long-term town-gown relationships. A good example of what to avoid is arguably illustrated by the College of Southern Maryland (CSM), which has three campuses suitable for expansion, plus an option to use another 15 acres of free land, but is instead moving to create a brand-new extra campus in a tiny, remote agricultural settlement, Hughesville, necessitating the purchase at public expense of raw farmland in an environmentally sensitive watershed.

State and county authorities have pledged to protect such areas, but CSM has managed to secure an exception. A new technology building will be paid for with public funds, despite the availability of an existing building suited to this use, and the new campus will be so isolated that people commuting to it will place a major traffic burden on the only route to an important naval facility, while public money would have to be used to provide the campus with utilities and roads.

This instance of questionable campus expansion is instructive not only because its environmental, financial and infrastructural choices seem doomed to come back to haunt the college and its political enablers once locals start seeing the consequences, but also because it illustrates how easily opportunities to build good community relations can be missed. By expanding an existing campus, public cost and environmental impact would be minimized. By choosing the county seat, La Plata, as the venue for this expansion, both college and town would profit, since campus development would fortuitously fold into the next growth phase of an established governmental, residential and commercial population of some 9,000, including present and future college students.

All of this illuminates two lessons for successful town-gown relationship management. First, like Drexel University, colleges must be alert to opportunities to serve their surrounding communities via creative synergy. Second, the more colleges insulate themselves from the community, the more inward-looking their development decisions become, with results that often come to be regretted all around. On the other hand, colleges that engage with the people of the communities surrounding them and integrate their planning into the sustainability of town and region will ultimately and inevitably be embraced as valued corporate citizens.