Making the Town-Gown Marriage Work

A harmonious relationship benefits both sides. Community leaders need to take a more active role in pursuing and nurturing that.
April 3, 2017
By Stephen M. Gavazzi  |  Contributor
Dean of Ohio State University's Mansfield regional campus and a professor of human sciences

In what now seems an almost quaint bygone era, men and women adhered to some rather rigid social codes about courtship and marriage. It was usually up to men, for example, to make the first move. In today's dating culture, men and women are much freer to act in ways that are decidedly less stereotypical and more egalitarian.

In parallel fashion, it often has been the case that college and university administrators and municipal officials followed a code of conduct much like the traditional one that dominated the dating relationship in that bygone era. Town-gown dialogue largely seems to have been generated when someone from the campus expressed interest in pursuing a relationship with a partner in the community. But as with the modern dating scene, it may be time to re-think how these town-gown relationships are initiated and maintained so that both parties realize the maximum benefits.

As the dean of Ohio State University's regional campus in Mansfield, I've thought a lot about these relationships. And as a couples and family therapist, I have worked to take the guesswork out of understanding and measuring them by applying my background in the dynamics of marriage. I have identified four main types of town-gown "marriages" based on two separate yet related dimensions that matter most in terms of understanding the different ways that campuses and communities relate to one another. The first dimension involves the level of comfort between higher education and community partners. The second centers on the level of effort or energy required to maintain the present state of the town-gown relationship.

As with marriage, the "harmonious" relationship is the most desirable and effective type, and is defined by both high comfort levels and high levels of effort. This type of town-gown relationship is developed when there is a strong emphasis on the pursuit of mutually beneficial goals in tandem with great respect for the differing objectives of the academic institution and the community.

The "traditional" type represents a marriage of convenience, one in which each partner's individual goals are much easier to define than what "our" goals might be. While comfort levels remain fairly high in this arrangement, it is often as not because campus and community members simply ignore each other as they pursue their own individual goals.

The "conflicted" type comes about when campus and community leaders are expending significant amounts of effort in dealing with each other but comfort levels are relatively low due to friction between the partners. When campuses and communities cannot adequately settle their differences, they can end up repeatedly fighting old battles alongside efforts to handle new concerns.

Last and certainly least among the four types is the "devitalized" relationship, where the hallmark is both low comfort and low effort. There is general unease between the partners, and little is being done about it.

Moving this work out of the ivory tower and into a more practical realm, my colleagues and I have developed a way of measuring comfort and effort levels by asking campus and community partners about their perceptions of each other. Known as the Optimal College Town Assessment, this measure has now been used by dozens of campuses and communities.

What has become abundantly clear from this type of work is that municipal leaders whose goal is to improve the marriage cannot wait around for campus representatives to become interested in town-gown issues. Local leaders may be waiting a very, very long time for the phone to ring. These days, many higher-education leaders report feeling under siege, largely as the value of a college degree is scrutinized more closely. The current political climate has made these administrators quite reluctant to move out of their comfort zones, and town-gown work is not something that comes naturally to many of them.

As a result, community leaders should become active suitors. Municipalities stand to gain a great deal from collaborative efforts undertaken with their higher-education partners. And colleges and universities would be able to develop stronger narratives about the return on investment garnered by institutions of higher learning that are willing to engage with the communities in which they are embedded.