The President's Role in Cultivating Positive Town-Gown Relations: College Presidents Should Strive to Engage Their Colleges and Communities to Develop a College Town Atmosphere and Economy

Article excerpt

Introduction

A college president has a tremendous responsibility to not only run the institution wisely, but also to cultivate a strong relationship with the town that houses the institution. This means, in part, being both as good a neighbor as possible and a careful steward of the institution's economic influence on the community. While historically there has often been conflict, or at least discord, between town and gown, it has become increasingly important for colleges to be actively involved in promoting economic and cultural development within their communities and, more generally, to have a strong, positive influence on the community overall. While this may be expressed in specific projects and activities, ultimately what colleges can do best is help to instill a "college town" ambiance within their communities. As college recruiters and academic leaders confirm, the economic, cultural, and intellectual atmosphere typical of a college town helps recruit and retain students and staff and improves the quality of life for both community members and college personnel.

Thesis

There are a number of benefits, both tangible and intangible, that result from developing partnerships intended to create a college town atmosphere. These benefits accrue to both the institution and the community. Of course, these partnerships are rife with potential pitfalls and, at the very least, often have a history of ambivalence to overcome. Nonetheless, college presidents should strive to engage their colleges and communities in partnerships to develop a college town atmosphere and economy. In this way, colleges can both create a positive environment for their staff and students and play a constructive role in their communities.

College presidents should strive to engage their colleges and communities to develop a college town atmosphere and economy.

College Towns Defined

In suggesting that college presidents can benefit their institutions by helping to establish a college town atmosphere, we should begin by asking, "What exactly is a college town?" While a college town is often viewed positively, it has some negative aspects as well, as a study by Blake Gumprecht (2003) confirms. On the positive side, college towns typically have a lower median age, higher educational attainment, greater white-collar employment, lower overall unemployment, higher family income, and more cosmopolitan and diverse environment. Conversely, college towns typically have more people renting and living in group housing with living habits that can cause entire areas around the college to be eschewed by the community (often called "student slums") and higher transiency rates that lead to a disconnect between students and townspeople. The resulting negative impact on property values has led many cities to adopt ordinances designed to protect single-family neighborhoods from becoming "group homes" for students (Gumprecht 2003). However, students' enormous purchasing power can also have a strongly positive effect on the local economy. Restaurants, pubs, music and book stores, trendy shops, and even tattoo parlors spring up in business districts around the college, providing employment, an increased tax base, and economic diversity.

Perhaps most important, in communities with a strong college town ambiance, the institution is central to the community and has a strong cultural and aesthetic impact on it. The college's open, often historic, green space provides a pastoral, parklike atmosphere, and the influx of young people creates a kind of city-within-the-city. The college provides the community with cultural outlets it might not ordinarily have and an economic base that allows entertainment districts to succeed. This is not altogether accidental, as colleges typically seek to provide students with a broad range of "learning" activities that extend beyond the traditional classroom (although alcohol abuse and other untenable habits are often found in these districts). …