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Good Neighbors
Good Neighbors

Campuses develop innovative outreach programs to partner with their communities

By Jennifer J. Salopek


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Whether they realize it or not, almost every campus is home to a sleeping giant. The giant can slumber for years, but it's often cranky when awakened.

The giant's name? Town-gown relations.

Wake-up calls that rouse the giant come at varying times and at varying decibel levels, but for most institutions, they do eventually come. For the University of Virginia, it was the project dubbed "Monster Garage." For Dalhousie University, it was banning smoking on campus. And for Denison University, it was a discriminatory incident of intolerance.

But for these institutions, and many others like them, the new relationships they developed with their neighboring communities in the aftermath of the wake-up call have grown to be valuable and thriving.

Town and gown issues have been a perennial concern for educational institutions. Neighbors have long complained of insensitive building and development, parking and transportation problems, student drinking, and a variety of other issues. Although the complaints may differ for urban universities (off-campus students as renters, curbside trash) and more rural ones (insularity, disrespectful behavior), institutions of all kinds have been paying greater attention to their host communities and attempting to become better neighbors.

"Colleges and universities have become far more willing to consider the community point of view in their planning," says Mark Beck, capital planning director for the University System of Maryland. "Some institutions learned this years ago, and some are only now finding the value in sitting down with the neighbors."

Beck has been working with community members in his job for more than 20 years. He observes that the communities have changed, too: "Neighbors have become more informed. This is probably the result of the development of communication methods that get more information to more people more quickly," he says. "Neighbors have also become far more aware of their options for expressing their concerns, and technology has made it easier for them to share those concerns with decision makers who can help promote their cause."

Although the issues may vary from one institution to the next, many great solutions can have wide applicability. Colleges and universities are developing innovative communication vehicles and partnerships, many enabled by technology (see sidebar at the end of this article), that bring new harmony to their neighborhoods.

"Monster Garage"

At the University of Virginia, a seemingly innocent plan to build a much-needed parking garage created a furor within a nearby residential community.

"The genesis of our office in its current format came in 2002, when the university wanted to build a large parking garage on Ivy Road [in Charlottesville]," explains Ida Lee Wootten, UVa director of community relations. "When the plan was announced to residents of the adjacent neighborhood, they erupted in anger and worked tirelessly to 'stop the monster garage' and halt construction. That one project fostered a new level of community activism among the university's neighbors and clearly showed the need for the university to improve communications with those neighbors."

UVa's reaction was multipronged and involved listening as well as talking. Small community advisory groups were formed for each of the five neighborhoods that abut university property. Wootten and her colleagues held a series of luncheon meetings with the groups to ascertain other issues that were critical to local residents. One thing they learned was that students in off-campus rental housing often didn't know their neighbors and didn't know how to be good neighbors, so new communication plans targeted students and residents both. Some of UVa's innovations:

  • the Good Neighbor Guide, a publication to help students understand their rights and responsibilities as temporary residents of a "host community"
  • a magnet that provides neighborhood residents with a list of contacts to call about student conduct problems
  • an electronic newsletter that goes out regularly to neighbors
  • an electronic notification system for neighbors that alerts them to planned events that might result in increased traffic or noise
  • "Neighbor 2 Neighbor" events held once a semester that bring students and their neighbors together for lunch and a local cleanup effort

"We have found that if people know their neighbors, they are more respectful of their lifestyle differences. Many students now advise their neighbors of upcoming parties, and if things get out of control, local residents know whom at the university to call," says Wootten. "Further, all of our new outreach products and programs stand as tangible proof that the university recognizes and responds to resident concerns."

It takes a village

Community relations issues are very different for Denison University, located in Granville, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. Denison's 1,000-acre campus is well bounded from the village of Granville and provides "more property than we need to build on," says President Dale Knobel. Thanks to several new housing projects, all 2,100 full-time students live on campus.

"The town and the college have grown up together. The net result is that a significant portion of the community is Denison faculty, staff, and alumni," Knobel explains. "For the most part, it has been a very congenial and comfortable relationship. However, the university is far more diverse than the surrounding community."

In the fall of 2007, some incidents involving racial slurs, homophobic graffiti, and other acts of intolerance rocked Denison. "There had been a slow accumulation of those types of acts. At first, they were less malicious than careless or thoughtless, but it seemed to be a sort of slow drip. We began to wonder, 'Are our values slipping? Why can't we stop these incidents?'" Knobel says.

Knobel called a campuswide time-out in November 2007, gathering 2,200 members of the Denison community together in the university's field house for a frank conversation about diversity. At its conclusion, Knobel challenged the campus and its surrounding community to keep the conversation going.

In April 2008, a coalition of Denison students, faculty, and administrators did just that by holding a public town and gown discussion with local residents. Much of the discussion centered on creating structures to bring students and Granville residents together. Black and gay students spoke frankly about feeling uncomfortable while shopping or dining in the village. Suggestions for improvement included such ideas as linking incoming students with local host families.

"The conversation was surprising and touching," says Knobel. "The students expressed a very old-fashioned yearning to be engaged in the life of the community. It was a throwback to the 1950s and probably flies in the face of realities of modern life."

Knobel notes that one key piece of information that emerged during the public discussion was that local residents were unaware of existing Denison programs, such as student outreach initiatives and referrals to houses of worship. He plans further improvements.

"We have said to the community that it needs to help us become more welcoming for a diverse faculty, staff, and student body. The channels of communication are very open."

Safety and security ... for everyone

In the wake of the murders last spring at Virginia Tech, all schools within the University of North Carolina system were mandated to identify and fill gaps in their communications around student safety issues. Appalachian State University, in Boone, North Carolina, is going "above and beyond," according to Kendal McDevitt, the university's new coordinator of the Office of Off-Campus Community Relations. Her position was created in the fall of 2007.

"We are very clear about the kinds of student conduct violations we are going to address, and we assume off-campus jurisdiction," she explains. "We are consistently enforcing our policies and are trying to be proactive.

"We have participated in local and national conversations about student safety issues," McDevitt continues. "Although many of us do not currently have a problem, all of us realize that we could."

Since the creation of her office, McDevitt has worked to consolidate and address wide-ranging concerns about student behavior, including off-campus housing, parking and transportation, and health and safety. Her goal is to develop relationships that will effect environmental change, as she works with law enforcement, landlords, neighbors, students, and the court system.

One of the innovations she oversees is the new Town and Gown Committee, a joint creation of Appalachian State and the Town of Boone that was actually proposed by a member of ASU's student government. The committee held its first meeting in April, during which it devised a mission statement and a schedule for future meetings. The 13 representatives agreed that there was a need for formal, regular meetings to address issues in a proactive manner and to foster communication between the entities.

McDevitt describes the first meeting: "There was a strong sense of curiosity, of people asking, 'Why are we being called together?' There was a great sense of optimism, and the committee members were definitely united in their desire to create mutual dialogue, respect, and cooperation."

You can't manage what you don't measure

Dalhousie University is an urban institution of 15,000 students in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a town of 360,000 full-time residents. Dalhousie has more than 100 buildings but no discrete campus or institutional boundaries. Its wake-up call came in 2003 with what Mary Somers, senior communications adviser, calls a "perfect storm" of events.

In 2003, Ontario eliminated grade 13 from its high schools. As a result, that year's entering freshmen classes swelled with grade 12 and grade 13 graduates, and 17-year-olds headed straight to college or university. Before that year, college and university freshmen across Canada had been 18 or 19. Also during 2003, Dalhousie banned smoking on university property. According to Somers, Halifax was undergoing a cultural shift as well, as neighbors became less tolerant of poor student behavior.

The smoking ban had an unintended effect: It forced smokers off university property, and they ended up standing in front of residents' houses, puffing away.

"All of a sudden, citizens were making complaining phone calls to five or six university offices at once," Somers says. The university called a neighborhood meeting, which Somers describes as "packed with 300 angry residents."

University officials realized that neither Halifax law enforcement nor the citizens had a clear access point into the institution to have their concerns addressed. To fill that gap, they created the Community Committee, a group comprising nine students and eight residents, plus representatives from police, business organizations, and city government. The committee, which met monthly at first, now meets quarterly.

"The committee has become a catalyst for change. It is hugely successful," Somers says.

The university's communications and marketing department also created some new resources to foster two-way education and communication, including a guide for students and a brochure for neighbors. In its most proactive move, the university funded a police patrol, paying two officers' salaries so that a designated car can cruise local neighborhoods on weekends and holidays, looking out for safety, noise, and alcohol violations.

For institutions looking to improve their community relations, measuring and evaluating efforts is critical, Somers emphasizes. She regularly surveys students and residents of close-in neighborhoods to ensure that Dalhousie's outreach and improvement programs are having the desired effect. The survey process, which is conducted door-to-door by current students, also has the happy consequence of bringing students and residents together face-to-face.

"The neighbors are far more receptive and forthcoming with our student surveyors, and we get a larger response rate than we would with mail-in surveys," she says. The biggest surprise result? "The number of students who comment that their neighbors are 'awesome.'"

Meeting the challenge

Whether urban or rural, small or large, institutions are increasingly recognizing the importance of positive community relations and are creating innovative structures through which to facilitate communication and partnerships with their neighbors. While there is much that benefits both institution and residents, the work also rewards the professionals who perform it, says Maryland's Beck.

"The community-related part of my job became one of the most enjoyable things I did at work. Even now, most of the positive-though obviously challenging- activities I remember through the years are those that involved working to solve problems with people who sometimes stood in opposition to my institutional perspective.

"You never feel more job satisfaction than after you've worked through some of these difficult issues and come out on the other side with some level of understanding with the community."

About the Author Jennifer J. Salopek

Jennifer J. Salopek is a freelance writer based in Mclean, Virginia, and a contributing editor to CURRENTS.

 

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