It’s a well-known pattern in development shops: a donor learns of a need at an institution and makes a gift to facilitate a solution. But what if the need is in the community, not on campus?
That’s what happened in 2020 at the University of Auckland, when Steven Dakin, head of the School of Optometry, spoke out about the lack of available vision screening programs for young children in New Zealand—one in 10 of whom have correctable but unaddressed vision problems. Dakin suggested a mobile clinic that could easily bring vision testing to people who otherwise were unlikely to have access to such screenings. Two of the university’s donors stepped up to fund the Aotearoa Vision Bus, which will provide the vision screening and correction many children need while supporting vital research on the prevalence of eye conditions and vision loss, as well as training the next generation of optometrists.
“In recent years, we’ve had several examples—like the Vision Bus—of fundraising helping us to be far more active in our local communities,” says Mark Bentley, director of alumni relations and development at the University of Auckland. “Our donors have been seeking out opportunities to impact disadvantaged people and neighborhoods and have encouraged us to move beyond our campus.”
Looking outside the campus community and striving to serve the city, state, or region in which the college or university is located is exactly what higher education institutions should be doing, says John Goddard, vice chair of the U.K.’s Civic University Commission and author of The Civic University: The Policy and Leadership Challenges. The U.K.’s University Partnerships Programme launched the commission in 2018 to examine the economic, social, environmental, and cultural role that universities play in their towns and cities.
“Civic engagement, or service and collaboration with the local population, needs to be embedded into the mission of an institution; it needs to be embedded into the teaching and the research and owned by the leadership,” he says. It’s important to note, adds Goddard, that being a civic university isn’t just about completing one-off projects. It’s about building long-term, trust-based relationships with civil society—locally as well as globally—and creating transformational programs to foster those connections.
Collaborative relationships between colleges or universities and their communities—often referred to as town-gown relations—can contribute to an improved quality of life for everyone involved. From economic growth and development to attracting diverse talent to addressing inequalities, town-gown relations can enhance all aspects of a community.
According to the Field Guide for Urban University-Community Partnerships from the University of Virginia’s Thriving Cities Lab, “institutions possess a variety of resources (intellectual, human, financial, etc.) that can support their local communities in addressing key challenges. …Today, a university or university-affiliated hospital is the most significant employer in over one-third of the urban areas in the U.S.” Additionally, in their article, “The Economic Impact of Universities: Evidence from Across the Globe,” researchers with the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research found that “a 10% increase in the number of universities in a region is associated with about 0.4% higher [gross domestic product] per capita.” And it’s not just employment and economic boosts that institutions contribute to their communities; it’s also innovation and knowledge. As stated in the Universities UK 2017 report, The Economic Impact of Universities in 2014-15, “The research universities undertake also benefits the supply-side of the economy leading to the development of new products, enhancing productive processes and fostering innovation more broadly. In 2014-15, universities undertook some £7.9 billion worth of research.”
While it may seem that a huge budget—in terms of staff and resources—is necessary to carry out town-gown relations, institutions of all types and sizes can, and should, be engaging with their communities.
“Budget considerations are just one piece, but not the whole picture,” says Poppy Humphrey, off-campus student affairs officer at Manchester Student Homes and North West representative of the UK Town and Gown Association. “It’s about having shared interests, an appreciation of partnership, process, and dynamism, and a recognition that these things should be a priority for [both town and gown] and ensuring there is a robust framework in place to manage issues.”
Beth Bagwell, executive director of the International Town & Gown Association (founded in 2008 to work on campus-community interests in 43 states, Canada, and the U.K.), agrees. “Relationship building is applicable across the board,” she says. “You don’t have to be a massive research institution in order to impact your community.”
From an institutional perspective, there are numerous ways to organize town-gown relations with various budgetary considerations including dedicated community outreach departments or staff, public engagement liaisons, or civic partnership committees.
According to Bagwell, at least half of ITGA’s membership have some sort of town-gown advisory committee comprising university and municipal staff.
“Regardless of the organization of the group, the priority is an open channel of communication—having a place to go, or a person to go to, when you’re trying to solve a problem,” she says.
This coordinated approach—having a point of contact for community members and engaging in regular communications—is something many institutions are beginning to recognize as a priority.
“Up until recently, community engagement at our university was not owned by any specific division or committee, and everyone was conducting their own community outreach,” says the University of Auckland’s Bentley. “The result of this ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach was often innovative, but also time consuming and full of duplication or poor coordination.”
Now, under a new strategic plan, the university has a strategic engagement division that will set the direction and values and lead much of the community engagement activity.
Areas of Collaboration
There are numerous ways for institutions to engage their communities, ranging from simple logistical arrangements to in-depth research programs aimed at improving the region.
“It could be as simple as making sure that our calendar is on the city’s agenda and the city’s calendar is on our agenda,” says Susan Stafford, assistant executive director of ITGA and former director of off-campus housing and neighborhood relations at the University of Colorado, U.S. This communication allows for planning around events that could affect traffic, such as move-in day or football games. It can also help local hotels know when to expect an influx of visitors, such as graduation weekends.
Another common area of collaboration between towns and gowns is around off-campus housing (and behavior) of students. In fact, many institutions have staff dedicated to this issue. In the U.K., the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University have teamed up to fund Manchester Student Homes, a free, university-run housing service for students. In addition to accrediting landlords, serving as a search engine for available housing, and providing guidance to students looking to move off-campus, Manchester Student Homes also provides information on living in the community.
“Our primary objective is to welcome students to the city and educate them about what it means to be an honorary Mancunian. We ensure that the students coming into a town and the residents who already live there can exist amicably and that we can create inclusive environments,” says Humphrey.
In the United States, Pennsylvania State University also recognizes the importance of building relationships between students and their non-student neighbors.
“We’re in a community where we have big age gaps, so you might have college students living next to retirees. And that doesn’t have to be a contentious relationship; we can actually help one another and live harmoniously together,” says Charima Young, director of local government and community relations at Penn State.
One successful initiative for bridging that age gap is the Neighbor to Neighbor program started by the Highlands Civic Association, which pairs Penn State fraternities with local families to interact in positive ways. For example, fraternity members might provide yardwork or snow removal for their neighbors, or residents might introduce fraternity members to career contacts.
On top of fostering neighborly relationships and helping students become educated citizens, another area of cooperation between towns and gowns is addressing community needs. In New Zealand, in addition to the Vision Bus, the University of Auckland has also created STEM Online NZ—free, interactive modules for science and math standards. Recognizing that a shortage of science teachers was leading to children from underprivileged backgrounds not getting into university because of poor grades in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math), the university produced these resources to help teachers who are not subject specialists teach STEM topics.
Community needs can be addressed by individual projects like those at the University of Auckland, or, on a larger scale, in the form of a dedicated public engagement outfit such as the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Created in 2004, the Harris Centre’s mission is to facilitate partnerships between the university and the province’s people.
“There are already a lot of hardwired connections between the university and the community, but my unit is responsible for finding those areas where there are potential opportunities to collaborate more and helping to initiate the conversations or helping to secure research funding. We basically put complementary people in a room who would otherwise never meet,” says Robert Greenwood, associate vice president of public engagement and external relations and director of the Harris Centre.
In addition to hosting public policy forums and completing research projects through the Regional Analytics Laboratory, the Harris Centre provides funding for research partnerships through the Thriving Regions Partnership Process. That program identifies key research priorities throughout the regions of Newfoundland and Labrador and then matches faculty members and students interested in completing research in those areas with the people of those regions, ultimately creating partnership projects funded by Memorial University; the provincial Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry, and Innovation; and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
“Most [people] at a university want to make a difference in their communities, and if we can help facilitate communications and connect their knowledge with community members so that partnerships can form, that’s when magic happens,” Greenwood says.
The COVID Effect
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for collaborative relationships between towns and gowns and, in some cases, even strengthened existing partnerships.
That was certainly the case for Iowa State University, U.S.
“Anything that we do, we understand that it has an impact on the city and the county and the state,” says Erin Baldwin, associate vice president of student health and wellness and incident commander for Iowa State’s public health response. “We were really fortunate [when COVID-19 emerged] that we had existing relationships in [the city of] Ames and in Story County.”
In addition to health and wellness partners such as the McFarland Clinic system and Story County Public Health, ISU was already working closely with local transit offices, fire services, and police departments. The university is also part of an Emergency Operations Center that coordinates services across the county during large-scale events—such as a public health crisis.
“We have all of these longstanding relationships, but when the pandemic hit, it brought even more people—new partners—to the table, and we’ve built stronger partnerships that we’ll be able to tap into moving forward,” says Michael Newton, associate vice president of public safety and chief of police for ISU.
At the end of January 2020, Iowa State initiated a pandemic response planning team and began meeting with community partners—representatives from healthcare organizations, city mayors, the Board of Supervisors, the Chamber of Commerce, even U.S. Senator Joni Ernst’s office—on a weekly basis.
“It’s not just that we’ve gotten to work with new people, but that we’ve gotten to know everyone on a deeper level,” says Newton. “We’ve built this relationship where we all feel comfortable continuing to reach out to one another and saying what needs to be said or asking for what we need.”
Penn State also leveraged existing relationships to create a COVID-19 task force composed of university representatives, city officials, and hospital personnel. And, like the partnerships at Iowa State, these will likely continue in the future.
“Our task force is one of those things that has been so useful, it’s something that we’ll want to keep around,” says Young at Penn State.
“Having a collaborative unit like the task force could really make a difference in terms of troubleshooting future issues that may arise.”
In addition to task forces or working groups, both Penn State and ISU implemented successful communications campaigns to share messaging across town and gown communities.
At Penn State, the strategic communications team employed focus groups of students, community members, and community leaders to determine what theme or slogan would resonate with people and encourage them to wear their masks.
“We really wanted to have a unified message about what it would mean to the community as a whole, and we were able to create the same signage for campus and for our local municipalities,” says Young.
Similarly, Iowa State’s “Cyclones Care” campaign focused on actions that individuals could take—wearing a mask, washing their hands, social distancing—to support their communities, whether that was the campus community, the city, or the county.
“Having the same branding and messaging on campus and around town shows that we all care and we’re all in this together, and hopefully that brings about change in our environment,” says Baldwin.
“We’re already thinking about how we can take that ‘Cyclones Care’ philosophy and apply it to future campaigns.”
Whether they existed before COVID-19 or were created in response to the pandemic, it’s important for the communication channels between institutions and their communities to remain open.
“Now that relationships have been established, don’t let the barriers go back up,” says ITGA’s Bagwell. “I think of town and gown relations as being very issue dependent. Sometimes we’re all on the same page and sometimes we’re not, but we can always work it out if we’re at the table talking.”
Build Relationships with Your Community
If your institution doesn’t have a strong relationship with the local community, there are steps you can take to introduce town-gown collaboration:
Start now. Initiate a conversation with the mayor’s office or another city or regional department with which you’d like to partner before there’s an issue or emergency. “I always tell my team that you don’t want to be exchanging business cards for the first time when an issue arises,” says Michael Newton, associate vice president of public safety and chief of police at Iowa State University.
Meet them where they are. “Just like with any relationship, when you’re trying to get to know someone, you have to spend quality time where they are, not necessarily inviting them to where you are,” says Charima Young, director of local government and community relations for Penn State. “Getting into their space and understanding the challenges and the successes that they’ve had is essential.”
Listen. Once you’ve introduced yourself and made the effort to meet your potential partners on their own turf, focus on hearing what they have to say. “Take the time to listen to community needs and attitudes without defensiveness or judgement,” says Mark Bentley, director of alumni relations and development for the University of Auckland.
Take advantage of networks and professional associations. Don’t assume your institution is the first one, or the only one, dealing with a particular issue. “Resources like the International Town and Gown Association are absolutely invaluable,” says Poppy Humphrey, off-campus student affairs officer at Manchester Student Homes. “Tap into existing networks to see what works for your peer institutions.”
While town-gown relations and civic universities are most often talked about in terms of four-year institutions, community colleges are great examples of these collaborative relationships.
“We always say we are the community’s college—we essentially belong to the community,” says Jody Donaldson, director of advancement at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S. “We respond to municipal needs, whether that’s workforce needs or a situation or issue that has come up in the community.”
Kirkwood does not have designated community relations staff or a town-gown advisory board, yet there are numerous examples of collaborative affiliations between the college and the surrounding areas.
In terms of workforce needs, Kirkwood has several local partnerships that facilitate both educational opportunities for students and economic opportunities for the community. The Iowa Equestrian Center and the Hotel at Kirkwood, for example, serve as event spaces for the public while also housing an equine management continuing education program and a for-credit hospitality program, respectively.
In 2008, when the Cedar River flooded much of Cedar Rapids, Kirkwood responded to the community’s needs in multiple ways. Because the campus was spared from the flooding and boasts 680 acres, the college was able to house displaced organizations such as Alliant Energy and the Linn County government offices, including the courts. Additionally, Kirkwood turned the Iowa Equestrian Center into an emergency animal shelter.
And it was more of the same when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Kirkwood was able to set up an emergency fund to help students who weren’t prepared to be out of work, and the college provided laptops and internet to students who weren’t set up to take classes online.
“It really boils down to just being responsive to whatever’s happening in our community,” says Donaldson.
Article appears in:
Town-Gown Relations: How and why institutions should collaborate with their communities. Plus, understanding alumni personas, navigating nontraditional paths to advancement, and creating a new normal as institutions return to campus.