• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Regional relations

Town and gown.  How long we've all heard about the tension between a college or university and the community that surrounds it.  As a trope, it's been around for decades -- maybe longer.

February 18, 2013

Town and gown.  How long we've all heard about the tension between a college or university and the community that surrounds it.  As a trope, it's been around for decades -- maybe longer.

I've lived in a number of "college towns", and a number of towns with colleges; the town/gown split has been apparent in almost every one.  And it's been understandable in almost every one because in the vast majority of cases, the college/university has been clear about the fact that it might be in the town, but it wasn't of the town, and it most certainly wasn't for the town.  Oh, local HS graduates could certainly apply, could be admitted, might even be granted some special preference or financial aid.  But the purpose of the college wasn't, in any real sense, to improve the fortunes or prospects of the local community in most cases.  There's no reason that should remain generally true, and at least a couple of reasons why it should change.

First, it's important to recognize that location can be a long-term strategic differentiator.  In many countries, as in the USA before the GI Bill, the location of a school or the association of a school with a particular state or region is a major factor in where students decide to attend  university.  Admittedly, it's not the only factor, but it's a big one.  Many US universities -- in the never-ending battle for truth, justice and higher US News rankings -- have made major efforts to diversify their student bodies geographically.  And a geographically diverse student body (as a culturally, ethnically, socio-economically or otherwise diverse one) does add value to a learning environment.  But geographic diversity of students isn't an unmixed blessing; while it would be hard to isolate the effects of geographically diverse student populations from all the factors that influence cost of education, it's hard to see how recruiting students whose homes are ever further from campus could decrease the costs of education and easy to envision how it might serve to drive costs up.

But at least as important as the student population served is the lack of local focus that most curricula exhibit.  Most of the truths taught on Greenback's campus are presented in the abstract or as universally applicable.  To the extent that veracity is demonstrated, then, it's generally demonstrated by logical extrapolation based on to earlier academic work or by means of research conducted far from Backboro.  That an important theory or understanding could be demonstrated locally is perhaps assumed, but local demonstration rarely occurs (with the possible exception of demos in science labs, and those -- by design -- are generally location-independent).  As a result, the question of how a particular theory applies, or what the local implications of a particular understanding might be, never becomes part of most students' learning experiences.

I'm at least partially wrong here, but my bet is that colleges and universities who emphasize their local and regional recruiting for students, and who incorporate local demonstrations -- local projects, local analyses, local experiments -- into their standard curricula, will find that an increasing percentage of their alumni settle near campus.  That (combined with a deeper and more localized understanding in each alum) would seem likely to benefit the community, and the college, and the reputation of the college in the town.  Even if it's not generally recognized as a "college town".


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