Town-gown relations

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A professor who's also a mayor examines the issues surrounding off-campus housing (essay)

It's the end of summer, and residents of college towns across the country are bracing themselves for the onslaught. Within a few weeks, the population of my town will more than double. Our now peaceful streets will be clogged with cars and bicycles. The gentle sounds of cicadas and chirping birds will be replaced by student parties and the deep bass from students’ cars. Lawns and sidewalks will become adorned with discarded furniture, moving boxes and empty beer cans. The local police will begin their annual patrol for underage drinking and noise violations.

Thus continues another academic cycle. But one aspect is sorely underreported and widely misunderstood by observers of contemporary higher education: the story of off-campus student housing.

As mayor of the college town of Oxford, Ohio, as well as a 25-year resident of the town and a professor at Miami University, I have seen the breadth of this topic, particularly in my past six years serving on city council and two years as mayor. The problems of off-campus housing are comparative in seriousness to any other crucial issue concerning college campuses and municipalities and speak directly to the relationship of higher education institutions to their communities.

Two-thirds of all college students live in off-campus housing. They live in large groups in old family houses; in smaller groups in refitted apartments in such houses; in modern apartment complexes complete with swimming pools, mini theaters, exercise rooms and party clubhouses; in rooming houses where they rent individual rooms; and in modern condos that they or their parents buy for the duration of their college career.  Students choose to live near their gym, their lab or the local strip of college bars. In many college towns, like my own, they live in densely populated regions of town where virtually all of their neighbors are their peers -- living, partying and enjoying a community of their own making.

At many colleges and universities, students live off campus their entire four years. At others, like the one where I work, residency requirements keep students on the campus for their first two years, and then they are all but required to live off campus. Due to the shortage of residence hall housing, there simply is no room for juniors and seniors. Those students, who have spent two years under the watchful eye of trained student affairs hall directors, are now sent out to sign their own lease, do their own housekeeping, uphold the law and learn how to live with neighbors. 

And they do this largely on their own, joining a century-long tradition of higher education neglect.

This phenomenon is not new: American college students have always lived off campus. Indeed, well through the mid-20th century, most college students did, as few institutions had the economic capacity to develop residence halls. Furthermore, the concept of college as a total institution of social and personal growth did not exist. Only with enrollment booms in the years after World War II did most colleges develop purposeful on-campus residential programs, aided in large part by increased state and federal funding for housing and by the emerging student affairs profession.

As on-campus residence life programming increased, colleges and universities largely ignored the many students who still lived off the campus to the extent that in 1959, the newly organized Association of College and University Housing Officers called off-campus housing "the neglected stepchild of university life." The 1960s and ’70s saw an explosion of off-campus housing, due to high interest rates and decreasing state and federal funding that led to the virtual freezing of residence-hall construction, and students’ increased interest in social freedom. As students flooded the local housing markets, universities developed a tricky dance of claiming that off-campus housing was not their responsibility, even if they provided recommendations and guidance for housing rentals through small off-campus housing offices.

Myriad Issues

Today, off-campus housing remains largely a neglected stepchild, raising a legion of issues, circling around the main question of institutional responsibility beyond the campus. Who supervises students in an environment designed for limited adult supervision? What is the legal and moral responsibility of the institution over the student who attends class on campus but lives in private housing off campus? Who should bear the cost of city services such as garbage pickup and police and emergency services demanded of high-density off-campus student neighborhoods, particularly as the institution’s property is tax-exempt?

In a college town, one of the most contentious community issues is the saturation of the housing market with student-oriented housing at the expense of family and moderate-income housing. Common concerns in my community include the deterioration of lovely old homes now packed with student renters and the increased litter and noise in high-student-density areas. In recent years, large for-profit student housing development corporations have entered college towns to take advantage of broad zoning codes to build housing that is by definition "single family" but designed with college students as the primary audience (small bedrooms, small kitchen, large living room and youth-oriented services like weight rooms, pools and buses to the campus). My city’s housing market is unnaturally shaped for college students: a four-bedroom house often lists its rents by semester, and a single room in that unit may cost as much as $1,000 a month.

In addition, off-campus house parties have become a significant health and safety issue in college towns. While bars are considered the favored coin of the realm of college drinking, huge and unsupervised house parties have proven to be more dangerous and costly in human life as well as institutional reputation.

The increasing danger of off-campus house parties may be the crisis that lurches colleges and universities into paying more attention to off-campus life. According to the National Institutes of Health, almost 2,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die every year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including car crashes. While the national data do not distinguish location, a simple search of news sources reveals that many student tragedies happen at unsupervised off-campus parties (including an increasing number of shootings, stabbings and serious injuries from party brawls).

While such behavior on campuses leads to strong administrative responses, off-campus student behavior is largely left to city first responders to manage: after all, legal violations in the city are the city’s responsibility, whoever the violator is. Although students are held accountable for off-campus actions under federal guidelines, such as the 1990 Clery Act, and many college and university codes of conduct, the organization and supervision of off-campus student housing remains legally tenuous. Institutions are often hesitant to get involved with the off-campus housing process for fear of appearing to endorse off-campus properties, thereby putting the institution at risk for liability or appearing to favor any particular landlord.

In staffing matters, too, institutions maintain a hands-off attitude. At my university, the off-campus office consists of a single staff member, half of whose time is assigned to other duties in student affairs. That person helps 8,000 students coordinate their off-campus housing, while the on-campus residence life offices that supervises the other 8,000 students who live on the campus consists of 12 full-time professionals, plus residence hall assistants and full-time directors in each residence hall.

The work of off-campus housing staff is more than just managing housing issues for students but also involves reaching across the institution and the community, working with the student judicial and health and wellness offices, campus security and local police, city officials, landlords, and lawyers and psychologists.

Fortunately, colleges and towns have begun to address what many see as the Wild West of off-campus housing. At the annual International Town and Gown Association meeting earlier this summer, over 200 institutional and city representatives from college towns across North America and England met for three days at the University of Oregon to pick one another's brains for strategies for addressing these and other problems.  

Some suggested common strategies specifically for off-campus housing issues include:

  • Back-to-school walkabouts when community members and local police visit off-campus housing with information about parking, garbage, safety and residential courtesy.
  • Off-campus housing webpages hosted by the university that provide advice to students as they prepare to move off campus, including education in tenant rights and city safety codes.
  • Party registration practices where off-campus party hosts might receive donated water and snacks and a pass from the police on their first violation in exchange for preliminary training in health and safety measures.  
  • Community ambassador programs such as a joint "party patrols" of student and community volunteers to visit off-campus parties, offering advice, an adult face and ideally a calming presence at parties that often surge to hundreds of students and are fueled by free drugs and alcohol. Some universities identify off-campus student senators who provide neighborhoods with information about theft prevention and housing safety, and sponsor ice cream socials for permanent residents and local renters to meet.
  • Rezoned neighborhoods that adjoin the university to higher density, with specific guidelines to encourage student housing to concentrate in certain neighborhoods, leaving other areas free for the development of single-family home ownership.

The challenges that off-campus housing raise for both institutions and college towns can only be solved by the development of positive relationships between the college or university and the city. Both formal and informal arrangements ease some of this strain: some universities, like my own, make PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) payments for a specific city need -- for example, an ambulance or fire truck -- and share expenses on town-gown events and staff. In our city, university employees pay a city income tax that contributes to the bulk of the city budget.

In fact, the relationship between Oxford and Miami University is becoming a model of best practices. As mayor, I work closely with the university president on issues of student conduct, economic development of the city and other partnerships. We have nurtured an active town-gown team, with a core group consisting of the city department heads and university deans and directors, focused on building relationships between the city and the university. The group expands to include participants from our local hospital, school district, chamber of commerce and university athletics department, as well as the city and university police forces.

A significant result of our work is what we call the Good Neighbor Policy for students who live in the city. It links police reports with the dean of students so that, after continued violations of city ordinances, students must meet with city and university officials and a community member to discuss the challenges of off-campus living and design solutions. Some of those are as simple as directing students to the local hardware store to buy more garbage cans or to designate a house member to monitor a party’s noise level. In such meetings, students often express relief for some guidance, as student house parties can easily get out of control and prove costly to the hosts who might have originally just wanted a few friends to come over to socialize.

The work of town-gown relations recognizes that the presence of students in off-campus housing extends the boundary of the campus in ways that city and college policy and law are still trying to formulate. Both entities share a role in reframing the story of off-campus housing, which cuts to the heart of the purpose of higher education: how to educate young adults in independent and responsible living inside and outside the classroom and campus.

Kate Rousmaniere is a professor of educational leadership at Miami University and mayor of the city of Oxford, Ohio.

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Oxford, Ohio
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The economic vs. civic role that tax-exempt colleges like the University of Pennsylvania play

Interested in working for a university in the 21st century? Forget the Ph.D. -- work for an investment bank for a few years and you may just earn close to $14 million in 18 months for your “mediocre” performance, according to a recent Bloomberg article detailing the salary Harvard University paid its endowment chief.

This is only the latest provocation for the rising chorus of doubt about whether it still makes sense to think of America’s elite private universities as nonprofit institutions. Even in our polarized political climate, Democrats and Republicans increasingly agree that this is now a reasonable question. Elite universities are becoming targets of the same populist anger evident in our politics. We hear increasing calls for them to explain their relentlessly rising tuition, relatively small percentage of low-income students and low spending rates on endowment returns -- as well as for reviewing their tax-exempt status.

In Connecticut, the state Legislature is about to debate a bill that would tax properties owned by Yale University. Princeton University is currently embroiled in a lawsuit threatening to revoke its property-tax exemption. Even congressional Republicans, normally tax averse, have requested detailed financial information from private universities with endowments over $1 billion and have floated the idea of taxing some portion of their endowments’ revenue.

My alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, is among the leading universities facing pressure from its local community. In thinking about the continuing transformation of universities from nonprofits into sites for stockpiling capital, Penn is a particularly instructive. It likes to remind people that it was founded by Benjamin Franklin. An entrepreneur turned scientist and statesman, Franklin stands as a kind of prophet and preview of the practical, scientific and -- Penn would say -- philanthropic character of the institution he founded.

Although Franklin himself never attended college, he, like many tech entrepreneurs today, was an educational reformer. He first outlined his ideas in a 1749 pamphlet modestly titled “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania.” Until that time, colleges -- led by Harvard, Yale and Princeton -- were established mainly to train ministers. Their curricula centered on scriptural commentaries as well as the secular classics. But Franklin believed colleges should also train students in the “useful arts” of commerce, mechanics and agriculture. On its website, Penn lauds Franklin's “innovative” and “radical” approach to education, citing the pamphlet as one of its founding documents.

But there is more to the story. By this time in his career, Franklin was actively distancing himself from his lowly origins as a printer and was intent on becoming a “person of Leisure and publick Spirit.” He wanted to see Philadelphia, then the largest city in British North America, become a modern metropolis. Though we associate Franklin with Philadelphia, he had spent the first 17 years of his life in Boston, where what might be called his neo-Puritan upbringing left an indelible mark on his thinking.

In his autobiography, he mentions the college along with other civic projects, such as raising a city militia and building defensive fortifications. What each of those projects had in common is their design to protect and unify colonists against external dangers (such as Indian attacks and foreign invasions) and internal ones (like idleness and insurrection). John Winthrop, the spiritual founder of Boston, had imagined it as a “model of Christian charity” and a “city upon a hill,” by which he did not mean to suggest that class divisions of the sort he had experienced in Britain could be swept away in a flood of communal love. But he did believe that the strife, bitterness and social divisions of early modern London could be mitigated in Boston if the hearts of its citizens were properly framed and its civic institutions well designed.

Franklin wanted to Bostonize Philadelphia but with an important difference: Philadelphia’s civic institutions would not be focused around the church but the college. That a major city should have its own college was perhaps the most radical and innovative idea in the pamphlet. Unlike Harvard, Yale or Princeton, the College of Philadelphia -- Penn’s original name -- came into existence explicitly to serve the needs of a city rather than a religious community. That was one reason it made sense for Franklin to design a more practical curriculum for the new college. Although technically a private institution, the College of Philadelphia was, in its civic orientation, arguably a forerunner of the modern idea of a public university as an institution dedicated to serve the local citizenry. Indeed, in addition to the college, the institution also operated a tuition-free “charitable school” that educated young Philadelphians who could not afford to pay for its preparatory school, the Academy of Philadelphia.

Today, relations between Penn and Philadelphia are not as amicable as Franklin had hoped they would be. About a year ago, Philadelphia’s City Council passed a resolution calling upon Michael Nutter, then the mayor, to demand payments in lieu of property taxes (PILOTs). And last November, the city elected Jim Kenney on a platform that included demanding payments from Penn. The university owns 299 acres in West Philadelphia, across the river from one of the nation’s most densely populated areas outside New York City. Kenney has yet to follow up on this promise. With the exception of Columbia University, Penn is the only Ivy League institution that does not such make payments (although Harvard has received criticism for paying less than the city of Cambridge requested).

What is most striking about the ongoing PILOT debate is that Franklin’s idea of the civic role of higher education has been all but lost in the discussion. The popular discourse surrounding PILOTs revolves around whether Penn is “paying its fair share” or not. Penn defends itself primarily by emphasizing the economic benefits it confers to the city. In addition to adding jobs to the local economy, the university also cites its $2 million annual contribution to the University City District, a nonprofit co-founded by Penn that provides services like street cleaning and trash removal to the neighborhood. Penn also runs the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, the main purpose of which is to give Penn students an opportunity to volunteer in West Philadelphia.

Rarely, however do either PILOT proponents or university administrators invoke Penn’s original civic mission, despite the fact that this is the only reason it is tax-exempt in the first place.

The Pennsylvania Constitution states that only “institutions of purely public charity” are exempt from paying state and local taxes. A 1985 ruling (Hospital Utilization Project v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) by the state’s Supreme Court established criteria known as the HUP Test for qualifying as a purely public charity, and the language of the test threatened the tax-exempt status of many nonprofits in the state. Facing legal pressure from City Hall, Penn agreed to a five-year PILOT program and contributed $1.93 million annually to Philadelphia. The PILOT program was not renewed, however, partly because of a 1997 state law that listed postsecondary education as an eligible “charitable purpose” and said that offering need-based financial aid counts as “donating or rendering gratuitously a substantial portion of its services.” Penn was no longer in danger of losing its tax-exempt status.

More recently, the state’s Supreme Court has again challenged the legislature, arguing that judicial branch, not the legislative, should decide tax-exempt status. This case has jeopardized the tax-exempt status of many nonprofits in Pennsylvania, including Penn. The state Senate proposed a constitutional amendment in 2013 that would have granted the legislature authority over defining an institution of purely public charity. Amending the Pennsylvania constitution requires a majority vote in both chambers during successive legislative sessions, followed by a statewide referendum. Although the state Senate approved the bill twice, the state House of Representatives did not vote a second time on the bill.

Whether a college was a charity or not would have been an unusual question 200 or even 100 years ago. Until relatively recently, even those universities that became known as “elite” were small and modest institutions as measured by their budgets and investments. Until Penn moved to West Philadelphia in the late 1800s, it never consisted of more than a couple of buildings, a handful of instructors and a few hundred students.

Since state-funded colleges were scarce until after the Civil War, institutions like Penn fulfilled a vital role in educating the young residents of the surrounding city. Penn did not build any student dormitories until 1895 partly because its trustees believed the university should cater primarily to Philadelphians. An anonymous letter published in The Nation in 1885 noted that it was university “policy” to instill its students with “Philadelphia doctrines, ideas, atmosphere and surroundings.” Even after dorms were constructed, Penn drew mostly from Philadelphia and the surrounding region.

The advent of the modern research university significantly altered the relationship between cities and higher education, and Penn was no exception. Rather than acting as transmitters of knowledge, institutions like Penn began to style themselves primarily as producers of knowledge during the course of the 20th century. The trend intensified during World War II when the federal government began pouring money into universities for military research. In 1946, Penn researchers brought the university into the international spotlight when they developed ENIAC, a computer designed to aid artillery calculations for the U.S. Army now regarded as the first modern electronic computer.

Universities across the country prioritized projects like ENIAC, often at the expense of undergraduate education. As one 1957 report frankly admitted, Penn needed to “eliminate or assign lower-priority status to educational functions which lie outside areas of strategic importance.” Penn no longer existed merely to educate young Philadelphians, and indeed, the city came to be seen increasingly as a liability. Unlike a university such as Stanford, Penn lacked open space and was surrounded by dense urban development. Projects like ENIAC required space, but West Philadelphia was no longer a sleepy, streetcar suburb. Worse, as Penn expanded in the 20th century, Philadelphia began to crumble under the pressure of deindustrialization and white flight.

Some trustees and donors contemplated moving all or at least part of the campus outside the city to the nearby suburb of Valley Forge, but the university opted instead to make the best of its urban location. Penn and other local universities joined together to form the West Philadelphia Corporation, aimed at gentrifying the neighborhood now known, tellingly, as University City. Besides improving local schools, the WPC also took more controversial actions, such as helping coordinate the razing of Black Bottom, a predominantly black neighborhood adjacent to campus. The incident significantly damaged the university’s reputation in West Philadelphia, and the tension continues today. (Locals refer to the gentrification of West Philadelphia as “Penntrification”).

Universities have changed from within, too. In the Victorian era, colleges were thought of as refuges from the worldly commercialism of cities. Urban universities tended to relocate to the outskirts of their rapidly expanding cities, as Columbia did in the 1890s with its removal to Morningside Heights, where, it was thought, the pastoral and insular character of universities could be better maintained. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a Harvard professor, contrasted the “sweet serenity of books” with the “market-place” and its “eager love of gain … whose end is pain.”

Today, the realities of the marketplace seem to be sweeping away the sweet serenity. At elite universities in particular, numbers of humanities majors have been declining. Students understandably gravitate toward majors like economics and computer science, which many employers prefer, despite their often-stated preference for “well-rounded” and “creative” applicants. As colleges shift their attention away from general education and toward career preparation, the cloistered environment that the university once provided is becoming less attractive. Urban campuses provide students with networking and internship opportunities that are beyond the reach of rural colleges, especially those below the elite level.

The relationship between universities and their home cities has increasingly become interdependent as the economies of Rust Belt cities have shifted from a manufacturing economy to “eds and meds.” (Pittsburgh is a leading example.) Deindustrialization, along with increasing privatization, has transformed the image of universities not just into producers of knowledge, but most importantly, producers of wealth.

Today, universities provide private companies not only with new, profitable technologies, but also with a carefully vetted pool of laborers tailored to the needs of a global knowledge economy. The rest of the city exists mainly to cater to the consumer needs of this new professional class. In May 2014, the Brookings Institution released a report on “innovation districts,” using University City as one successful case study. The authors argued that innovation districts, which are mixed-use, urban areas anchored by large research institutions, will play an increasing role in generating economic growth in the years to come.

But the wealth generated by universities like Penn is distributed more asymmetrically than the manufacturing base it replaced. Innovation districts tend to be self-contained spaces where technocrats can work and then mingle with other technocrats over craft beer or pour-over coffee. As every Philadelphian knows, the divide between University City and the neighborhoods that make up the majority of the city is stark. Of course, universities were never designed to anchor an entire city’s economy. Many in Philadelphia find themselves both reliant on the economic benefits that Penn confers and aware that its interests do not always align with the city’s.

In this context, the PILOT debate in Philadelphia, along with calls for compulsory endowment spending and ending university tax exemptions elsewhere, should come as no surprise. They reflect a cultural transformation by which all aspects of American life seem to be increasingly, if not exclusively, assessed in terms of their economic value. Even critics of this transformation often frame their critique only in economic terms. Those on either side of these debates would do well to remember that Franklin, our first educational entrepreneur, imagined American higher education as a civic enterprise designed to promote citizenship, not economic growth.

Matthew Fernandez is a Ph.D. student in American literature at Columbia University and received his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

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The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia

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