Walk The Line: Colleges, Towns Should Team Up
- Michael Lehman
- April 2, 2007
- Pennsylvania Business Central, Harrisburg Patriot-News (May 6), University Business (September issue)
In Pennsylvania, we all live near an invisible line. A line that parties on either side are reluctant to cross unless “invited over.” I’m not talking about politics, or the lines that often polarize communities by race, creed, or income.
My line is the imaginary boundary between a college/university and the community in which it’s located. It’s a barrier that far too many have reinforced and far too few have worked to erase. The time has come to remove these lines throughout the commonwealth.
Town-gown relationships –shorthand for the dynamics between colleges/universities and their local communities – are often tentative and reactionary rather than embracing and visionary.
Much like neighbors who never interact, we travel to and from our homes on individual routes, never bothering to try a new path. In order to begin to move in concert, rather than in parallel, both colleges/universities and local governments must make bold and deliberate changes.
In order to begin to move in concert, rather than in parallel, both colleges/universities and local governments must make bold and deliberate changes.
More importantly, Pennsylvania must strategically provide the resources to develop deep and lasting ties between the “ivory towers” and the vibrant communities of which they are a part.
Here are a few opportunities for higher education to become more active in communities:
- Renovate vacant buildings and develop brownfields in the community for new construction sites. These areas house resources that are critical to the success of the college but also provide valuable resources to the community. For example, Seton Hill University’s Center for the Performing Arts is being developed off the main campus in downtown Greensburg. This out-of-the-box thinking creates facilities that are used by townspeople and students, attracting business, bringing in entertainment opportunities, and preserving historic structures by adapting them for modern use.
- Develop welcoming access to facilities on campus, with community-friendly parking. Parking is at a premium at most college campuses, but designating community spaces for using the library or attending performances and sports events will help remove “barriers to entry.”
- Increase signage directing local visitors to important buildings on campus. Make sure anyone driving by can find the library or performing arts center. These signs are your welcome mat.
Here are a few things local government can do to foster town-gown relations:
- Tell college and university officials what community programs that you’d like to see. The college may already have a similar program that could be opened to the community, or a joint program could be developed.
- Work with the local college to develop zoning that makes it easier to create areas that combine retail, office, and residential space in ways that benefit both communities.
- If the town is in need of a library or a school athletic facility, be willing to use local tax dollars for shared facilities. Shared projects foster and promote interaction between once-isolated neighbors.
Here are some ideas for Pennsylvania’s elected officials:
- Continue to support and develop the Keystone Innovation Zone program, a partnership between communities and local colleges to create and grow businesses.
- Support a capital-funding initiative for higher-education institutions. The concept, rooted in the Salk Legacy Fund, a $500-million initiative to fund capital investments in bioscience research, is largely targeted to benefit large research universities, not the more than 70 small colleges and universities in Pennsylvania.
- Require Science: It’s Elementary – a new program designed to upgrade elementary-school science teaching, to partner with the 11 colleges across the state already delivering the Science in Motion program to middle and high schools.
Higher education, local government, and state programs are three of Pennsylvania’s proudest traditions. There’s no reason all three camps can’t learn new things – new things that truly make that imaginary line invisible.
- Michael Lehman, M.D., M.B.A, assistant Vice President of the Juniata College Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, Huntingdon