The town and gown: Coming apart at the seams?

Photo credit - aprilbell,

Photo credit – aprilbell,

When your boss is someone like Michele Papakie, you hear a lot of funny phrases. We have flyers posted in Command Central (410 Davis) that say “Can’t died in a cornfield!” and “Be the duck!” and “No! Try not! Do or do not, there is no try!”  (Technically that last one isn’t a Papakieism, but it still makes me laugh.)

Michele also introduced me to the phrase “town and gown” which is apparently a popular way to describe the relationship between universities and their towns. I didn’t grow up in a college town, so I hadn’t heard the phrase until this year. If you’ve never heard it either, the community around a university is the “town” and the university people are the “gown.”

My first thought about the gowns were graduation gowns, but it actually goes back to the Middle Ages when European university students, who often acted as minor clerics, wore black robes similar to the clergy. This became the long black gown with a hood and cap that we think of when we picture scholars. The gowns were really helpful for students studying in unheated buildings, but they were also symbolic of the fact that academics did not perform physical labor. (Can you imagine trying to harvest crops dressed like Professor Snape?)

But the gowns also symbolically separated students and their teachers from the folks around them. Many university students didn’t speak the local dialects and the townspeople didn’t speak Latin, which made communication very difficult. And as universities gradually gained more and more independence from local control, the town began to resent and lose trust in the gown. Conflict and violence were rampant because each group was governed by separate bodies, each with its own priorities and loyalties.

IUP students volunteering at the Indiana Community Garden - Photo by The Penn

IUP students volunteering at the Indiana Community Garden – Photo from The Penn

Flash forward to the modern-day United States: we don’t see a lot of violence between towns and universities, but it turns out that things aren’t exactly amazing, either. Universities believe their existence is key to the survival of the local economy; the surrounding towns claim institutions are robbing them of local tax revenue as universities expand and remove land property for local tax rolls, and universities aren’t taxable like other entities using town resources. Technically, universities don’t have to contribute anything to the town’s government, although some do.

Which brings me back to the Strategic Visioning Project and what got me thinking about the town/gown relationship. I first learned about this sticky situation when I facilitated a group interview last week at the community meeting of the Public Works committee at the borough. And I’m usually quick (maybe too quick, sometimes) to weigh in on a debate or propose a solution, but this is a tough one.

The borough receives no money from IUP and can’t tax the university, so maintenance and development projects are often underfunded or impossible. The borough manager said if IUP was a corporation, like IBM, the local government would be in great shape because of the tax revenue. But since IUP can’t be taxed and it doesn’t contribute funds to the borough, things aren’t so great financially.

On the other hand, IUP brings in nearly 15,000 students, effectively doubling the town’s population for much of the year. While students are here, we are employed by and patronize local businesses and contribute our time to area non-profits and through initiatives like Into the Streets.

Professors also contribute to the cultural and political landscape of the town — I’m thinking in particular of a handful of professors who are central to Indiana’s Center for Community Growth, which works to improve the livelihood of area residents by addressing social, economic, racial and environmental issues. But professors and students alike are also local business owners, entertainers and board members for a number of organizations.

It’s not like the borough doesn’t recognize this, either. Members of the Public Works committee noted the university’s contributions to the town, too. Without IUP, one said, Indiana would have remained a lower-class mining town.

The students and professors remain a strange mixture of town and gown, especially students like me who live off-campus, work in the town and rarely go home. We contribute a lot, but we’re also supported a lot by things like roads, sidewalks, recycling programs, facilities, parks and rec, law enforcement and fire departments, to name a few. And these things take money.

Which leaves the relationship where, exactly? Should IUP charge students a fee to provide the borough with the funding it needs for the town’s law enforcement and maintenance, much of which is directly tied to IUP in the first place? Should the borough work more closely with the university to begin meeting some of its professional needs while giving students internship opportunities?

The town and its center of learning do not have to be two separate entities, since each depends on the other for survival. Maybe things would have gone better back in the Middle Ages if the townspeople could have picked up some Latin and the scholars had invested more in the town and learned its language and ways. Or the academics could have tried taking off the gowns when they were outside the university. There’s no need for imaginary boundaries where none exist.

So I don’t know what the solution could be, and I’m excited to hear from people who have lived in this town their whole lives or for many generations. But I can tell you what won’t solve anything: cutting off communication between both parties and refusing to repair the relationship.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Please comment below.

– Emily Weber


Looking for the Beaten Paths

An old footpath

The old footpath

If you’ve ever walked from the suites to Eleventh Street (the street that Foster Hall and Davis Hall sit on, barely visible in this photo), maybe you’ve seen this new piece of sidewalk. I love cutting through the suites when I’m walking to Davis because it’s much faster than walking alllll the way up Grant Street, turning left at Foster, and then walking all the way down to Davis. I’m either too efficient or too lazy.

Apparently I wasn’t the only student who enjoyed this shortcut because there used to be a well-worn footpath going from the old part of the sidewalk (which you can see in the bottom right corner of this photo) toward Grant Street. That wide, new sidewalk was nothing more than a dirt path that students wore out after years of trampling the grass.

Funny thing is, there’s an almost-identical sidewalk about 15 feet from the old sidewalk that will take you to Grant Street, but so many people were headed downhill that they elected not to walk up that extra 20 feet just to go down. Is that silly? Probably. Did it stop us from wearing that path? Not a chance. (Here’s a Google Maps street view showing this.)

I wish I had a picture of how this area used to look. Believe me, it was what groundskeepers would call “unsightly,” especially when it rained for a week and turned into mud so thick you could lose a boot. But then someone made the fantastic decision to turn the path into a sidewalk, and as you can see, there’s no more dirt, mud, or trampling of the grass.

I tell you all this because it occurred to me last week that this is what we’re trying to do with IUP through the Strategic Visioning Project. Bear with me. I’m also an English major–I like metaphors.

Some universities use committees to formulate their strategic visions and plans. In our research, we’ve read a few case studies touting the success of visioning/planning groups in which professors and administrators from various departments get together a few times a year to draft the plans that will move their universities forward.

While we’re not exactly drafting the plans for IUP’s future, I’d argue that our process of hitting the streets and reaching out to get input from many people connected to the university is much better for the vision/mission and the university family as a whole, and it’s because of the sidewalk thing. In the group interview process, we’re spotting the unacknowledged paths that people have already worn and seeing how we can turn that into something “official” for everyone to be a part of. Like the smart ways we’re adapting to budget cuts. The ways professors are getting their students out of the classroom and into research and projects. The ways Indiana residents connect with IUP students that don’t make page 2 of the Indiana Gazette.

Whatever unnoticed trails you’re blazing out there, that’s what we’re looking for. It’s just as much a part of the university as the stuff that we already know about. Tell us about your well-worn path. 


More Alike Than Not

Emily Weber

Emily Weber

I know it’s a cliche to start a blog post with an inspiration quote from a famous person, but I’d like to turn to Maya Angelou now that I’ve wrapped up my tenth (give or take) facilitation for the IUP Strategic Visioning Project:

“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

It was during a group interview with the directors and vice president for the division of Enrollment Management and Communications that this hit me: it’s fantastic to hear the same strengths, opportunities and distinctive qualities of IUP listed again and again because it means we’re all playing on the same team. We all get it. Sure, we may feel separated from each other by departments or colleges or divisions, but we’re actually not that different. We see share goals and hopes for educating tomorrow’s leaders, thinkers and innovators.  None of us would be here if we didn’t.

And the best part is: it’s actually true. The common patterns and themes that everyone keeps bringing up in these interviews are not just keywords developed by higher-ups and slapped on a web page. They’re things that everyone experiences at this university at some capacity, whether they’re as student or a parent or a faculty member or an administrator.  It’s so easy to nitpick and get caught up in what we’re doing wrong that we forget to tell the stories of what we’re doing right. This is what public relations work is supposed to do–tell the truth about our good work.

I don’t think I can comment on the common phrases and patterns that we’re hearing just yet, but I hope anybody reading this will understand that this is genuine excitement about a common vision. Hearing the same things from so many people tells me that when a final mission and vision for IUP is approved, it’s going to fit us just right.

— Emily Weber

Effective University Mission Statements

Emily Weber

Emily Weber

So far, the SVP team has done a pretty good job figuring out what doesn’t work for university mission and values statements. We’ve identified buzzwords that are so overused that they don’t mean anything, like when you say a word 50 times and eventually it doesn’t sound like a real word. You know what I mean: “global awareness” and “interdisciplinary learning” and “creation and dissemination of knowledge.” It’s not that these words are too vague; they’re too universal. Aren’t these things kind of the point of a university?

As a group, we looked at the 13 other universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, and only one or two stood out in their innovative approaches to the mission and values statements. So today I went on a hunt for keywords, phrases and organizational tools that do work. Here’s what I found.

Innovative Mission/Values Statements at the Word Level

At first I started looking for absolutely anything out of the ordinary. Something different from all the buzzwords about critical thinking and citizenship. I found, mixed in with the traditional phrases, a few interesting ideas:

University of Miami attests that it is “absolutely committed to freedom of inquiry—the freedom to think, to question, to criticize, and to dissent.” I like that a lot, but it was the only phrase that stood out to me as having real meaning. I wonder if this sentiment is something my university community would want to identify with.

Utah State University also did a great job addressing one of my buzzword pet peeves: diversity. The mission statement says it will “cultivat[e] diversity of thought and culture…” This is so important because diversity does not mean filling classrooms with students of different races or making sure there are equal opportunities for men and women. Diversity should be more about achieving differences of thought and background, which is admittedly harder to track than racial diversity but so much more worthwhile.

I turned to mission statements as a whole and was largely disappointed. I skimmed at least 75 mission statements of various lengths, and the only one that stood out to me as an example of a university that actually lives up to its mission was one of IUP’s Pittsburgh neighbors, Carnegie Mellon University:

Carnegie Mellon will meet the changing needs of society by building on its traditions of innovation, problem solving, and interdisciplinarity.

Okay, it still has that interdisciplinary thing, but these other terms, especially “innovation” and “problem solving” are unique. I didn’t see any other university state so prominently that it equips its students to solve the real problems of the world. And when I think of CMU and its legacy in the region and the world, I really do think of capable problem-solvers. This is short and sweet, but it’s truer than most mission statements twice its length.

The other university mission that appealed to me is American University in Washington, D.C. I couldn’t find a page for its mission, values, vision, etc. but its history page could serve as a stand-in for this. The page begins with this statement:

“A global outlook, practical idealism, a passion for public service: They’re part of American University today, and they were in the air in 1893, when AU was chartered by Congress.”

There’s a lengthy university history, but it concludes with this statement about the university’s present-day commitment to its past:

 “AU’s academic strengths are grounded in its core values of social responsibility and a commitment to cultural and intellectual diversity…it’s a vision for the twenty-first century, but it’s grounded in ideals that go back to John Fletcher Hurst and the dream of a university that makes a difference in the lives of its students, its community, and the world.”

I like this idea of connecting the university’s extensive history with its current values. A university should be connected to its roots, and values don’t change so extensively in a few hundred years that it doesn’t make sense to look to the past. This page elegantly went from the present to the past and brought it back to the present and the future. I hope we can create something like this as a result of IUP’s Strategic Visioning Project.

Other Approaches to the Mission and Values Statements

Rather than sticking with just the words of the missions and values, I also looked at how universities categorize/organize their mission statements and how they integrate their mission/values into university life itself. Some explicitly state this and clarify the role of their values in everyday university operations (Duquesne University and Marquette University have offices dedicated to promoting and realizing the mission and visions), and some hint at it by where they put the page on the website and how prominently it’s featured.

Some examples:

  • University of Utah has a general mission statement but then breaks down into a teaching institution, a research university and a contributor to public life. It has mission statements and descriptions of its commitment to each of these areas, and it also effectively uses the page and images to communicate these ideas. This is an approach that could work for IUP, since we wear multiple hats, too.
  • Duquesne’s Office of Mission and Identity site breaks its mission, university goals, religious tradition and resources into four separate pages. The university goals page is then broken into five separate categories, each with its own page. This is much cleaner than a long page of information.
  • Marshall University states a mission for itself but also for its faculty, staff, administrators and students. It gives each of these groups its own bullet list of 3-6 actions and attitudes to strive for. I like this approach because an entity as large as a university has so many people with vastly different goals and roles, and a general university mission and values statement might not address this.

– Emily Weber

The Challenge of a UNIQUE Vision

Emily Weber

Emily Weber

One of the biggest roadblocks to creating a strategic visioning plan is that it has to be a shared vision. And right now, I don’t think Indiana University of Pennsylvania has that.

Michele Papakie provided our team with the university’s vision, mission and core values and the 2007-2012 University Strategic Plan, and for the first time I see the relevance of our work. As of today, this is the mission and vision of my university:


Indiana University of Pennsylvania shall be among the nation’s leading universities, recognized for student success and educational attainment, research, cultural enrichment, and economic development.


Indiana University of Pennsylvania is a leading public, doctoral/research university, strongly committed to undergraduate and graduate instruction, scholarship, and public service.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania engages students as learners and leaders in an intellectually challenging, culturally enriched, and contemporarily diverse environment.

Inspired by a dedicated faculty and staff, students become productive national and world citizens who exceed expectations personally and professionally.

Core Values

Access with Opportunity to Succeed
Engaged Learning
Global Awareness
Shared Governance

Don’t get me wrong, this is eloquent and professional. It’s just not unique from the other thousand universities in the country. It’s not even unique among Pennsylvania’s other 13 state schools, as we discovered yesterday…

The things that jumped out at me, the things I haven’t seen in other universities’ mission statements, were the phrases “inspired by a dedicated faculty and staff” and “access with opportunity to succeed.” Both of these things are ideas we’ve been hearing from students, faculty and administrators when we ask them what makes IUP distinct from other universities. Time and time again, I’ve heard students say that they appreciate the strong relationships they have with their professors and the fact that they’re taught by doctoral candidates and PhDs, not TAs who are two years older than them. That’s a rarity among large universities nowadays, and it’s something I think we need to highlight.

IUP also provides access to higher education for students who might not otherwise get it. I don’t want that to sound like I’m describing my school as cheap or lazy or any of the other derogatory terms that get thrown around when we talk about cost vs. opportunity. Because my school is not “cheap” — it’s reasonable for me, the daughter of two middle-class parents who didn’t graduate from college themselves. And not just the tuition and fees, but the cost of living in town is also affordable. I can pay my rent and tuition just by working and using government student loans, and I’m very grateful for that. None of the other schools I looked at would have given me that kind of access.

Nor is my school lazy or populated by students who “just didn’t make it” into better universities. Some of the brightest, most capable people I’ve met in my life are IUP students. Anybody who doesn’t think we’re actively doing Ivy League-caliber work in our fields clearly hasn’t been on the News & Events page of the university’s website. We’re successful students by anybody’s standards, but it’s not a difficult school to afford. I’m glad we’ve at least partially captured that.

So to make a long story short, I strongly identify with a couple of phrases in our vision, mission and value statements. But it should be more than a couple–as a student (soon-to-be-alumna!), I should feel that my university’s mission is actually different from others, and I should feel like I’m a part of a shared vision. I hope that’s the result of the 2013 Strategic Visioning Project.