The town and gown: Coming apart at the seams?

Photo credit - aprilbell, sxc.hu

Photo credit – aprilbell, sxc.hu

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

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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. 

-Emily

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

Share Your Thoughts!

Just a reminder: starting tomorrow, June 18, we’ll be hosting open group interviews on the fourth floor of Davis Hall on IUP’s campus. We highly encourage anyone reading who hasn’t participated in a Strategic Visioning Project group yet to join us. Please RSVP using this form.

An update on the project was posted to the president’s page. Read about it here.

Sleep Softly, And Carry A Big Pen

As I sat in a meeting recently, I appreciated how comfortable my office chair was. But I think the chair makers shouldn’t make chairs so soft if people are supposed to be alert. I think I want to sue.

Because, as you may see coming, I began to drift. I lost from my sight the top half of the presenter’s body as my lids began to slip. The hours of sleep I ignored last night crept behind me, nudged me and said, “You forgot about us. We’re coming right now.”

I fought this by sitting forward and pulling out my pen. I wasn’t actually writing anything, but it kept me awake and made me look attentive.

That’s a trick I invented — always be holding a pen. Even if it doesn’t have ink. When you’re in a meeting, when you’re talking to someone important, even when you’re eating. It makes you look busy and professional. Try it.

As far as I know, the presenter looked at me, and the pen I was sporting, and thought I was the stand-out intern. When really I was the zone-out intern.

Feel free to contact me for more misleading tactics to make yourself look better.

–Caleb Murphy