Town-Gown Relations: Building a Long-Term, Mutually Beneficial Relationship

April 06, 2021

If your academic institution wishes it had a more harmonious relationship with the city that surrounds you, you’re not alone. You understand that when universities and their host cities really sync, the benefits of positive town-gown relations can be plentiful, such as 

  • Increased capital and financial resources, 
  • Bringing in high-quality talent and leadership, 
  • Spurring economic development, 
  • Improving quality of life, 
  • Expanding and deepening educational opportunities, 
  • And more.

Like you, many colleges and universities have long and sometimes complicated histories with their nearby communities. Over the decades you’ve been together, you’ve maybe had your ups and downs, seen different municipal and academic administrations, and have pushed and pulled with each other in both good and bad ways. But if you want to set yourselves on a better footing, a key starting point is to figure out where you are now so you can chart a path forward.

Understand Where You Are

As much as we’d love to give you a quick list of action items in a blog post, there is no one-size-fits-all plan for improving your town-gown relations. But there is a process to help you build your own plan, and it begins with a clear-eyed assessment of where you land on the town-gown relationship spectrum.

The University-Dominant Relationship

On one end of the spectrum, the university identity dominates the city identity. Think Yale, University of Michigan, Notre Dame. When people think of the city, they immediately think of the university. The university is the cultural and economic anchor of the city. 

Although it is true that, over the years, the city has evolved to serve the needs of the university, the city nonetheless has a distinct identity, with many community members who have no association with the university. While students, faculty, and administrations come and go, the people of the city have likely been there all their lives—perhaps their family has been there for generations.

The challenge for universities in this position is to be a benevolent and responsible steward of the city’s well-being while always honoring the city’s distinct identity. In addition to establishing high expectations for student behavior, the university should also look for opportunities to partner with the city to support its goals, such as local economic growth and uplifting and empowering marginalized communities. 

In these partnerships, the university should be careful to ensure that local leaders—municipal, nonprofit, business, and community—are the ones who guide the scope and direction of all projects for strengthening the city. The university may have a lot of resources and expertise, but these should always be deployed in service of locally-led aims, not to overpower them.

The City-Dominant Relationship

On the other end of the spectrum, the city identity dominates the college/university identity. Think New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles. While every college and university in these cities each have a lot to offer, for students, staff, and faculty, one of the biggest draws is the city itself. For instance, it’s a good bet that every student who attends NYU chose it, among other reasons, because they wanted to be in NY.

If this is you, then your challenge is to clarify and embrace your own distinct identity within the city and among all of the other colleges and universities that are a stone’s throw away from you. Although you may be one of many, many features that make up the rich and dynamic landscape of the city, when you invest in what makes you exceptional, not only will you stand out among all the other schools around you; the city will also recognize your contributions and value you more, which will increase partnership opportunities.

Further, because many of your students chose your school in part because of its location, make sure you devote resources to ensuring they take full advantage of their city. How do they get around? Where are the best places to go for everything they may want or need? What are the best places to visit in the evenings or weekends? The more you continually help your students integrate fully into their new home, the more your school will be a vital force in the city’s overall ecosystem.

The (Relatively) Equal Town-Gown Relationship

Most colleges and universities land somewhere in between, in which the city and the college/university have relatively equal identities and power. If this is where you are, then you know that the power differential can’t really be described as “equal.” 

Where you land in this middle ground varies by your specific institution and your city, fluctuates over time and circumstances, and even depends on what aspect of the relationship you’re looking at. For instance, a school may have STEM programs that give it a great deal of economic heft, but the city may offer a rich cultural life that keeps the university grounded.

In these relationships, it’s always best to lead with an asset-focused approach. Begin by taking stock of all that your school has to offer the city as well as all that the city could and does provide for your institution. From there, together with city and community leaders, you will be better able to see opportunities for partnership that will benefit both of you.

But even as you focus on moving forward with an eye toward collaboration, it’s equally important to be always mindful of bridges that may need to be strengthened (or even mended). Almost all town-gown relationships could benefit from some thoughtful, intentional trust-building. Identify past challenges and missteps, understand where wrong turns were made, and take steps to move forward with a different approach. Although this will require some uncomfortable humility, just as with any long-term relationship, this kind of work establishes a foundation that will help support your institution for years to come.

Be In It For the Long Haul

No matter where you land on the town-gown spectrum, if you are truly committed to fortifying and improving your relationship with your city, you must be in it for the long haul. This cannot be done with just one-off events, occasional meetings with the mayor, or photo-ops and press releases.

There will always be obstacles to these efforts—competing priorities, opposing interests, and past issues that just keep lingering. But keep in mind that this is, after all, a relationship, not a project. Your institution will need to dedicate ongoing, persistent efforts to opening conversations and developing initiatives that will serve as gateways for building trust and mutual service. 

The work will require innovative thinking, an understanding mindset, and a commitment to long-term collaboration. It will be hard and never-ending, but if it’s done well, the rewards will reap benefits that continue for decades to come.

Connect Town-Gown Relations With Your Marketing Efforts

That’s where we come in, and the ways in which we’ve worked with our client partners to market their location and town-gown relations are for a whole ‘nother blog post. Or perhaps a conversation. Want to chat?

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