Chapter 1: TOWN and GOWN Partnerships to TOWN and GOWN Membership

by Deborah F. Stanley, J.D.

Posted on September 07, 2021

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I will write about how a concerted community formed across political, racial, and other differences to advance community health and the insight we might draw from that experience to understand prior successes and failures and project better outcomes in the future.

In April 2021, State University of New York at Oswego began running through scenarios testing the feasibility of holding face-to-face commencement ceremonies, possibly with a limited number of guests present. As we went through the details enfolding the COVID-19 health protocols into our plans, we engaged in an iterative discussion with the county health department. That seems prudent and fairly unremarkable and, frankly, we were required to get their sign-off. However, we were doing more than checking a box—something that would not have happened before the pandemic. 

For campuses across the country, whether in small urban communities, mid-sized cities, and even in large metropolises, classic town/gown relations are often fraught with negative impressions based on assumed political differences, perceived unjust privilege, and displayed economic disparities. As a result, the relations are, at the least, less than productive and sometimes detrimental to the interests of both. Yet, those specific ideas are rarely aired in any forum. Every few years there might be a public panel discussion about a specific and significant occurrence or incident that has caused distrust or injustice. Accommodations and policy changes may be pledged on the part of the municipality or its agencies or the college and then monitored over time. There is a coalescence of purpose expressed in the moment, but the outcomes are transactional, related to one-off events or faulty thinking. Something else will happen soon to reveal that the fix does not extend beyond the facts of that particular purpose. 

The concept of Anchor Institutions is in play to some degree in these instances. Traditional “eds” and “meds” in communities are sticky; they are relied upon to remain in place through ups and downs in the economy and throughout periods of technological or innovative disruption. They will not cut and run to cheaper labor or raw material markets that leave an unemployed workforce and an empty big box as an eyesore that economic developers will have a tough time repurposing. While these beliefs are not rock-solid truths any longer and physical plants do expand or pare down, it is still rare for colleges to close or hospitals to fold. However, that very reliability can cause the community to take the institutions for granted and diminishes the motivation to invest the time and effort to nurture vibrant and fruitful relations.

It is still rare for colleges to close or hospitals to fold. However, that very reliability can cause the community to take the institutions for granted and diminishes the motivation to invest the time and effort to nurture vibrant and fruitful relations.  

Of course, there are no neat and tidy borders. Many students live in the community, and most find recreation there, but they likely would not consider themselves to be defined as the community. Likewise, many community residents are college staff who work to maintain the college and directly serve students on a daily basis, but they will generally see themselves as residents of the community and not tied to the identity of the college. 

Students and visitors bring in new financial resources that increase the prosperity of the place. The students also bring issues like parties and parking challenges into the community. The community provides the backdrop for student and employee recruitment and has the necessary infrastructure and municipal services but often is a needy supplicant or unrelenting naysayer. So, colleges and their host communities usually coexist in polite and accommodating ways, accepting trade-offs and hoping for no major problems. 

Inevitably, there are problems. The tone is normally one of tolerance, yet certain circumstances can bring the underlying simmer to a boil where widely differing political and cultural beliefs erupt and become harmful. 

Students mainly take the brunt where apparent license is given for police profiling, harassment, hate, and illegal housing practices. They are the unwelcome “others” disrupting a status quo, and they have considerably less power to address the wrongs. The campus must and does intervene to provide remedy and redress on behalf of students, but to do so it has to take a somewhat adversarial stance. This often leads to further lack of cooperation. 

Neighbors and neighborhoods suffer when students assert what they see as their right-of-passage privileges to gather in large groups and party loudly and inappropriately relative to the norms of time and activity. Students living off campus may encourage underage drinking, allow illegal drug use, act indecently, trespass, cause property damage, and perpetrate assaults. Residents complain, law enforcement agents respond, and the campus must also take action against the students involved. Usually, the activity does not totally cease; students find ways to subvert the prohibitions. The campus may not be legally free to speak about the matter or its resolution.

Tensions and opposition become part of interactions almost as a reflex as these differences appear in the daily course, reinforcing our conscious and unconscious biases.  

Tensions and opposition become part of interactions almost as a reflex as these differences appear in the daily course, reinforcing our conscious and unconscious biases. I like to portray the institution as always the victim, but of course that isn’t the case. Examples abound from both sides. 

The college staged a construction site with large equipment and many workers coming and going on a lot next to a city residence. The college prepared to build a new science complex that obscured views of Lake Ontario, a Great Lake, from part of a long-established neighborhood without informing neighbors of the plans. The college closed a connecting street through the campus, forcing residents to go around the perimeter to commute, again with no notice and no remedy. 

The city refused to install a traffic light at a busy intersection next to academic buildings even when the college offered to underwrite the expense. The Board of Elections refused to locate a voting site on campus. The city did not rigorously enforce housing codes or hold landlords accountable but did enact strict host regulations limiting student gatherings. The city obstructed both entrance roads to campus with sewer work on move-in day when long lines of cars are expected. 

Yet, if anyone asks about the quality of our relations with our community, we would have to say we maintain a working partnership and the benefits flow both ways. In a partnership, we bring our contributions to an endeavor with one or more entities on a voluntary basis and often on condition of receiving something in return. We have an Office of Business and Community Relations where we host a Small Business Development Center, the Workforce Development Board, a leadership program, and other opportunities for the region. It is located downtown and staffed as a not-for-profit. We raise funds for the United Way in the region. There is a Mayor’s Campus-City Relations Committee. The town covers fire services. The city flies welcome flags for opening day. The campus provides the means for community residents and their visiting families to have venues for recreation and entertainment by leaving open our ice rink, our field house, our track, our planetarium, and more during college breaks and holidays when we are not in session. However, there is no mistaking the general tone of our interactions prior to the pandemic. It was not a model for bridging deep divides, not a practice to lift up a way forward through polarization, not an open and respectful approach. 

In July and August 2020, when the impacts of COVID-19 started to become less about the logistics of meeting federal, state, and local mandates and more about mobilizing for safety and survival, we, at SUNY Oswego, began to realize we had to put aside our automatic cynical reactions to community questions, input, and requirements in order to listen and learn. The brand you choose, college or community, does not define your risk in a pandemic. 

We were not seeking to shed responsibility and accountability; instead, we wanted a plan that served to protect people at risk in our sphere. To keep students safe, it matters what happens in the community because they live there. The level of virus on campus directly relates to community safety. Community residents work in isolation/quarantine buildings on campus and deliver face-to-face services in dining halls and residence halls. We are all members of the “possible to infect or be infected” community.

We were not seeking to shed responsibility and accountability; instead, we wanted a plan that served to protect people at risk in our sphere.  

SUNY Oswego with the city, county, town, and the department of health, began to reduce finger-pointing and blame for virus spikes and operate in cooperation and at times in sync as one to source and provide protective equipment, monitor activity, establish testing processes and protocols, and distribute vaccinations. When the college faced a mandatory two-week remote instruction order from the state in September 2020, there was a fair amount of sentiment in the community to just send the students home. The financial benefits from student spending in the area had already dried up due to the nature of life under COVID-19 restrictions. There would be less exposure to the virus if the students left town. Through discussions with the county health department and the mayor, we were able to share with them that the distant communities needed protection, students’ educational interests were best served by staying, and the college would suffer significant detriment if the students left. They worked with us to ensure safety, and the health department approved the return to on-site instruction after the period elapsed. 

As we prepare for the second fall semester still impacted by COVID-19, we are working together to plan ahead. Perhaps it is the nature of the life-or-death emergency that allowed us to find new ways to operate, as an ecosystem—interconnected and complex rather than a mere partnership based on self-interest. Transcending a circumstance of exigency, however, is key to finding a lasting environment of good will and common ground. 

As a pillar of our strategic plan, we have a goal to work on and contribute solutions to the grand challenges of our time. We chose “water” over the last three years, and now we will focus on “race.” They are tangible themes that draw widely interpreted and multifaceted contributions from individuals and groups adding to intellectual, cultural, and artistic knowledge. I think of polarization, disaffection, and alienation in American society as also big and existentially challenging, certainly worthy of intense focus. 

In the example we are living in this moment, we are finding our way to the factors that make us members together. Did the shock and fear of the pandemic jolt us out of our passive and walled-off positions? Did our perception that we had to participate in rescuing ourselves and choose how to make our actions most effective cause us to become more than partners? And now, does the idea of being members together or perhaps compatriots, for lack of a better description, give us a glimpse of a model that could lead to a more cooperative future in other civic venues and initiatives? We cannot deny that every tier of society in America has many deep partisan divides, but some of the essentials for a good life in community with others require neither partisan nor bipartisan action. 

Our mayor has adopted the slogan “One City, One College, One Community.” He has also appointed SUNY Oswego’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer as Chair of the Campus-City Relations Committee. The campus hosted three days of commencement to hold eight successful face-to-face ceremonies where graduates had two guests present. The graduations brought many benefits to the college and the community and were planned with the oversight of the county health department. Moreover, when we began to plan this feat of logistics and effort, we felt confident we had achieved a collaborative membership of college/community helping to provide productive outcomes for students, community residents, economic vitality, and community wellbeing. The test will be for the model to become our established practice as we move beyond the pandemic.