Town-Gown: A New Meaning for a New Economy

March 9, 2009


Town-Gown: A New Meaning for a New Economy

Theme: Embedding Engagement

James Davitt Rooney
Director of Public Affairs
The Boston Foundation, MA
Constituent Group:

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Campus Compact, a national coalition of over 950 college and university presidents that promotes community service, civic engagement, and service-learning. For the past two decades the Compact, which features over sixty members from Massachusetts, has contributed to and been a beneficiary of a dramatic thawing of town-gown relations that better positions the Commonwealth and the entire country in today’s knowledge economy. As regions around the world aggressively organize to compete in this economy, it is timely to celebrate the thawing of town-gown relations and suggest ways in which organizations like Campus Compact can further strengthen campus-community partnerships going forward.

Thawing of Town-Gown Tensions

Historically, colleges and universities literally walled themselves off from their host communities. This was particularly the case in urban settings in the 1960s and 1970s as cities hemorrhaged from urban decline. Community and government agencies, in turn, have often viewed colleges as pariahs, complaining about their tax-exempt status, physical encroachment, and noisy students. The term town-gown itself typically conjures up acrimony and tension which has frequently played out when academic and community stakeholders have interacted.

Over the past two decades, a dramatic sea change has occurred, by which institutions of higher learning and their host communities have come to recognize their relationship as symbiotic. There are at least four major forces at play that have helped to bring about this transformation.

The Public Service Revolution

Visionary academic leaders like the founders of Campus Compact challenged the mid-1980s notion that college students had grown apathetic by championing public service in student life programming and academics. The results have been profound.

Over the past ten years, the number of campus-based public service programs in Massachusetts alone has increased 75%. The estimated number of hours students contribute to service on campuses grew from 20,000 to 350,000 annually. The number of colleges with service offices rose from 10% to 85%. Barbara Canyes, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Campus Compact, reports that “Many new institutional structures have been built into systems to allow for better communications to communities.”1 Universities like Harvard, for example, regularly publish service directories that raise awareness on and off campus about the institution’s commitment to service. Quantifying the full spectrum of an institution’s service provides good fodder for public relations. In the 1990s, Brown University in Providence aggressively advertised that 1 in 4 volunteers in the city’s public schools were Brown students; the promotion of this finding tangibly improved its relations with city officials.

A Greater Commitment to Community & Government Relations

This type of promotion epitomizes a second force strengthening town-gown relations. Two decades ago, community affairs at most universities were handled by the general counsel or public relations officers on a part time basis. But increased demands for accountability by government and community agencies have led colleges to build out specific community and government relations staff capacities. New campus-based institutes and think tanks have also proliferated and are registering new influence on local public policy making.

One precipitating factor is the changing nature of civic leadership. Perceptibly, politicians and other civic leaders are looking to higher education to help fill the void left by corporate mergers and acquisitions. In Boston, for example, many thorny civic issues are now tackled by academic-based think tanks like the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern, the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard, the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University.

Another major factor is the growing reach of government in the academy. Historically, the federal government was loath to regulate higher education, but has increased its oversight as financial aid and research funding have grown as sources of institutional revenue. At the same time, state and local governments have become more aggressive in regulating or exacting concessions from colleges as they seek to expand physical infrastructure. Many municipalities have created new academic zoning and master plan requirements. Mayors and city councils have become savvier in prodding institutions to increase community contributions against the backdrop of the tax-exempt debate, particularly acute in the Northeast where many cities are peculiarly reliant on the agricultural economy-era property tax.

College and university administrators are embracing the overtures of government officials out of recognition that positive relations with their host communities are in their enlightened self-interest. In the 1960s and 1970s, universities like Columbia deliberately disengaged from their adjacent neighborhoods. This strategy backfired as many institutions saw their own standing (and applications) fall in direct relation to their communities’ declining fortunes. Former Columbia President George Rupp estimates that the University’s community missteps from the late 1960s through the 1980s may have cost Columbia a billion dollars in contributions.2

Over the past twenty years, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Trinity in Hartford, Clark in Worcester, and many other colleges have significantly invested in adjacent neighborhoods in innovative ways with local groups. Under the presidency of Judith Rodin, the University of Pennsylvania led the rebuilding of West Philadelphia by pursuing five bread and butter strategies: 1) creating clean and safe streets; 2) increasing housing and home ownership; 3) promoting commercial development; 4) fostering economic opportunity; and 5) fortifying public education.3 Those strategies have paid big dividends, including a 31% reduction in crime, an 88% increase in median home values in five years, 150,000 square feet of new retail space, and new businesses and schools.4 The University’s standing in national rankings is now soaring. Trinity pursued similar strategies that led to a 77% increase in applications5. Clark’s Park Campus School has been called the best urban public high school in the Commonwealth, and in 2004, the University Park Partnership, Main South Community Development Corporation, and Clark received the state’s inaugural Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Partnership Award.6

Colleges and universities also increasingly agree to make payments or services or form new strategic partnerships in lieu of paying taxes. In Boston, where local institutions contribute tens of millions in direct payments to municipalities annually on commercial taxes, payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT), and other fees, universities have individual PILOT agreements with the city. In 2004, Tufts University announced a new agreement with the cities of Medford and Somerville that included a $1.25 million contribution to each city to be paid over the next 10 years7. In Providence, colleges and universities have agreed to a formula by which PILOT is made on a voluntary sliding scale triggered by certain factors such as endowment size and property purchases8. In Worcester, colleges recently participated in a Mayoral task force on town-gown relations that resulted in promising new strategic public-private initiatives. All of these are the products of more sophisticated joint town-gown strategizing.

Touting the Economic Impact of Higher Education

Another major force gaining currency of late is the growing recognition and promotion of the academy’s economic impact. Higher education’s impact on a region’s economy has always been significant. But it has become all the more catalytic locally and nationally amidst the rapid transformation to a primarily knowledge-based economy.

Take, for example, Greater Boston, home to the nation’s fourth largest metropolitan economy. Amidst a changing corporate climate, higher education is ever more distinguished as a major sector in its own right and one that helps to develop other leading knowledge sectors like health care and biotechnology. The region’s 75 colleges and universities employ well over 50,000 faculty and staff.9 The eight major research universities in the area alone have an economic impact of over $7 billion and spend nearly $3.9 billion annually on payroll, purchasing, and construction.10 They receive $1.5 billion in research funds and their affiliated hospitals and research centers attract an additional $1 billion.11 Area universities and their affiliated hospitals represent more than one-third of the state’s largest 25 employers.12 Leading companies like Boston Scientific, EMC, and Analog Devices were founded by graduates of local colleges. Major companies like Novartis and Merck are moving to Boston to be close to higher education clusters. Students at the eight major institutions alone spend about $850 million and visitors an additional $250 million.13 The region’s concentration of knowledge networks rooted in higher education attracts workers to the region and helps to train the local workforce beyond degree programs through a wide range of community outreach efforts.

Higher education’s growing economic impact and heightened awareness about it are natural byproducts of the ascendant knowledge economy and not limited to Massachusetts. Nationally, education and knowledge creation enjoyed the second highest level of job growth by traded cluster in the 1990s.14 Colleges and universities across the U.S. are embracing economic ventures, incented by laws like the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 that facilitated university patenting and product licensing and led to a tenfold increase nationally in academic activity in this area.15

The knowledge economy has also placed a higher premium on arguably the most important output of colleges ? human capital. A 2004 study by Robert Weissbourd and Christopher Berry for CEOs for Cities, The Changing Dynamics of Urban America, finds that college degree attainment is the single biggest driver of urban economic growth.16 States increasingly view higher education as important engines of growth. Despite the recent recession, higher education funding by the States has increased as a percentage of overall outlays nationally in the past decade. Paul Grogan, President of the Boston Foundation, frequently points out that in today’s footloose economy, local leaders from across sectors increasingly recognize colleges and universities as valuable stationary assets and anchors of economic growth.

Colleges and universities are taking note of their rising economic impact and clout and promoting them. Harvard, MIT, and Brown recently produced economic impact statements and the eight largest research universities in Greater Boston published a report “Engines of Economic Growth” documenting their collective impact. Local business and government leaders are also reaching out to higher education leaders for assistance in corporate recruitment, as evidenced by the Commonwealth’s Office of Economic Development’s recent successful efforts to mobilize local university leadership in recruiting Bristol Myers Squibb to Fort Devens. These efforts are inspired by similar strategies to integrate higher education leaders in regional development efforts pioneered by officials in the Research Triangle, Austin, and other fast growing competitor knowledge economy centers.

Innovative Higher Education Alliances

Several colleges and universities across regions are seeking to institutionalize and grow such partnerships to scale by forming innovative alliances within their sector and across sectors. Most alliances like the Colleges of Worcester Consortium provide multiple functions, including promotion of the sector writ large, cross-campus exchanges, and facilitation of economies of scale. Others like the I-91 Knowledge Corridor are more project oriented, marketing regions like the Springfield-Hartford area as emerging knowledge economy hubs. In 2003, public colleges and universities in Southeastern Massachusetts formed the Connect partnership which recently issued a report outlining how the region can better position itself in the knowledge economy.

Another evolving model is that of higher education-civic partnerships that tackle major regional competitiveness issues. As an outgrowth of the Mayor’s task force, Worcester recently formed a new UniverCity Partnership to leverage collaboration between the City, the Consortium and other public and private entities to promote the region’s development. Perhaps the best example of this cross-sectoral approach is Philadelphia’s Knowledge Industry Partnership (KIP), a broad-based coalition of the region’s civic, business, government, and academic leaders working together to maximize the impact of the region’s knowledge industry. KIP promotes the region as “One Big Campus” to prospective students, encourages them to explore the city upon matriculation, and sponsors internships and externships (with over 2,500 placements to date) all designed to bolster the region’s supply and retention of knowledge economy workers.17 A similar effort called College 360 seeks to “enroll, engage, and employ” students in Northeast Ohio.18

Building Upon the Momentum

While these four forces hold promise, colleges and universities and their external stakeholders need to build on their momentum. A 2005 Carol R. Goldberg Seminar report co-sponsored by the Boston Foundation and the University College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts reported that leaders across sectors were optimistic about the future of town-gown relations but argued that more strategic, sustained commitments were needed to institutionalize collaborative approaches. As former Northeastern University President Richard Freeland put it, “Our challenge within academia is to shift toward actively working with community leaders for our mutual benefit. The challenge for local communities and civic officials is to move toward seeing such institutions as critical engines of regional development. What is clear, of course, is that these twin paradigm shifts are the mirror image of each other. One can’t happen without the other.”19

As academic-based organizations like Campus Compact strengthen institutional commitments to public service to meet their part of this bargain, they ought to branch out and/or foster the formation of related efforts to help replicate best practices in community and government relations, economic development, and town-gown alliance building. Specifically, they should encourage colleges and universities to:

  1. Marshal institutional resources in support of host communities’ petitions for more state aid to help compensate for tax-exempt property. While colleges and universities are growing the knowledge economy and providing new external value, this doesn’t radically change the fact that many host municipalities are still often strapped for cash due to their excessive reliance on the property tax, meaning that town-gown relations will continue to be raw unless new mechanisms are created to provide relief to municipalities. While many institutions have agreed to make PILOT, they ought to partner with host communities in pursuit of more creative and sustainable solutions to strengthen local government’s financial model. Connecticut and Rhode Island offer best practices examples. The State of Connecticut is mandated to reimburse its cities and towns nearly 80% of tax revenues that go uncollected from nonprofit institutions. The State of Rhode Island reimburses 27%. Such policies recognize the importance of investing in both non-profit academic institutions and municipal governments alike as part of a holistic statewide economic development strategy.
  2. Create and commit to community investment goals across all institutional business line functions. Too few colleges set community investment goals across all corporate functions like purchasing, employment, and investments. Regardless of their other good works, institutions that do not incorporate community concerns in all of their operations risk being labeled hypocritical. Colleges should seek to direct purchasing to area vendors, target employment to nearby residents in need, consider joint mixed-use real estate ventures with local stakeholders, and invest in area assets whenever possible like any other major business looking to brandish its corporate citizenship credentials.
  3. Document their economic and community impact regularly, highlighting opportunities for further development. Such promotion can do as much to raise awareness and inspire efforts on campus as off.
  4. Pursue sectoral and cross-sectoral alliances when strategically advantageous on issues such as regional talent retention. Such alliances are commonplace in the health care sector and would enable higher education to advance its collective interests and offer a vehicle with which related government and business associations could partner on knowledge economy strategies. Private colleges and universities should particularly explore ways in which they can support public higher education as part of a wider strategy to strengthen the sector’s role in a regional economy.

Campus Compact provides an instructive model by which colleges and universities share best practices in embedding engagement in higher education. Building upon this model is critical to enable the Commonwealth and the entire country to maintain its economic edge and to continue to redefine town-gown as a positive term that connotes opportunity rather than acrimony.


1 James Davitt Rooney & Julia Gittleman, “A New Era of Higher Education-Civic Partnerships: The Role and Impact of Colleges and Universities in Greater Boston Today”, October 2005, The Boston Foundation at 27. back

2 The Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) & CEOs for Cities, “Leveraging Colleges and Universities for Urban Economic Growth ? An Action Agenda”, 2003 at 36. back

3 University of Pennsylvania Office of the Vice President for Government, Community & Public Affairs, “Urban Alliance: How Penn’s Dynamic Engagement Transformed the Neighborhood,” 2004 at 1. back

4 Id. at 5, 9, 12. back

5 See ICIC & CEOs for Cities, 13. back

6 See Clark University, Clark and the Community: Education at back

7 See Rooney & Gittleman, Boston Foundation, 22. back

8 See Rhode Island School of Design, News, Press Releases: Mayor Cicilline Reaches an Historic Agreement with Providence Colleges + Universities. back

9 See Rooney & Gittleman, Boston Foundation, 15. back

10 Appleseed, Inc., “Engines of Economic Growth: The Economic Impact of Boston’s Eight Research Universities on the Metropolitan Boston Area”, 2003, Boston College, et al., 6-7. back

11 See Appleseed, Boston College, et al., 3. back

12 See Rooney & Gittleman, Boston Foundation, 14 back.

13 See Appleseed, Boston College, et al., 6. back

14 Michael Porter, Cluster Mapping Project, Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, Harvard Business School. back

15 Council on Government Relations, The Bayh-Dole Act: A Guide to the Law and Implementing Regulations, 1999. back

16 Robert Weissbourd and Christopher Berry, “The Changing Dynamics of Urban America,” CEOs for Cities, Executive Summary, 2004, 6. back

17 See Philadelphia’s Knowledge Industry Partnership. back

18 See College 360. back

19 See Rooney & Gittleman, Boston Foundation, 9. back

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