Chapter 5: Bridging the Town-Gown Divide

by Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Ph.D.

Posted on January 10, 2019

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The town-gown divide is not a new issue for college presidents. The relationships between colleges and the communities they inhabit have always been complex.

At many institutions, including at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, the difference in demographics between those on and off campus can be considerable; for example, differences can exist in socioeconomic status, educational opportunity, race and ethnicity, political viewpoints, and immigration status. The greater the differences, the deeper the divides may be, but there are ways to bridge those differences and, in turn, to enrich the experiences our students have on our campuses and in our communities.

Our challenge and our opportunity is to connect more deeply to our neighboring communities. Our colleges and universities can benefit those communities, and those communities can provide our students with real-world learning experiences that will prepare them for life after college and instill in them the responsibility to be active, informed citizens.

The Challenge
Recently, both colleges and municipalities have seen increasing pressure on their budgets. The economic model in higher education is challenged because our fixed expenses grow faster than revenues. In the court of public opinion, colleges and universities also feel considerable pressure to provide an employment base, invest locally, drive economic growth, and demonstrate their positive impact on and value to communities in myriad ways. Municipalities, on the other hand, are under economic stress to provide services with shrinking federal and state budgets, and colleges and universities with nonprofit status don’t contribute to their traditional/recognizable tax base.

Our relationships to the towns and cities our institutions call home are ever more important.  

At the same time, our relationships to the towns and cities our institutions call home are ever more important. Our students benefit from the opportunities presented by our communities. And towns and cities with institutions of higher education benefit directly from our research and jobs and indirectly from the fact that cities with prominent institutions of higher education attract a stronger, more educated workforce. Indeed, Hartford is one of the top 10 cities where educated millennials live.

The Opportunity
Given this complex relationship, how do we bridge the modern-day divide between town and gown, campus and surrounding community, school and city? How can we forge a relationship such that both the higher education institution and its surrounding community thrive? Hartford, Connecticut, and Trinity College provide an excellent model to consider these questions.

As is surely the case where you are, here in Hartford, many expectations are placed on institutions of higher education. We are expected to serve as a major regional employer, offering stable jobs with good pay and excellent benefits, and to support the local economy: our students spend money in the community, and their family members and friends spend money when they come to campus, providing real and tangible, albeit periodic, boons to the local economy. Additionally, special events on campus bring alumni and others. Trinity College’s economic impact on the state’s economy is almost $1 billion a year [CCIC Report, 2017].

We are expected to help solve complex local challenges as varied as poverty, educational inequalities, public health, housing, and crime through our contributions to research and community service.  

We are expected to help solve complex local challenges as varied as poverty, educational inequalities, public health, housing, and crime through our contributions to research and community service. There is an expectation that we provide services and intellectual and cultural activities and that our facilities and arenas meet community needs. Just as important, we are perceived as an active voice and a moral compass for the community on a wide range of issues, from free speech to immigration and affirmative action. There is also an expectation that we attract and retain educated, talented employees, as well as educate the local workforce. Finally, we are expected to be engines of development. How often have you heard that “eds and meds” are essential to spur local development? Many residents recognize that we play a vital role in providing safety, security, and stability to the neighborhood. Indeed, we are community anchors that do not move. Nevertheless, these are large and complex needs to fulfill.

Because we are a nearly 200-year-old institution with a healthy balance sheet (and an endowment of more than $600 million), we are perceived as the wealthy castle on the hill. The perception is that we are flush with cash and that we have not used our considerable resources to invest in the city. There also is a perception that all of our students are wealthy, are from outside of the Hartford area, and are largely uninterested in the local community and will leave when they graduate. There is a perception that the Trinity College community, more than uninterested, looks down on the local community. The stark differences in the demographics, mentioned earlier, contribute to such misperceptions.

Reality—Past and Present
Trinity College’s history is inextricably intertwined with that of the city. The citizens of Hartford provided money and land to support the College’s founding in 1823. In 1878, the College moved to its current location on Summit Street, and the land where the previous campus sat became home to the state Capitol.

Trinity students and faculty have helped the city overcome historic floods and fires with their labor, their talent, and their financial support. And our more recent investments in the city include the development of the Learning Corridor in the 1990s (which contains four separate K-12 schools in an area that was an abandoned bus depot), Trinfo.Café (which provides computer literacy training, a community garden, and other services to our surrounding neighborhoods), and our distinctive Legislative Internship and Health Fellows Programs (in which our students spend semesters or years working in the state legislature or local hospitals, respectively), to name a few. We have strong relationships with neighborhood organizations. I have spent many an evening in church basements at Neighborhood Revitalization Zone meetings, and I sit on the boards of several local nonprofits.

Today, our focus is on continuing to build elements of the relationship that align with the College’s core academic mission. Indeed, as our histories are intertwined, so, too, are our futures.

Doubling Down on Our Distinctiveness
In Trinity College’s new strategic plan, Summit, Hartford and our relationship to it figure prominently as one of our three primary areas of focus for the future. We articulate broad goals related to enhancing research and experiential opportunities for students and to redefining and recommitting to Trinity’s role in advancing the region. It is significant that we have set such aims, as doing so signals to all—those on campus and off—how integral we believe our location is to the education we provide, as well as the seriousness with which we regard our role in the region.

Trinity has a history of offering Community Learning (CL) courses that provide academic credit for classes in which a faculty member and students take on projects that help address issues of concern from local neighborhood groups. We have some 20 courses that involve student engagement in Hartford, a number that’s growing every year.

With the establishment last year of a presence in Hartford’s central business district (at Constitution Plaza), we are expanding and enhancing experiential learning opportunities. The space is home to the new Liberal Arts Action Lab, a collaboration between Trinity College and Capital Community College that brings together student and faculty consultants with neighborhood groups to study and recommend solutions to specific local challenges.

This fall, we’ve launched the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER), integrating five community engagement programs at the College. With better coordination and enhanced institutional support, CHER will enable deeper and more effective collaboration and strengthened connections between Trinity College and the Hartford community.

With a grant from the Mellon Foundation, we’ve launched a Public Humanities Collaborative, which provides summer opportunities for students to work with Trinity faculty and local cultural and historical institutions to produce humanities scholarship and new exhibits and public projects in Hartford.

Trinity also has recently established a Center for Caribbean Studies to embrace the broader Caribbean as an area for scholarly inquiry as well as to celebrate and study the Caribbean character of the city of Hartford.

We added an essay to our application asking students to write about why they want to come to a college in Hartford. More and more of our students arrive on campus with a knowledge of and appreciation for the city.  

And we are—strategically, deliberately—seeking students (including those from Hartford) who want to be in this city and who understand the distinctive opportunities of living and learning in Hartford. Two years ago, we added an essay to our application asking students to write about why they want to come to a college in Hartford. More and more of our students arrive on campus with a knowledge of and appreciation for the city. During first-year orientation, we are now very deliberate about connecting incoming students with Hartford, including having them walk through our diverse neighborhoods. Bridging divides often starts on a very personal level by establishing a sense of comfort and security that begins when our students walk through local neighborhoods.

We also have been very active in building relationships with the other institutions of higher education in Hartford that collectively serve more than 30,000 students to create more of a college-town feel. A recent Brookings study underscores how important institutions of higher education are in attracting a college-educated workforce to a city. Trinity College continues to support entrepreneurial activities in the city using our incredibly strong alumni network. It is important that higher education, not just Trinity College, is perceived as supporting the community. However, what we can do as a small liberal arts college has its limitations, and we don’t have the same kind of influence that a large, multifaceted research university has. Nevertheless, we can have and are having an impact on our capital city and our surrounding neighborhood.

Here are the most important lessons that I’ve learned in my work in Hartford. First, presidents must be active and visible in the community. Show up for the local charity galas and fundraising luncheons; serve (with dedication) on area boards; and remind others that you’re not just an institutional leader, you’re a local resident. Second, stability and consistency in the relationship are essential. One-day events that bring together college and community are fun and helpful bonding experiences, but consistent work with a few organizations is more important than sporadic work with many. Third, building true partnerships with community members requires that each side gives and each side gains. One-sided partnerships where only one side benefits are bound to fail and become unsustainable.

Whether you’re in a city, a suburb, or a rural environment, your location plays an enormous role in defining your institution’s identity.  

Whether you’re in a city, a suburb, or a rural environment, your location plays an enormous role in defining your institution’s identity. Your relationship to that location, in turn, can and should be among your most distinctive assets. At Trinity College, we have embraced Hartford for the asset that it is, and every day we work to connect our students to the area. The more we succeed at that, the richer their experiences will be and the broader their perspectives will become. We believe in the power of place to inform and transform our students, and we believe, in turn, in our students’ power to improve the communities they inhabit now and those they will help lead in the future.