Fair Share

Institutions can take away as much as they give to their communities

Campus communicators can find themselves enmeshed in community debates about the effect of their institution on local resources and quality of life. Problems are more readily resolvable when an institution builds and maintains strong community relationships, takes local concerns seriously, communicates freely, and tends to internal as well as external constituencies.

By Andrea Jarrell

For good reason, campus leaders see their institutions as creators of resources — knowledge, jobs, future leaders. But the very size of campuses and sometimes their missions can lead to the external perception — real or imagined — that they are usurping rather than contributing to a community's resources: fresh water, a fragile ecosystem, political capital, or developable land. Campus communicators often find themselves on the front lines of campus-community debates about the use of these resources, charged with the tasks of sorting through a situation's complexity, helping forge solutions, and ultimately, maintaining the institution's reputation and the public's good will.

More Than Meets the Eye

Understanding the stakes — which often means understanding opposing views — is crucial. "When you talk about finite resources, we are sometimes perceived negatively as taking 'good kids' from the public school system," says Paul Geise, head of the Pine Point School. After Pine Point received a grant providing scholarships to disadvantaged students in neighboring communities, a local reporter vehemently asked Geise during a phone interview if he thought removing students from their own neighborhoods would provide them with a better education. With voucher programs just getting started in the area, Geise anticipates "a certain vitriol" in those public conversations, especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed voucher programs. Despite what Geise sees as turf battles over per-student state funding allocations, he says, "ultimately, these debates kindle good dialogue about the real stakes — ensuring that every child has equal access to excellent education."

For many institutions, resource conflicts at first appear to be about land — buying, use, and zoning. A closer look, however, often reveals an entirely different set of concerns. When Choate Rosemary Hall razed what it considered a historically unimportant house 12 years ago, its host town of Wallingford, Connecticut, was outraged. One issue residents raised was history: Did the house represent the town's history or the school's? "The school was not sensitive to the fact that we're two blocks from the center of town. Our histories and our futures are absolutely connected," says Choate Communications Director Charlotte Murphy. "The community saw the house and its history as theirs." At the time, community relations wasn't part of Murphy's job description. Now she sits on the board of the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust, and when the school recently considered razing another historic building, Murphy and other officials got the preservation trust and neighbors involved and ultimately Choate decided to renovate it instead.

Even seemingly common squabbles between a campus' students and neighbors can bloom into broad questions of community survival, affordable housing, and political capital, according to an article in the winter 2001 issue of Connection, the New England Board of Higher Education's journal on education and economic development. "As more non-resident, and thus non-voting students move into the [Boston] area, neighborhoods lose political leverage (ever hear of college students pressuring a city councilor to fill potholes?)," the article states. "'The exodus of neighborhood residents breaks up communities where families had lived together for generations. … Ultimately, the neighborhood loses political power as active voters leave, and local officials feel they can neglect residents' needs with impunity,'" says one Boston community activist quoted in the article.

On the other hand, in some cities institutions have been criticized for draining political power from the community not because their students are apathetic but because they run for local offices and win. Jane Lingo, assistant director of university relations and community liaison at George Washington University, says in elections students are often faulted for lacking the experience of community candidates, but she has seen students not only win council seats but successfully play an active role within these governing bodies.

The Connection article also points out that "even [in] less-populated sections of New England, such as Burlington, Vermont, housing issues are a point of contention between universities and their host communities." The University of Vermont's vice president for student and campus life, Thomas J. Gustafson, agrees that seemingly straightforward disputes between students and UVM's Burlington neighbors can actually be complex quality-of-life issues. "The university was seen as contributing to the destruction of the neighborhood when landlords converted old Victorian single-family houses to multiple apartments and driveways went from having two cars to 10," he says. "In addition, our students were paying very high rents for crowded apartments. Safety concerns were also raised, tragically, when a student died in a fire."

Gustafson, who is responsible for city relations, says UVM and Burlington spent many years pointing fingers at each other about who was at fault and who was responsible for fixing problems. Recognizing the university's and the city's mutual dependence was the turning point. He adds that campus leaders have to gain a sense of the multifaceted nature of these issues. Landlords, neighbors, students, city government officials, and university administrators all have a role to play in their resolution.

A different sort of land-use issue is keeping the University of Minnesota and several other institutions embroiled in a battle over an Arizona mountaintop. For more than 20 years, UMN astronomers had been looking for an opportunity to learn more about the early history of the universe. They thought they found a way to do so by joining the Large Binocular Telescope consortium, a project in the late stages of construction at the top of Arizona's Mount Graham. (Once operational, the LBT will be the world's most powerful telescope.) Environmentalists and traditional Apaches raised serious concerns, however.

"When this started, the senior leadership at the university knew very little about the nature of objections from those who regard the mountain as either extremely sensitive environmentally or a sacred place from an Apache cultural perspective," says UMN's vice president for university relations, Sandra Gardebring. "So the first step in our process has been information gathering." Gardebring and several other UMN representatives have traveled to Mount Graham and have met with opponents both in Arizona and on campus. "They have a substantive objection to what we're doing. I don't want them to have a procedural objection as well," Gardebring says. "I don't want them to be able to say, 'You wouldn't talk to us. You don't know what it's like on the mountain.' We want to convey that we have respect for their concerns. Ultimately, what we're doing is weighing the university's knowledge-building and curiosity-driven research agenda against other values that are in themselves quite appealing."

Communicate Everything

To truly address the perception of the institution depleting resources, communicators need to tell the whole story. For many schools, colleges, and universities, the impetus for developing economic impact statements has been to counter the "university on the hill" image of indifference at best, the "occupying army" (as Connection characterizes it) at worst. (See "Rooted in Growth".) In the Mount Graham debate, UMN strives to be transparent in its decision-making process: "I think it's very important not to batten down the hatches," Gardebring says.

George Washington University, which the Washington Post dubbed "the university that ate Foggy Bottom [its surrounding neighborhood]," contends daily with the perception that the university uses more than its fair share of scarce Washington, DC, real estate. GW's Lingo considers prior notice an important aspect of communicating the institution's whole story. "Life is subjective, and people in a neighborhood are often opposed to an institution's growth because they ask, 'How will this affect me?'" she says. "If what you're going to do will affect the community, bringing them into the discussions is a really good idea."

For Pine Point School, communicating everything means access. "We're not going to defend or justify the school," says Pine Point's Geise. "Instead, we open our doors aggressively to the community and to students and faculty from other schools who come to campus for programs and exchanges on a regular basis. Our unwavering strategy is to be a community resource."

Choate's Murphy also strongly advises "getting connected." Choate administrators have made an effort to match positions at the school with town equivalents — the director of community safety, for example, is in regular contact with the police and fire chiefs and the director of athletics is in close touch with the Wallingford parks and recreation department, which often uses campus facilities. The goal is to build and maintain relationships. In addition, faculty and staff sit on various town boards and on the boards of influential civic groups. "It's much less time-intensive to develop and enjoy good relationships up front than it is to be in a 'my lawyer will talk to your lawyer' mode," she says, adding that getting connected also means knowing faculty and staff well enough to make useful membership recommendations when a community board or committee is forming.

Burlington's mayor, Peter Clavelle, characterizes UVM's relationship with Burlington as having transformed from "contentious standstill to dynamic collaboration." Still, Gustafson advises, "Even as you celebrate your successes, be very realistic about problems that haven't been solved or can't ever be completely solved." During a recent coffee reception for neighbors hosted by UVM's president, Gustafson says one woman asked how the administration could encourage students not to come and go at all hours. "The president said, 'You're not going to change that behavior. They're young and they will experiment and keep different hours than a 40-year-old. It doesn't mean we're going to condone destructive behavior but you need to be realistic about how much we can accomplish.'"

Communicating everything can involve a certain risk for an institution, Gustafson says, especially when the first step is acknowledging that a problem exists. But, depending on the way leaders handle issues large and small, the institution can accumulate good will. As an example, he cites UVM being one of the first institutions to apply for a grant to address alcohol use. "A lot of institutions avoided applying because to be considered for the grant, you had to admit you had a big problem," he says. "But it's important to focus on the solutions rather than the problems. So even though you have to say up front, 'Yep, we think we've got a binge drinking problem,' the positives we've seen by admitting it and trying to do something outweigh the concerns of, 'we better not say we have a problem or someone won't think well of us.'" UMN's Gardebring agrees, adding that the way you handle one issue can spill over to others. "If you answer the hard questions, if you don't obfuscate and hide behind a lot of complicated language, over time you build public capital for the next time."

The Forest for the Trees

Communicators should be sure to build that same kind of good will within the institution. "You ignore to your peril internal constituencies who may be contacted by outside organizers," Gardebring says. "We have long-standing relationships with the Native American community here in Minnesota in a number of areas related to teaching and research. When they were contacted by opponents to the LBT project we were concerned that those relationships would be jeopardized."

By distributing Choate Rosemary Hall's economic impact statement internally, Murphy ensures that faculty and staff are articulate and well informed rather than defensive about Choate's relationship to Wallingford and greater New Haven. "I get a lot of feedback every year about how having this information makes faculty and staff comfortable when they are involved in purchasing, dealing with the public, or just taking their children to the local elementary school," she says. "It keeps us honest — with ourselves and our external audiences."

UVM's Gustafson advises being aware of another potential internal/external pitfall: "Everybody in a constrained budgetary environment worries that funding will be diverted from an institution's primary mission to deal with external conflicts." He thinks people on campus often believe off-campus events and programs are marginal activities, and he advises the leadership of the institution, especially the president, "to say it really isn't marginal when it involves our students and the fundamental reputation of the university."

This article is from the November/December 2002 issue.