As we look to the fall semester and consider higher education’s unfolding plans, what do campus towns think? What are people in a school’s immediate community expecting and planning as their local college or university strategizes for autumn?
There’s a long history to what Americans* call “town-gown” relations, the sometimes vexed, sometimes mutually beneficial interaction between colocated academics and nonacademics. This is where all kinds of alliances and culture clashes have taken place for generations. Questions of student behavior off campus, policing, zoning, mutual respect and the lack thereof, academic-merchant relationships, etc. are all standard for the topic.
So how do they play out as campus and town alike approach fall 2020?
One crucial dimension is the economic. Simply put, the campus population – mostly students, the largest number – contribute economically to the local community. They buy and rent goods and services from non-campus merchants: food and drink to conerts, apartments, tattoos, cars, and stationary supplies. Some students also work in the nearby area. A college or university that hosts all or most of its population this fall is one that will boost the local economy. One that’s online, in contrast, represents an economic hit.
At the same time, local merchants, nonprofits, government agencies, and the general community may anticipate challenges in obtaining these in-person benefits. Setting aside the usual town-gown issues, there is the newer problem of the pandemic. How will locals cope with students who fail to follow public health measures? How many maskless students can a bar or pizza joint refuse to serve before they get a bad reputation? How does a landlord feel about renters who might host parties where social distancing flies out the window? Conversely, what frictions will arise when members of the academic community interact with locals who fail to heed public health measures?
On Twitter Barry Burkett thinks that all of these dynamics are in play now:
Probably similar to housing issues – towns want the college kids in the towns living in the town until they realize what a headache the demographic is. Currently the $ is winning, small biz needs students so towns will fight for return of that pop.
— Barry Burkett (@BarryLBurkett) July 15, 2020
I was reminded of this question when a friend shared a story about Amherst, Massachusetts, where UMass Amherst is planning on opening up. The leading town authority is very worried about those plans:
[Town Manager Paul] Bockelman contends in his communication, which he said should not be seen as anti-student, that the university’s reopening plan could “fuel the conditions for a massive spread of COVID-19” and overwhelm the public health infrastructure, including at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, strain EMTs and paramedics and force public safety officers into potentially dangerous situations.
He specifically called out one part of campus life:
“Without normal university programming, students will have to produce their own college experiences, creating conditions that will likely result in a spike in COVID-19 cases in the town…”
And Bockelman offers four very concrete points for the local UMass to adopt.
One Sheldon Jacobson goes further, connecting young students with an older and/or sicker town population:
Likely lapses in student adherence to social distancing and face mask requirements will be penalized with new infections. These student infections will fuel the virus transmission highway, inevitably reaching at-risk people in the host community.
On the flip side, what happens to towns when the gowns don’t show up, because they’re all remote? A Forbes article includes an interview with the “mayor of Oxford, Ohio — home of Miami University of Ohio — Kate Rousmaniere… both a long-term resident and an employee of the university…” Rousemaniere reports concerns with housing, as local
residents are concerned that the decline in the student population will create less rentals, which will empty out the housing stock of the community. Empty houses rapidly become an eyesore, raise possible issues of vermin and housing decay and, over time, permanent residents will see their property values deteriorate.”
An NBC story offers some pithy takes on this, referring to communities with online campuses as ghost towns, and including a zinger:
“When a university sneezes, the town gets pneumonia. Now when the university has pneumonia, what does that mean for the town?” Stephen Gavazzi, professor of human sciences at Ohio State University, said.
At my alma mater,
University of Michigan students contribute almost $95 million a year in discretionary spending to the local economy in Ann Arbor, according to the university.
Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s, an iconic deli company that owns multiple operations throughout Ann Arbor, said he has furloughed almost a third of its staff from 700 to 450, and estimated that sales were 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
“There are many businesses that are doing much worse,” Weinzweig said.
Either way, COVID-19 seems likely to hit the town side of the academic-community relationship hard. How will campus and community coordinate? What kinds of tensions and benefits will result?
How is your non-academic community responding to these autumnal academic possibilities?
*I wrote “Americans” because I haven’t heard anyone else use the term. Is “town-gown” current elsewhere, especially in the Anglosphere?