How are towns and communities reacting to campuses opening up?

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:


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?

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7 Responses to How are towns and communities reacting to campuses opening up?

  1. mkt42 says:

    With regard to COVID-19, I am thinking that the town-gown relationship will vary; there might be some towns where the locals may be less inclined to mask up and to physically distance themselves than the students are. (Because the students might have no choice but to be 100% compliant with mask-wearing while on campus and might be say 80% compliant when they walk off campus. Meanwhile the townspeople might be only 33% compliant. )

    California has continued to occasionally create a major new public campus; choosing the location of the campus is a major decision. AFAICT the situation can be summed thusly:

    Everyone wants to have a college campus in their town. But no one wants it to be in their neighborhood.

  2. Ed Webb says:

    Town-gown relations is a term I heard in the UK reasonably frequently, particularly in cities and towns where the student population is large relative to the local population.

  3. Roxann Riskin says:

    Yale U ‘s compact… I’m wondering how this will impact New Haven and surrounding towns.

  4. Glen McGhee says:

    The aspect only touched on here is how Covid is making the generational divide quite visible — in towns, on campus, and especially in the classroom.
    As Karl Mannheim and Peter Berger, and other sociologists have pointed out, the interests of each “generation” differ, and can even be in conflict, as now. With such low fatality levels, students aren’t nearly concerned as much as older adult professors.
    And notice how this extends to primary and secondary education as well.
    Covid is showing students that WANT to go back, but teachers that DO NOT.
    What a switch!

  5. Anthony Helm says:

    I agree that the town-gown relationship varies widely. We know that businesses everywhere are being hit hard by Covid-19. I think it is the small towns and rural areas that depend on the population inflow to middle- and large-scale education institutions that will feel the most pain, but as pointed out, will also likely be spared the potential spread from that same population. In other places, it’s not like the college-age population just drops in from space, though it feels like it. After all, those students are coming from somewhere, and many schools tend to draw their population from the local areas first. Won’t students who don’t leave to go away to college contribute instead to the local economy (to the degree possible)? Or, will the fact that they are not “going away” to school mean their discretionary income is curtailed by parents who no longer need to support their distant students? Regardless, things do not look good for the economy in the next 6-12 months.

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  7. dmf says:

    we are in a dire no-win situation here in Iowa City, our craven Gov. has decided that she once again is no longer in favor of the long trumpeted Repuglican value of local control when it doesn’t suit her agenda and denied mayors any authority to enforce public health recommendations on masks and such and our equally craven college president is plowing ahead with in-person classes, gymnasiums, dorms, social meetings of up to 50 people, football stadium games, etc.
    This is really a one ‘factory’ town and if they didn’t have students on campus we would be facing an even more dire fiscal situation when we are already under severe austerity from state/federal defunding and losses of citizen spending and taxation, so people will die and people will be left with lingering disabilities and public services will be cut more and the our town and the university will become even less desirable places and round and round we go down the bowl…

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