Town-gown a land-grant's duty

Stephen M. Gavazzi
Dean and director of The Ohio State University at Mansfield

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Creating an engaging relationship with its surrounding community can and should be a public university's mission, writes Stephen Gavazzi, and his research shows the commandments to follow to make it a success.

Interest in how campuses and communities interact — typically referred to as town-gown relationships — is growing at a steady clip. Most universities now emphasize the need to engage more fully with the communities they serve. Emphasis on the importance of town-gown relationships fits especially well within the mission of the land-grant university. The Morrill Act that gave rise to the land-grant mission in the 19th century called for universities to serve as regionalized institutions of learning in partnership with the communities that surrounded them. It has been argued, however, that this part of the land-grant mission largely has been abandoned by many universities, becoming a “box to be checked” rather than a duty to be fulfilled. This line of thinking assumes that universities have many other competing demands that, over time, have pulled the focus away from meeting the needs of communities.

So how well are universities actually doing when it comes to upholding this mission? This is the question I set out to answer through a set of interviews I conducted with university presidents and city administrators over the past year. As I report in my latest book — The Optimal Town-Gown Marriage: Taking Campus-Community Outreach and Engagement to the Next Level — it is very clear that the relative health of a town-gown relationship is the direct result of actions taken by both campus and community leaders. In fact, there was so much agreement in these interviews about 10 specific issues that I decided to label them the “10 Commandments of Town-Gown Relationships.”

These 10 commandments can actually be broken into three subsets of directives. Taken together, the first four commandments serve as investment advice regarding the time and attention that campus and community leaders must give to building and sustaining their relationships with one another. Making town-gown relationships a high priority, setting aside the appropriate amount of time to nurture these associations, treating your partners with the utmost of respect and seeking win-win outcomes wherever and whenever possible become the hallmarks of these relationship investment-oriented commandments.

The next three commandments focus on the central cast of characters outside of leadership circles that have the greatest impact on campus-community interaction. Institutions of higher learning exist for the primary purpose of educating students, and those students — for better and for worse — are the principal group that members of the community will interact with or otherwise get to know. Faculty members, in turn, are the individuals who are responsible for teaching those classes and conducting those research studies that provide the vehicles for students to gain their first entry points into the community. And of course those members of the community who are alumni — and especially those who have risen to positions of leadership within the community — represent the group of citizens who have the greatest potential to impact the quality of the town-gown relationship.



The final three commandments focus attention on the past, present and future of town-gown relationships. Those campus and community leaders who do not understand the history of campus-community interaction surely are doomed to repeat it. Likewise, those same leaders who are not using standardized measurement tools to assess the quality of their present town-gown relationships are destined to forever play a guessing game (and one that often as not will generate misleading information). And finally, the most effective university administrators and municipal authorities are those individuals who plan for a future that does not require their physical presence to maintain the work they have accomplished.

All of these directives are best thought of in terms of what campus and community leaders are doing (or not doing) in terms of following the town-gown commandments. That said, there is plenty of good news for Ohio State as an institution. First, it is clear from my own work on The Ohio State University at Mansfield campus that our regional campuses are playing a huge role in terms of impacting town-gown relationship health in a positive manner. In large part, this is due to the ability of our smaller campuses to be so nimble in response to the needs of the more modestly sized communities we serve. Second, what is most impressive about the Columbus campus is the fact that there are literally hundreds of faculty and staff members currently involved in activities designed to improve the quality of life in the significantly larger metropolitan Columbus area. Taken together, all six Ohio State campuses are engaged in the complex task of fulfilling our land-grant mission in a 21st-century environment that is more urbanized, more technologically based and more keenly focused on the concept of being indispensable stewards to communities throughout Ohio and beyond.

The Ten Commandments of Town-Gown Relationships

Town-Gown Commandment #1: Thou shall give high-priority to efforts that build more harmonious relationships between campus and community members.

Town-Gown Commandment #2: Thou shall not miscalculate the time involved in developing and maintaining harmonious campus-community relationships.

Town-Gown Commandment #3: Thou shall honor your campus and community partners.

Town-Gown Commandment #4: Thou shall seek win-win outcomes wherever and whenever possible in campus-community interactions.

Town-Gown Commandment #5: Thou shall remember that students are the most important point of connection between campus and community.

Town-Gown Commandment #6: Thou shall know the power of your alumni, especially those living in communities immediately surrounding the campus.

Town-Gown Commandment #7: Thou shall respect the notion that faculty members represent the face of both campus and community.

Town-Gown Commandment #8: Thou shall appreciate the history of the campus-community relationship you inherited.

Town-Gown Commandment #9: Thou shall continuously assess the present state of the relationship between campus and community representatives.

Town-Gown Commandment #10: Thou shall leave the campus-community relationship in better shape than you found it. 

About the author

Stephen M. Gavazzi
Stephen M. Gavazzi -
Dean and director of The Ohio State University at Mansfield

Stephen M. Gavazzi is dean and director of The Ohio State University at Mansfield and a professor of human sciences.


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