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"The Leaders of Today with the Minds of Tomorrow" by Sarah Dougherty

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

The Leaders of Today with the Minds of Tomorrow:

Using the Town-Gown Relationship to Improve Social and Environmental Sustainability

by Sarah Dougherty, Fairleigh Dickinson University

Abstract: In a college town, there is an important relationship between the residents of the “town” and the students and faculty at the school who each wear a “gown.” This is called the “town-gown” relationship, and it is typically unfriendly and unpleasant. When cities and their local universities develop and strengthen the bonds between them, however, this town-gown relationship can instead become synergistic and mutually advantageous. Together, the town and gown can act as one powerful force of change, a catalyst for social progress. Such combined town-gown efforts can help society make strides towards greater social and environmental sustainability that can benefit both parties and the world at large.



The Town-Gown Relationship

What is the Town-Gown Relationship?

The town-gown relationship is the connection between a college and the local borough it is located in. It describes the bond between the citizens of the local “town” and the academics at the nearby university who each wear a graduation “gown.” Like most relationships, the town-gown relationship can be negative or positive.

Negative Town-Gown Relationships

Friction between the town and gown has existed since the dawn of academia. Even at the first medieval universities in the 12th century, there was tension between students and ordinary community members (Slabbert, 2015). These early universities drew their revenue from the Catholic Church and were thus largely independent of municipal authority; because of this, scholars were often exempt from civil law. Therefore, the communities that played host to these universities often had trouble with unruly students (Slabbert, 2015). Comparable situations have led to a long history of town-gown antagonism.

Universities today may not be funded by the church as they were in medieval times, but they have similar economic impositions on the community. For instance, most universities are nonprofit public service organizations that do not have to pay property taxes yet may still draw on local services to support their operations (Obrien & Sakris, 2014). As universities grow in size, it may also limit the tax base of the local communities, furthering the problem. Additionally, community residents may feel that they have little influence over a university’s construction decisions for university property that could impact shared local resources.

Along with these economic impositions on the town, there are a number of practical ones as well; college towns must carry the costs associated with a transient student population. For example, Quinnipiac University has long had a hostile relationship with its host community, Hamden, Connecticut. In 2014 alone, Hamden police responded to 22 incidents involving disorderly conduct by Quinnipiac students living in off-campus, single-family neighborhoods. Community members complained of inappropriate behavior, littering, parking on lawns, and a general disregard of long-established residential routine (Kovner, 2015). Even with small efforts towards change, six years later, in 2020, Quinnipiac still managed to earn the sixteenth place on Princeton Review’s list of universities with the worst town-gown relations (“Town-Gown Relations Are Strained,” 2020). As seen from this struggle in Hamden, Connecticut, loud parties, littering, and added congestion are just a few ways that college students can change the traditional character of a town.

This traditional character then returns when students leave for break and classes are out of session. For example, in Morgantown, West Virginia, the majority of the West Virginia University student population returns home for the summer. Although local businesses benefit from the large student customer base during the school year, one business said that breaks are “a bit of a breather” (Harris, 2017). When classes are out of session, these businesses can maintain their family atmospheres and can encourage locals to come back out and enjoy their town without the pervasive student population. One business in Morgantown also said that locals feel more comfortable in the summer, and local service providers cater more to community members during that time. There is less traffic on the Morgantown streets, more kid friendly entertainment, and a more traditional family atmosphere to the town (Harris, 2017).

Positive Town-Gown Relationships

In recent decades, however, many cities have rejected this “traditional character” in favor of a more modern approach. Instead of college students dominating the town during the school year and locals taking over during the summer, this approach focuses on the synergy of the college and community together. It combines family friendly residential routines with new town aspects that young college students may offer. Although universities may be home to sometimes unruly students, they are also epicenters for economic, social, cultural, and political growth. Towns that regard their local universities as such have cultivated positive relationships with their neighboring college students.

For example, Penn State students in State College, Pennsylvania, created a program to unite neighborhood residents, civic representatives, and fraternity members to work together to create a promising relationship (“Neighbor to Neighbor,” n.d.). The Neighbor to Neighbor Program was launched in 2010 to pair fraternities with local families so they can get to know each other. The level of kindness and respect established by this program between the town and the gown made problems in the future easier to address. After a particularly loud party for instance, one Penn State fraternity made a public apology to the community through the Neighbor to Neighbor Program. Fraternity members also helped improve the relationship with their neighbors by volunteering to do household chores and shovel walkways for residents. In return, some families delivered cookies to brothers or invited their chapter’s leadership to dinner. Although not a typical residential routine, this pairing of university students and community members is arguably better than either on their own. Both the town and gown contributed positively to one another, and this new relationship was later utilized to help fix problems before they even arose (“Neighbor to Neighbor,” n.d.).

Another example of a positive town-gown relationship is that between St. Lawrence University and its host town Canton, New York. This relationship has been growing since the 1990s and most notably began in 1997 when the university dedicated itself to a strategic community plan called the Canton Initiative. Some major goals of this plan included establishing and maintaining a “partnership” spirit between the university and the Canton community as they “pursue projects of mutual advantage together” (Kemp, 2013). This initiative has been so successful in Canton that many alumni with families or those at retirement age come back to live in the area. The project has also had many successes including the preservation and restoration of historic buildings in the town, student support for a major cleanup project of the local park, and support of a new fire station for the community. In turn, the community supported the construction of the new Johnson Hall of Science on St. Lawrence’s campus, made with green and sustainable architecture. These ambitious goals became reality with the synergy created by the Canton Initiative. Instead of remaining as separate spheres, the town and gown in Canton, NY united for the common good; each goal they accomplished together also further strengthened the positive relationship between the campus and community (Kemp, 2013).

How to Establish Positive Town-Gown Relationships

Based on these success stories, a number of important factors have been identified in establishing successful town-gown relationships. One study shows that community members are more supportive of university efforts that benefit the community and not just the university. They are also more supportive when they believe in the efficacy of the project (Obrien & Sakris, 2014). These are just two factors that made the Canton Initiative so successful. The initiative focused on a give and take relationship between Canton and St. Lawrence. The university also informed residents about their goals and the potential benefits in order to gain their support.

Additional key components of a positive town-gown relationship include good communication, measurable outcomes, publicized successes and knowledge, organizational compatibility, simplicity, and most importantly: synergy. The town-gown relationship is a two-way street; both parties must contribute to the relationship, so that they both can benefit from it as well (Martin et al., 2005). In order to cultivate this relationship in Canton, NY, St. Lawrence University first created a group of key community members and university leaders. This board allowed both parties to effectively communicate their goals and helped each to realize what they were doing right and what they needed to improve (Kemp, 2013). Universities with strained town-gown relations such as Quinnipiac University have made few strides towards creating this line of communication between the community and the college. Most sources cite the university president as the most important figure in taking these first steps in creating a successful dialogue between the campus and the surrounding community (Chenoweth, 2017). Once the conversation has been started, a two-way street can be established between the town and gown.

With the establishment of this two-way street, the positive town-gown bond can then be utilized to complete community efforts that are mutually beneficial. As seen with the Canton Initiative, the relationship can be used for combined projects such as historical renovations and campus construction. Even more important, the town-gown synergy can be used as a powerful force towards increased social and environmental sustainability.


The Town-Gown Relationship Can Make a Huge Impact

As seen from these case studies, the town-gown relationship is different at every university; some schools have bad relations with their host communities, while others have beneficial ones. In order to cultivate a positive town-gown connection, both parties must make strides towards compromise and good communication. Although these steps may not be easy, the resulting strength of the town-gown bond makes the effort worth it. Uniting members of the community with academics at the local university forms a powerful team that can make a huge impact. One way that the town-gown team can make an impact on the world is through sustainability. Sustainability focuses on providing for society today while also maintaining the needs of the future. Creating a sustainable world is important for the health and happiness of society, but in reality, it is a difficult goal to accomplish. This is where the town-gown synergy can help; with the power of both the communities and the universities they play host to, the town-gown team can tackle sustainability like no one else can. Town-gown teams can impact social sustainability through service learning and other volunteer projects. They can also affect environmental sustainability through combined efforts towards a greener community. Many town-gown duos are successfully promoting sustainability through such methods already, but if others join, the world’s social and environmental sustainability goals will become closer and closer to a reality every day.

How the Town-Gown Relationship Can be Used to Improve Social Sustainability

Social Sustainability Promotes Overall Wellbeing

Social sustainability is the framework that promotes the wellbeing of people today without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to maintain a healthy community. The United Nations addresses social sustainability with one of its 17 sustainable development goals on the 2030 agenda; it hopes to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being at all ages” (“Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform,” 2020). This term “well-being” encompasses many important factors including physical health, mental health, general happiness, and quality of life. Another important social sustainability goal according to the UN is education. The UN hopes to provide “inclusive and equitable quality education,” and works to “promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (“Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform,” 2020). These UN social sustainability goals are ambitious and all-encompassing. Because of this, it is difficult for just one organization or community to promote social sustainability on its own. Therefore, combined efforts will not only be effective in promoting social wellbeing but will at times be necessary for success. The town-gown force is perfect for such a task.

Service Learning: Students Impacting the Community to Promote Social Sustainability

Service learning on college campuses is particularly successful in promoting social sustainability (Sax, 1997). Service learning refers to a course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students participate in volunteer activities that benefit the community. Students then reflect on the experience to apply what they have learned to course content, to adopt an interdisciplinary focus, and to become more civically engaged. Through town-gown service learning, a student can help the community in many different sectors such as in education, philanthropy, health studies, and infrastructure. But equally important, the student can also promote his or her personal wellbeing through the benefits of volunteering.

For example, through a service learning project at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, freshmen college students tutored struggling low-income elementary school children in reading (Eppler et al., 2011). This project promoted social sustainability in the Greenville community by offering educational opportunities to low-income families. The study showed that most of the children had improved test scores and higher adaptive achievement goals at the end of the semester. Furthermore, at the end of the study, the tutored children showed increased interest in more challenging activities as opposed to easier assignments. The benefits to the college students were even more clear; service learning students became more likely to value service as a way to open their mind, increase self-esteem, and deal with personal problems. They also showed a stronger motivation to pursue community service in the future (Eppler et al., 2011). Therefore, this combined campus community service learning project not only strengthened quality youth education, but it also encouraged future service from university students. It successfully created an environment in which people help people. This is the spirit of social sustainability, made possible by the synergy between the town and gown.

Furthermore, previous studies have shown that this service learning experience was also associated with advances in moral reasoning, prosocial reasoning, and decision-making for student participants (Eppler et al., 2011). Other benefits of volunteering in similar programs include higher levels of happiness, life-satisfaction, sense of control over life, and physical health, all factors that promote a socially sustainable life (Corporation for National & Community Service, 2007). Without the partnership between the town and gown through service learning, these strides towards social sustainability may not have been possible.

Another example is The Corporation for National Service's Learn and Serve America Higher Education (LSAHE), a corporation that consists of more than 100 programs at colleges and universities nationwide that are designed to support service learning through student involvement in community service (Sax, 1997). The program engages students in activities such as working with the homeless, poor, and elderly, improving neighborhood infrastructure, preventing crime, and helping community health, all of which are factors that contribute to the UN social sustainability goals (Sax, 1997). Furthermore, a study of the LSAHE programs showed that student volunteers received just as much benefit to their own wellbeing as the community did, most notably in the area of civic responsibility. After participating in service learning, students were found to feel more committed to serving the community and more likely to volunteer in the future. They were also more likely to dedicate to social change goals including promoting racial understanding, participating in community action programs, and influencing social values (Sax, 1997). Service learning was also found to improve academic development. Students engaged in volunteer activities spent more time on studying and homework and felt more prepared for their career upon graduation than students who did not volunteer. Life skills were improved as well; students were found to have a better understanding of race relations and different cultures after volunteering in the community. They also developed leadership talent, communication skills, and a greater sense of empowerment even years after college (Sax, 1997).

The personal wellbeing of the students participating in these service learning projects was drastically improved over the course of the experience. Students who volunteered in the community were happier and healthier, and they even got the opportunity to learn something new. Furthermore, they were more likely to strive for social change and advocate for sustainability. Without the support of the town, students may not have had the opportunity to dedicate their time to community projects; and without the support of the gown, the community may not have received the plentiful benefits that the students provided. It is only because of positive town-gown relations that the LSAHE service learning projects were so successful at advancing the wellbeing of the community.

Service learning projects may additionally help students focus on an interdisciplinary curriculum. For example, many LSAHE freshmen volunteer projects involved students of all majors helping the community in different ways; this encouraged all students to learn the importance of helping others and the value of civic engagement regardless of their major. Students also learned how to connect their specialties to many different fields of study (Sax, 1997).

Other student volunteer projects focus on a certain discipline. For example, in 2020 Belmont University students, faculty, staff, and alumni worked to create face masks during the COVID-19 crisis. The nursing professors sent over 200 masks to two different locations in need, and other alumni and science major students made even more (McAdams, 2020). Through their efforts to sew and patch together homemade masks, Belmont University helped the community respond to the coronavirus pandemic and improve the health of society. Furthermore, nursing, and other science students had the opportunity to contribute to the field they hope to enter in the future. Pharmacy students at the University of Michigan in Ann Harbor, Michigan, also contributed to help the community during the COVID-19 crisis (Marowski, 2020). Student volunteers helped Michigan Medicine manufacture hand sanitizer by producing 1,000 bottles of hand sanitizer at home. Michigan Medicine workers then worked to apply the Food and Drug Administration approved labeling and distribute the hand sanitizer where needed. While hand sanitizer is not considered a drug, pharmacists often practice compounding such topical solutions; therefore, this volunteer experience allowed the pharmacy students to practice their work and gain valuable intern hours towards their pharmacy degrees. In the process, they also helped to further the social wellbeing of society. Because of these combined student and community member efforts, vital resources were produced to help ease a global pandemic (Marowski, 2020).

Service learning projects such as those presented in these case studies are made possible by the positive relationships between the town and gown in each study. It is because of this synergy that towns are open to student involvement in their communities, and without it, each party may not have the opportunity to receive the benefits that service learning offers. Furthermore, when the spheres of campus and community unite, social sustainability goals are much easier to attain. As seen from these case studies, various aspects of social sustainability can be tackled when the town and gown work as a team through service learning; from quality education to mental and physical wellbeing, communities and the universities they play host to are already chipping away at the UN’s social sustainability goals. However, there is still a long way to go; perhaps if other universities build their town-gown relationships as well, the world can strive even closer to total social sustainability.

The Community Impacting the University to Promote Social Sustainability

While service learning focuses on students volunteering in the neighborhood, other programs bring community members onto campus to promote social sustainability. For example, in 1972, Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, established Florham Institute for Lifelong Learning or FILL. The FILL program seeks to enrich the intellectual lives of those 62 and older; these seniors can audit or enroll in real FDU courses alongside undergraduate students or can opt for Retired Persons Institute (RPI) classes. These classes “include a mixture of academic and informal topics, covering subjects as far-flung as Irish literature, the brain and behavior, meditation, and photography… taught by lifelong learners for lifelong learners” (“FILL Program for Seniors at Florham,” n.d.). FILL students also have access to the FDU recreation center including the pool, gym, and indoor track. The FILL program therefore allows seniors in the community to tap into the diverse academic, cultural, and social opportunities available on FDU’s campus. In turn, the senior learners can share their experience and wisdom with a new generation of their undergraduate classmates. Senior participants in FILL agreed that the program made them feel happy and young again; these seniors now live more socially sustainable lives with the help of the campus community partnership (“FILL Program for Seniors at Florham,” n.d.).

Other community efforts provide a more direct benefit to the students. For example, Madison, New Jersey is home to three private universities: Fairleigh Dickinson University, The College of Saint Elizabeth, and Drew University. College students living in university residence halls at any of these universities are eligible to obtain a Madison Public Library Card. This library card extends borrowing privileges to college students at the local public library, a wonderful educational opportunity. Students can take out anything at the library and their presence also increases the number of library patrons which may help public funding for the library as well (“Borrower Services,” n.d.). This allows the town to make strides towards better social sustainability with regard to ample learning opportunities for all.

Again, it is only because of the positive town-gown relationships in Madison, New Jersey that these social sustainability projects are possible. Because FDU maintains the synergy between the town and gown, community members are open to making their own impact on campus. With these town-gown forces together, many social sustainability goals have already been accomplished. Perhaps if more universities follow this lead, the UN’s goals will start to become a reality all over the world.

How the Town-Gown Relationship Can be Used to Improve Environmental Sustainability

Environmental Sustainability Fulfills the Needs of Today Without Jeopardizing the Needs of the Future

The synergy between the campus and community is very effective in promoting social sustainability, but it can also be utilized to boost environmental sustainability as well. Environmental sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Environmentally sustainable communities take on huge global issues such as climate change, global warming, pollution, loss of biodiversity, ecological collapse, and many more. The UN goals on the 2030 agenda associated with environmental sustainability include affordable and clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, climate action, protection of life below water, and protection of life on land (“Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform”). These goals are equally as ambitious as the UN’s social sustainability goals. They also connect in such a way that requires the help of the private and public sector in unison with universities.

How the Town-Gown Relationship can be Utilized to Promote Environmental Sustainability

Given that systems of energy use and conservation are intertwined, collaboration among campuses and communities is not only preferable but often required for successful planning and implementation of sustainability programs (Obrien & Sakris, 2014). Collaboration is so important, in fact, that there are a number of university initiatives that have failed without the support of the surrounding town. For example, Cornell University once investigated the idea of building eight wind turbines on campus property in Ithaca, New York, as a source for clean energy; but planning for this project abruptly ended as soon as local residents raised concerns about views, property values, migrating birds, and even bat populations (Obrien & Sakris, 2014).

With town support, however, sustainability efforts have a great potential to succeed. For example, in 1995 Purdue University developed a program involving Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) teams. EPICS students earned course credit for participating on design teams to solve technology-based problems with local community nonprofit organizations; since this program was started, these teams have had many successes (Coyle et al., 2005). For example, one ongoing EPICS team mission is the Environmental Improvement Initiative. The current project that this team is tackling involves West Lafayette composting. The student team hopes to implement a food waste collection and composting system for the city of West Lafayette, Indiana. They plan on educating citizens on the importance of composting and reducing food waste as it pertains to sustainability. They also hope to construct citywide compost bins that can be transported to the West Lafayette Wastewater Treatment's anaerobic biodigester. This biodigester utilizes food waste to produce energy and limit the amount of waste that goes to landfills (“West Lafayette Compost,” 2019). This initiative plans to utilize the relationship between the town and gown to partner the EPICS team with the city’s wastewater treatment facility. Although this project is still ongoing, the implications of success are clear. Should the team succeed, the entire city would benefit from cleaner waste disposal and greater environmental sustainability.

Purdue University’s EPICS program also inspired a number of analogous programs at other universities that had similar successes. For example, the EPICS@mines Sustainability team at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology partnered with the Rapid City Sustainability Committee (RCSC) to create a sustainability plan for Rapid City, South Dakota. Through the EPICS program, university students earned course credit for partnering with the committee to investigate, monitor, and plan an initiative for improving the energy efficiency of various city buildings. The engineering students were able to offer RCSC the technical expertise that would have otherwise been unavailable to them. They analyzed the energy efficiency of each building and offered alternatives to improve sustainability. The RCSC used the students’ raw data to advocate for cleaner energy throughout the city; students even had the opportunity to present at a City Council meeting to discuss their plan (Benning et al., 2018). Not only were students able to improve city sustainability, but they also gained valuable career experience in the process. The SD Mines students had hands on experience and worked to solve problems that they may encounter in their future careers. They also had the opportunity to work alongside a team of professional engineers. Furthermore, assessments have shown that engineering students engaged with community partners on design projects such as this have a stronger view of engineering as a means to better society and are more likely to be involved in their communities after graduation. Therefore, this RCSC partnership with SD Mines students helped students become stronger engineers, and also worked towards energy efficiency and a sustainable future for Rapid City (Benning et al., 2018).

Another more atypical example of the town-gown force coming together to promote environmental sustainability was at Cornell University in 2005 (McComas, 2011). The university decided to construct a new parking lot on a small area of university-owned woods. In a great display of town-gown cohesion, students, faculty, and local residents camped out in the trees, chained themselves to the woods, and staged a sit-in at the university president’s office to protest the future lot. The parking lot was ultimately built, but only after the university agreed to protesters’ demands which gave students, faculty, and local residents greater voice in university decisions. They also were forced to consider sustainability in constructing the parking lot and had to limit its size (McComas, 2011). This event was uncommon and especially inspiring; the strength behind the town-gown combined forces helped the community limit deforestation and promote environmental sustainability.

Whether it be through formal partnerships or passionate protests, when the town and gown come together, it is clearly a powerful force for change, especially in the case of environmental sustainability. Campus community collaborations have already made huge strides towards fulfilling the UN environmental sustainability goals. Perhaps if more universities adopt this town-gown approach, the UN will fulfill their goals before 2030.


When community members think of their local college students, some may picture the unruly party student: the one that gets in trouble for parties, has disorderly conduct, and does not do well in classes. While this image may be backed by personal experience, it is also an oversimplification of college life. College students are growing, learning, and changing. This process may involve making mistakes as rowdy partiers but also includes making new discoveries as young and enlightened thinkers. It is because of this that colleges are not just home to big parties; they are also epicenters for cultural, social, economic, and political growth. When towns regard their local universities as such, they open the door to a proactive partnership. This collaboration between town and gown unites the leaders of today with the minds of tomorrow; the resulting synergy can be used to complete combined efforts towards sustainability.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, confirming that sustainability is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. This agenda includes the 17 UN sustainable development goals (“Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform,” 2020). Many of these goals such as wellbeing for all and universal clean energy seem overly ambitious and perhaps out of reach. However, with the powerful synergy established between the town and gown, the UN sustainability goals are already coming closer to reality. Programs in which students enter the community and community members enter campus are already making strides towards social sustainability, and campus community collaborative projects are already improving environmental sustainability.

While service learning projects and student environmental initiatives have been effective in striving towards sustainability, perhaps another answer lies in the combination of the two. For example, one of the Purdue EPICS teams in 1998 partnered with the Purdue Department of Forestry and Natural Resources to develop tests for wetlands area to mitigate agricultural runoff and help the environment. Additionally, the team also helped to develop educational infrastructure to make the constructed wetlands an environmental education center for the community (Coyle et al., 2005). This EPICS team, therefore, not only helped the environment, but also volunteered to educate the community about their work. In this way, community members learned about environmental sustainability and may have been inspired to make changes in their own lives. Furthermore, the community was more likely to support future sustainability efforts in the area (Coyle et al., 2005). This effort successfully tackled both social and environmental sustainability at the same time. Perhaps a similar project could educate children on environmental sustainability to help contribute to a new generation of proactive thinkers and a more sustainable future.

As seen from the case studies, sustainability is possible; and it is necessary. Studies show that instances of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems are markedly higher in 2020 than in previous decades, showing the necessity to promote social sustainability and wellbeing today (Twenge, 2015). As for environmental sustainability, scientists predict that without change, Earth’s temperature will continue to rise, sea levels will continue grow higher, extinction rates will continue to increase, and fossil fuels will be depleted within the next 100 years (Trencher, 2016). These consequences are dire and require immediate action. Town-gown efforts have made remarkable progress towards sustainability already, but there is still much work to be done. Perhaps if more universities can create a town-gown synergy, the UN’s sustainability goals will truly be accomplished by 2030.


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