By JIM HUNT
author, speaker, consultant
Many years ago I heard the term “Town-Gown” and I had no idea what it was or what it stood for. As the years passed, I came to understand that “Town-Gown” was a term used to describe the relationship between a city and a college or university residing within the city. I decided to research the origin of the term and found that it has a history dating back to the Middle Ages. It seems that students admitted to European universities would wear long black gowns with a hood and cap to distinguish them as scholars and thus, different from the other citizens of the town. The gowns were also a comfortable clothing option for studying in the unheated and drafty buildings of the university.
The “Town-Gown” relationship in the Middle Ages was also somewhat adversarial since the colleges and universities were largely funded by the Catholic Church and not dependent on the host community. They would use this independence to secure favorable rents and other concessions from the cities and would often threaten to move to another city if their demands were not met. Another area of conflict was the treatment of students by the local authorities and often the university would override the local jurisdiction and students would enjoy free rein to break local laws without fear of punishment.
With this historical background, the modern use of the term “Town-Gown” shares some similarities with its ancient forefathers. As I travel throughout the country, cities like Clemson, South Carolina and Morgantown, West Virginia give us an insight into the benefits and challenges of cities who host modern colleges and universities. Few would argue that the economic benefit of hosting a college or university is not important but the challenges are equally as great.
In cities like Clemson and Morgantown, the university is a dominant player in all facets of the community and it is hard to separate where the university ends and the city begins. On football Saturdays in these towns, the traffic and crowds are dominant as the populations of the cities expand three or four times in size. Scheduling a wedding or other big event is often dependent on the activities at the college, and neighborhoods are often overrun with illegally parked cars and unruly students.
Housing is another area of conflict and rents and housing prices are often escalated due to the demand by students who can pay the higher costs. As students creep into traditionally single-family neighborhoods, late night partying and parking issues dominate the police departments and city council agendas.
I have found that cities who have been proactive in addressing “Town-Gown” issues are better prepared to take advantage of the multiple opportunities brought about by these relationships. Close coordination between city and college police agencies is a good way to build trust and fairness in the community. Creation of working committees between the city and the college is another good way of building trust and cooperation. As we move further into the digital age, the line between “town” and “gown” is becoming increasingly blurred. With distance learning and online education, the traditional campus may evolve into a more integrated space with little distinction between the community and college.
A famous quote by Plato says, “This City is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” We may find that if we appreciate our educational institutions within our cities, we can improve the lives of our citizens and become an Amazing City!