5 Questions to Help Restore a Strained Town/Gown Relationship

An urban campus in Philadelphia


This is the first in a series of articles by Neil Calfee. Currently the principal of NPC Group, specializing in the creation and negotiation of public/private Partnerships, Neil Calfee previously served as Arizona State University’s director of real estate development. He has over 15 years of experience in development and management of complex development projects involving partnerships between government entities and the private sector.

This article offers Calfee’s advice for strengthening often-strained town/gown relationships, and is written from his unique perspective in working for both Arizona State University and the City of Tempe.

We also recommend his previous articles with AI:

You may also be interested in his recorded webcast, “Creating Financial Expectations in the Housing RFP Process.”

by Neil Calfee (NPC Group)

“Love/hate” may be a little strong in describing many town and gown relationships, but “strained” may not be too far off the mark.

The town/gown relationship can be full of drama, jealousy, passive-aggressiveness, and it can take “staying together for the kids” to a whole new level. But the town/gown can also be quite rewarding and mutually beneficial, and given that breaking up is nearly impossible, it’s best to make the most of this unique relationship.


Why does it matter if you get along?

For no other reason than you will each need something from each other and fostering a spirit of cooperation can allow for more creative and expansive solutions than if you are grudgingly accommodating each other. For example, the school and the town will likely need to work together on:

  • Infrastructure to accommodate campus growth
  • Traffic planning and mitigation
  • Policing/public safety

What can be gained?

More broadly speaking, a town and school’s image and reputation are linked in many ways, which means the success (or failure) of one will reflect on the other. The opportunities of a successful partnership include:

  • Student recruitment and retention – if your campus is located in a community that is considered safe and desirable; working with the surrounding community to ensure it stays that way would certainly pay long term dividends for your campus
  • Local economic development – coordination between the town and school to leverage special events can create additional business opportunities for local merchants.

Who can assess the relationship?

Before jumping into figuring out what’s going on with your town/gown relationship, it’s critical to first find the right person (or persons) who can honestly assess the situation.

Honestly is the operative word because, as with any relationship, the conflict is usually not the fault of one party alone. If you truly want to understand the situation (and eventually get to some real solutions), it’s going to take someone who can put aside any bias, look at what’s happening from both sides, and render an opinion based on a fair assessment.

Here are 5 questions that are worth asking when seeking to understand what’s going on in your town/gown Relationship.

Note: These questions are intended to prompt an examination of the relationship from both sides, not just a look at what’s wrong with “the other guy.”

Question 1: How do we communicate? (We are communicating, right?)

Understanding the issue

It may be that your town/gown Relationship isn’t broken, its nonexistent because of a lack of effective communication. Paradoxically, you may actually communicate best in a crisis because there’s an issue that needs attention and people are forced to work towards a solution … but then nobody talks again until the next crisis.

Look closely at how communication is handled between the parties:

  • Are the times you’re all talking only those times when something has gone wrong?
  • Is the communication proactive or reactive?
  • Do people actually talk to each other or is the communication all email?

2 First Steps to Take

  1. Ideally, there would be regular communication between key staff in each organization, even if this is simply the occasional lunch or coffee meeting. The key is establishing a working relationship between people who can then effectively communicate and hopefully head off problems ahead of time that would otherwise cause friction between the organizations.
  2. Make it somebody’s job to foster a relationship with the town. Ideally this would be written into a job description and that person (or persons) would be evaluated on their success.

Question 2: What’s working?

Understanding the issue

Universities and their surrounding towns interact together every day and in numerous ways (the quantity and diversity of these interactions might surprise you). When one aspect of the relationship is suffering, the administration should take a step back and take stock of what is still working well. It may be instructive to understand all of the facets of your town/gown relationship and to appreciate and understand those ways in which you are already working together successfully.

2 First Steps to Take

  1. Check in with your public safety and facilities groups; they may be good starting points, as they are likely to have fairly regular interaction with the town.
  2. Ensuring that those other areas of cooperation don’t suffer is critical, as it’s always much easier to build on a good working relationship than to forge a new one. Ultimately, knowing which parts of your organization have maintained their working relationships with the town over time could be instrumental in resetting the broader relationship.

Question 3: Is it political?

Understanding the Issue

It may be disheartening, but your town/gown relationship may be subject to upheaval every two years. Mayors and council members typically serve two to four year terms that are staggered, so you may find a once-harmonious town/gown relationship in peril after a change in local political leaders. Even a single new council member can change the group dynamic and sway opinion and support.

2 First Steps to Take

  1. Stay informed about local politics and, come election season, be sure you understand who is running for office and where they stand on issues that affect your institution.
  2. After the election, you should endeavor to establish a relationship with whomever is elected – and if you are not already making personal relationships with the elected officials in the town, start now!

Question 4: Who’s talking to whom?

Understanding the Issue

Like it or not, there is a certain expected pecking order in functional town/gown relationships. While your respective organizations should be communicating at all levels, it’s especially critical to evaluate the communication channels at the very top of each organization – where egos get inflated and, at times, easily bruised.

For example, you might imagine the indignation of your president if the mayor routinely shuffled her off to a chief of staff or other staff member – and the same would be true if the situation were reversed. If one party does not feel as if they are receiving the respect or deference they deserve, the entire relationship can sour…regardless of how petty the reasons may seem.

So look closely at who’s talking to each other – or not talking to each other.

2 First Steps to Take

  1. There should be direct lines of communication on a parity basis between the senior leaders of each organization. “Parity basis” means that most senior leaders in each organization are talking directly to each other, the seconds in command are talking to each other directly, and so on down the line.
  2. Remember how, in response to Question 1, you are going to make it someone’s job to foster this relationship? That person should be making the needed introductions and help to connect the right people together and then monitor that interaction and find ways to keep it going.

Question 5: Where are our cheerleaders?

Understanding the Issue

While most of this article has focused on the town in terms of city hall, it can also be incredibly useful to look at the town more broadly. Civic and business organizations can have tremendous sway in a community, and establishing solid relationships with those organizations can pay big dividends. While you may be at loggerheads with city hall, being an active member of the chamber of commerce might bolster your community support and add a voice of support for your institution at city hall.

The same goes for the local tourism board or other local interest groups with ties to your institution. Major employers or business interests in the community should also be approached, as they most certainly have the ear of city hall.

2 First Steps to Take

  1. Go on the road. Don’t be afraid to make presentations about what’s happening on campus to Kiwanis Clubs, neighborhood associations, senior centers, or wherever you might find civically-minded people who can be your advocates.
  2. Reach out to the major employers and high-profile companies in the surrounding community. Gaining their support will not only be helpful at city hall; you may also find opportunities for additional strategic partnerships that benefit both your institution and the corportate partner.

Rethinking Town/Gown

In closing, keep in mind that your town/gown Relationship is just like any other relationship you have: you get out of it what you put into it. But unlike some of your other relationships, you can’t just break it off if you don’t like how it’s going. Colleges and towns are inextricably linked together, in good times and in bad, so you might as well make the most of it. A healthy relationship can lead to a series of new opportunities for collaboration, information sharing, and maybe even cost savings.

So take the time and effort to understand your town/gown Relationship more deeply and don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. The tough answers might just be the key to getting you on track.