Reaching out to the Town During Campus Expansion

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There have been several stories in the news lately about colleges with growing enrollments that are planning for campus expansion (including Loyola and New York University), and these stories have highlighted both the importance and challenges of strong town-gown relations during the capital planning process. We asked Mark Beck, director of capital planning at the University System of Maryland for insights into how institutions can more effectively invite town participation in a campus expansion planning effort.

Engage Your Community Early and Often

“It’s not so much what you do to engage your community, but how you do it.”
Mark Beck, U System of Maryland

The most important investment you can make is to engage your community as often as possible. Beck suggests that you can’t simply go through the motion of holding meetings and communicating via the web and newsletters. You have to actually listen and engage your community in the planning process.

He points to examples of public meetings that he convened early in his career that weren’t successful because the university approached the discussion as an announcement of their plans rather than as a listening opportunity. Beck suggests making the meetings more regular, less formal, and more focused on dialogue.

Equally important for public institutions is to avoid reliance on leveraging legal authority when forging ahead with expansion plans. Engaging the community in the planning process not only creates important buy-in and support (and gives you the opportunity to avoid the negative media attention that results from surprising a community late in the process), but also brings new ideas to the table that might have otherwise been overlooked. Creating an inclusive process creates goodwill that can be leveraged in the future for many other important university initiatives.

Active Communication Can Create Excitement

“It’s not enough to simply post information online or send out a newsletter. Communication efforts need to be active and two-way.”
Mark Beck, U System of Maryland

Beck suggests that capital planners plug into the various local governing meetings that are already taking place through the Mayor’s office and local city and community councils. Participation in these events can be time-consuming but pays dividends when support is needed at critical points in the planning and expansion process.

Beck offers two key examples of effective outreach:

  • Schedule regular public meetings on campus. This is probably one of the most effective tools out there for encouraging dialogue. Publish agendas and discussion items online, in advance of the meeting, and encourage far-reaching question and answer periods. Being able to tell people that they can bring their questions to the public forum can make an important difference in building support.
  • Invest in an attractive newsletter and send it out on a regular basis. In addition to publicizing upcoming meetings, you should feature compelling stories that highlight exciting news and ideas coming from the university. Invest time in telling the story of the institution and if necessary, recruit graphic designers or desktop publishers from your institution’s public relations staff or student volunteers. It’s important that the newsletter is reader-friendly and presents the institution in a positive way.

“There can be no shortage of communication. You can’t do too much PR in your community to inform people of what is happening and why. Put a human face on the issue.”
Mark Beck, U System of Maryland

Beck notes that a website or newsletter will not reach everyone, so don’t rely on those mechanisms alone. It’s important that your capital planners and other representatives connect personally with the community, and speak honestly and forthrightly in order to build trust and goodwill.

Addressing Difficult Issues

“Identify hot spots early on, decide which ones you are willing to address, and which ones you need to fall on your sword for.”
Mark Beck, U System of Maryland

Inevitably, difficult issues arise where not everyone will be satisfied with the outcome. Beck offers several insights into how to prepare for and deal with these challenges:

  • As early as possible, involve the community. Rather than facing bad press or increased project expenses due to design changes, get as much input as you can as early as you can so that you can design with the community in mind
  • Create a regular group or advisory council that you can float ideas by. Knowing what will receive support and what will create opposition early on can save headaches later in the process
  • Know which points you can and can’t concede. There may be times in negotiation when you need to say, “We can’t move this, but we can concede here”
  • When presenting the plan, be forthright about helping the community identify issues that might arise. Master plans can be cumbersome for even professionals to sort through, and by identifying problem areas for the community and “showing your hand,” you can generate good ideas and build trust

Leverage Community Champions

“People who get to know the campus well enough and you well enough are often those who can help you identify where the hotbed issues will be, ahead of time.”
Mark Beck, U System of Maryland

Community champions can serve as a capital planner’s greatest ally. Beck points to an example where during a one-on-one conversation, a capital planner introduced one community member to an idea that was in early stages of consideration. The community member then sketched out that vision, on his own initiative, during a monthly meeting, advocating for it and asking for the other community members to join him in a brainstorm. Though controversial, the process generated great ideas and discussion. The capital planner was able to learn where the hot spots were well in advance, and the community was engaged in the discussion right from the beginning.

Keep Your Perspective

“You have to go forward with realistic expectations. Just because everyone is around a table and seems to be getting along, that doesn’t mean that members of that group won’t question or object to what you’re doing.”
Mark Beck, U System of Maryland

Beck notes that there will always be community members who have not been part of the process who will come forward and interject objections and opinions. “Go in from day one with realistic expectations, include the right people, and address the right issues. While you won’t be able to please everyone, in the future you will be able to look back and know you did the best you could for your institution and the community.”