I Have to Ask: Town-Gown Relations

Posted on March 8, 2020


In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL Co-Founder Kent Wyatt.This week, Anita M. Archambeau, Town of Collierville, AME Consulting, writes about the power of building town-gown relationships.

While “town” and “gown” communities are not a new phenomenon, the opportunities for the collaboration between cities and higher education can, and should, be endless.  However, strained financial resources and claims of benefit inequities often weaken that relationship and create barriers to collaboration. To realize the potential for mutual benefit, it is essential to remedy threats and to seize opportunities.  

Like any Urban Planning process involving strategic thought and analysis, a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis is an easy way to access the town and gown phenomenon.  Believing positivity is the cornerstone of achieving results, I am mixing up the acronym and ending my brief analysis with just a sample of opportunities that exist for collaboration between local government and their university partners. 


Gowns are economic growth engines.  Universities provide important benefits to not only the immediate community but the surrounding communities.  Resources, including students as community interns to professional public sector employees mentoring students, are essential in growing that economic engine. How could a community/higher education collaboration capitalize on this strength?


As mentioned, strained relationships between a university and neighboring jurisdictions is a weakness. While universities benefit from not paying property taxes, many communities may argue that “gown” towns stress local services, including public safety, transportation, and code enforcement.  How could a community/higher education collaboration minimize this weakness?


In the next few years, there will be a significant exodus of employees retiring from the public sector.  Coupled with an increased reluctance to enter the public sector, for a variety of perceived reasons, obtaining quality applicants for governmental jobs is creating a rather urgent public sector workforce crisis.  How could a community/higher education collaboration reverse this threat?


There is so much untapped expertise within universities that not only enrich the college experience of the student but the university can also assist community members who want to continue to learn, innovate, and then bring that new knowledge back to their communities and region.  Skilling and reskilling are essential in ensuring talented government employees and leaders, especially with advances in technology, managing budget constraints, increased service demands, and juggling never-ending wicked problems. Local leaders benefit through university-led training to tackle wicked problems and universities benefit by gaining real-world experiences and stories provided by the training participants which can be integrated into the curriculum.  After all, students do crave real-world examples. Win-Win.

There are no shortages of community projects, but there is often a lack of resources to complete them, providing an opportunity for students to volunteer or complete community projects as part of a required assignment for class. Communications students could create media plans and policies, along with providing material to launch an active social media presence to a community that does not have the staff or expertise to complete those duties.  There is likely a Ph.D. student searching for a meaningful dissertation topic. Your community issue or “question” could be the focus of a significant amount of research for that student. Win-Win.

A project my former St. Cloud State University (MN) Public Human Resource Management students had to complete was an assignment that required them to connect with a local government to complete a needed human-resource project for that organizations.  The communities were able to receive updated employee policies, job descriptions, and new performance evaluation procedures. The students were able to network with professionals in their field and add experience to their portfolio and resume. Win-Win.

Wouldn’t it be efficient and effective for students involved in campus security or enrolled within the criminal justice program (or communications, technology, or pre-law students) to work within a local police reserves program?  It is common knowledge that recruiting future law enforcement into our communities is becoming increasingly more difficult. Having this direct apprentice like work experience provides a natural pipeline of prospective employees for the town and practical application of professional skills by the student. 

Or maybe it is the Political Science Department offering community survey services, or the city presenting a complex public works problems to engineering students and faculty to resolve. All of the examples provide Win-Win’s.

One of the more meaningful collaborations I have come across is the Harvard Business School’s Young American Leaders Program (YALP).  Harvard Business School (HBS) hosts 3-day workshops for selected young leaders from regions around the country. The workshop focuses on HBS’s research on American competitiveness, shared prosperity, and cross-sector collaborations. Participants in the YALP workshop can expect to receive a foundation of individual skills including gained expertise to further shared prosperity in their community; skills to collaborate on emerging issues and create a collective impact to address those issues; obtain a strengthened network spanning sectors, geographies, and generations; and furthering a heightened spirit of civic engagement. 

This program was brought to Minnesota, which had enabled several cohorts of young leaders in the Twin Cities Metro area to experience the benefits of the program.  Recently, efforts were made to include regions outside of the Twin Cities. The Greater Saint Cloud Development Corporation (GSDC), an economic development organization with a membership of over 250 government and private sector stakeholders, took the lead in this opportunity by identifying young leaders from their region who would participate in a YALB workshop. The impact of community and higher education collaboration is already apparent in the St. Cloud area. The participants have used the knowledge gained to individually and collectively pursue community initiatives through the launch of a new program – GSDC’s Young Leaders Initiative.  An effort that will span multiple communities and will provide an arena for collective community problem-solving in the greater St. Cloud area.

Ideas and opportunities for collaboration between communities and universities are endless. If your community has not already harnessed the opportunities that universities can provide for new and innovative futures, and if the universities haven’t fully utilized local governments as extensions of the classroom experience, now is the time.  Make some connections and create some win-wins today!

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