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Town-Gown Partnerships: Solving Community Issues Together

Financial Wellness Public Policy Division
September 25, 2017 Dr. Jeanna Mastrodicasa University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

Town-gown issues are nothing new--host communities to institutions of higher education have been developing partnerships and solving issues related to student behavior, traffic impacts, housing, and other topics since the beginning of American higher education. Rather than focus on areas where there is seemingly inevitable strife, paying attention to collaboration and partnerships can build strong relationships between campus and the surrounding community. A Leadership Exchange article from Summer 2009 has a good review of some of the ways campuses and communities work to strengthen relationships. The International Town-Gown Association supports an annual conference as well as other resources for professionals both in the community as well as on campus. Recent developments in town-gown partnerships include joint models around areas of food and financial insecurity and community policing.

Food and financial insecurity

NASPA now has a Knowledge Community for Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education, providing resources and a networking community for those who work with topics including food insecurity, college students who come from a foster care background, and more. Resources for students often come through community or government sources, so a solid working relationship with service providers for student affairs professionals is important for success.

Food and financial insecurity has become more prominent related to college students in the past few years, and many campuses are creating food pantries and clothes closets to support students in need. In 2016, NASPA assessed the national higher education landscape regarding emergency aid for students in need, tying such programs to supporting student success.  Although many might assume college students have plenty of resources, more evidence such as Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work has shown that food insecurity is indeed real for college students. The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) now provides support for this topic, and there is a robust section of resources and FAQ’s for both campus and community professionals. As of September 2017, there were 539 member institutions registered with CUFBA as having food banks of some kind on their campuses. Michigan State University claims the first campus-based food pantry in the nation, started in 1993. Food pantries often coordinate resources with their local community food banks in order to maximize resources such as access to discounted food, and to prevent the sense of competition. For example, the MSU Student Food Bank is a member of the Greater Lansing Food Bank this allows them to purchase food at a significantly reduced price, averaging $0.34 per pound, for a savings of 70% compared to the national wholesale cost of food.

Community policing

Policing college student behavior is nothing new, but as more campus and community police departments embrace community policing models, there have been more opportunities for student input and feedback into training and interactions with police officers with some positive results. Community policing works to solve problems proactively by building relationships and developing information as a collaborative process, and it is a model being adopted nationally. More specifically, many communities are receiving additional training to better work with students of color and other diverse populations both in college towns as well as other locations. Yet another example of the need for such training is in the recent incident at Georgia Institute of Technology, where a campus police officer fatally wounded a student in distress led to a reveal that the officer had not competed training in mental health issues in helping to deescalate difficult situations. The Georgia Tech student was an LBGTQ student leader-- one who identified as a transgender individual—adding to the conversation regarding the fear that many underrepresented people have of police officers.

One example of positive training to develop such skills is at the Gainesville Florida Police Department’s partnership with the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding where they conduct structured dialogue sessions between youth (local youth and college students in the community) and the police, and this is being set as a national model. A report from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) – Law Enforcement Executives and Administrators and the National Center for Campus Public Safety summarized discussions at a forum for student leaders and campus safety executives held for HBCU’s shares good information for all college communities.

Planning for the Future

The University of Florida (UF) has been creating a 50 year strategic development plan to look ahead to the future of how it would develop in its host community of Gainesville. Working with the local government, community leaders, and university leaders, a shift towards developing more university programs and facilities towards the center of the town rather than sprawling away has created new dialogues about the role of a university in a college town. As the largest employer in Gainesville, UF certainly has a major impact when it shifts direction. Be sure to check out the video