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Op ed: Kate Rousmaniere on "Improving Town-Gown Relations in Oxford”

An opinion piece published in the Oxford Press, Feb. 1, 2018

“Improving Town-Gown Relations in Oxford”

Kate Rousmaniere, Mayor, City of Oxford

The City of Oxford and Miami University have recently formalized a new organization dedicated to effective and productive partnership-building and shared visioning, through approval by Miami University President Greg Crawford and the Oxford City Council, the Town Gown Initiatives Team in Fall 2017. “Town Gown” refers to the relationship between college towns or cities and the colleges/universities that live there (“gown” refers to traditional professors’ robes).  

While the City of Oxford and Miami University enjoy a long history of effective cooperation, with natural ebbs and flows, previous efforts have been largely decentralized and somewhat informal. The city and university share an interest and stake in one another’s health and success, and pockets of interested parties have coalesced for years on various issues such as housing and development, the impact of student life and behavior on city resources, and shared cultural and social service commitments.  

In this work, the Oxford-Miami community has been at the lead of many college towns. In 1986, Oxford City Council created the Student Community Relations Commission, a standing city commission composed of students and citizens that has collectively focused on such issues as litter, parking, noise, and safety in town.  Other community-led ventures include the 12-year-old ShareFest, which collects student furniture at the end of the school year and distributes it to local service agencies, and the 20-year old Oxford area Coalition for Healthy Communities which organizes university-community efforts in mental health, obesity reduction, and drug and alcohol abuse. These initiatives and many more have received monetary and participatory support from both the university and city.  

The Town Gown Initiatives Team (TGIT) was imagined in 2016 in an effort to keep our work focused and progressing even as individual champions depart and issues evolve. The concept was inspired by regular city and university staff participation at the International Town Gown Association Conference and reported frustration by some community and university organizations about a lack of unity and vision among a large number of groups. Strategically, the TGIT seeks primarily to serve, and not replace, existing town-gown efforts by assisting with advocacy and communication in order to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of extant town-gown efforts.  

Composed of members representing a variety of community and university organizations, the TGIT serves as an umbrella organization for various disparate town-gown initiatives, both current and future.

To date, the TGIT work has centered around the issue of student high-risk alcohol consumption, developing connections with other Ohio college towns (last July, the TGIT hosted the second annual Ohio Town Gown Summit with over one hundred participants from across the state), diversification of the local housing stock, and joint economic development, including the “First Year Takeover” scavenger hunt that draws first year students into Uptown stores the first weekend of school.  The group also led participation in the optimal college town assessment – a national survey of the entire community this past fall.  An over-arching theme of the group is improving the overall health of the community—physical, economic, cultural, and social.  

Central to all of this work is on-going communication between the city and university on a broad range of issues from construction plans to cultural activities to social service initiatives and volunteerism.  

The TGIT is also reaching out to the broader community, and this past month it held a “listening luncheon” that brought together representatives from virtually every significant community organization including the local unit of the NAACP, McCullough Hyde-Tri Health Hospital, Miami Athletics, and the senior citizen community.  The purpose of the event was to share information, identify common goals, provide resources such as a common calendar and assessment software, and identify opportunities to enhance partnerships to increase the collective effectiveness of our work.

College towns have many unique assets—cultural opportunities, the energy of youth, and university resources—and they also have many unique challenges. When communities and universities work in tandem to highlight their assets and minimize their challenges, they all win.

Kate Rousmaniere is a professor of educational leadership