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Town and gown relationships are like a marriage

It’s a marital scene…. Optimal College Town Assessment, Author provided

As a family and marriage researcher, I have conducted a lot of research into what makes relationships work. I tend to think about relationships in terms of couples.

When I was appointed the senior administrator of a college campus in a small metropolitan area of 50,000 (Ohio State University in Mansfield), I became integrally involved in a very different kind of relationship, that of town and gown – where two distinct communities, a non-academic town and a university – are living in close proximity.

It didn’t take me long to realize how relevant my background and training in family relations was to my new job.

Like an arranged marriage

A town-gown relationship is similar to an arranged marriage, one that neither partner can end. Each partner has to make the marriage work regardless of how they feel about one another.

That realization led me to devise a new research project that demonstrated just how similar the town gown-relationship is to a marriage.

My colleague Michael Fox, a geographer at Mount Allison University, and I recently published the results ) in which we used an established marital model to gauge the perceptions between my campus and the surrounding towns.

The marital model is something everyone can relate to. In fact, college faculty and administrators frequently approach me after I speak about this research, tell me about their own marriages, and confess to seeing the similarities between their own relationships and the town-gown relationships at their home institutions!

To conduct the study, we used a marriage model first developed in 1965 by John Cuber and Peggy Harroff. They hypothesized that the success of marriages was largely determined by two factors – how much effort the couple put into their marriage, and how comfortable each partner felt with each other.

With that model in mind, we developed the Optimal College Town Assessment.

We tested the new survey with people from Mansfield, Ohio, which is the location of my Ohio State regional campus, and in the nearby towns of Shelby and Ontario.

We interviewed, using a web survey, 602 community members, including teachers and school administrators, leaders of non-profits, business owners and others.

We asked about their relationship with Ohio State’s students, faculty, leaders/administrative staff and board of trustee members.

This 16-question survey asked participants to rank the levels of “effort” and “comfort” in a town-gown relationship.

For example, the survey asked participants how active campus groups were in contributing to the well-being of the community, rating being on a five-point scale from “not active” to “very active.” Another question prompted participants to rate their own personal relationships with campus representatives, on a five-point scale from “very negative” to “very positive.”

“Survey says”

The survey results, recently published in the journal Innovative Higher Education, put relationships into four categories, depending on the amount of “effort” and “comfort” shown: harmonious, traditional, conflicted, and devitalized.

The best category, harmonious, is characterized by high effort and high comfort. The least favorable relationship is called devitalized because of low effort and low comfort. Traditional relationships have low effort and high comfort levels, while conflicted relationships have levels of high effort but low comfort.

Results showed that Mansfield and the Ohio State campus have a mostly traditional relationship. This tends to be the default for most good universities and towns. It generates “modest amounts of relationship satisfaction” yet “takes little work to create a comfortable if sterile relationship.”

But the important insights come from digging deeper into the results.

One of the key findings was that community members felt they had more contact with students compared to official university faculty/administrators. Results clearly indicated that when residents thought about how the campus was engaged with the community, they were for the most part referencing their relationships with the students.

Of course, we all knew students were important, but we didn’t realize just how important. For faculty and administrators, the message was clear: if they want to have an impact with the community, they should enlist and involve the students.

Geography matters

Another key finding was the impact that distance had on the town-gown relationship.

The town of Shelby is only six miles away from our campus, but it might have been 100 miles away from the way the residents perceived us. For Ohio State to connect to people who live just six miles away, we have to make a special effort.

We are making our OCTA assessment freely available with the hope that other campuses will use it to get a more exact picture of their relationships with their surrounding communities.

College administrators too often rely on gut feelings and anecdotes to gauge the relationship between the institution and local community. To get an accurate picture, it needs to be data-driven.

Now there is a way to quantify just how healthy that relationship is. Administrators can use the assessment to benchmark the status of a relationship and then follow-up regularly to determine if new initiatives help or hurt. There’s no more guessing.

Like any good marriage, knowledge about the status of the relationship can help to strengthen or repair it. The town and gown relationship is no different.

And, like any good marriage, it takes work. Although no diamond band is involved, there has to be an ongoing courtship to lead to a more “engaged” campus and community.

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