Can't We All Just Get Along?

Sunday, May 10, 2009
I've been thinking a lot about how the citizens of some states view their public universities, and in particular the people who work there. In a week I'll begin a trip around Wisconsin on a bus, with a group of UW faculty, staff, and administrators (included Chancellor Biddy), as part of the "Wisconsin Idea Seminar." I really have two personal goals for this trip-- first, to get a clue about where my students grew up and what those places look and feel like, and second, to hear how citizens around the state think about the UW.

I have to admit- I'm a bit nervous. Having listened to political scientist Kathy Cramer Walsh talk about her research in towns statewide, where she found quite a bit of animosity, partly related to claims of unfair admissions practices and ivory tower elitism, and having recently experienced the wrath of anonymous commentators on online websites who mistake my interest in protecting the kids from poor families for a belief that they are stupid-- well, I'm going in quite concerned.

Then there's this New York Times piece that says that traditional town/gown divides are heating up during the recession. I know something about these, having attended both George Washington University (famous for taking over Foggy Bottom) and the University of Pennsylvania (famous for creating bourgeois schools and coffee houses across West Philly). In contrast, Madison seems quite friendly. But in so many places college students are shunned from local neighborhoods, and their activities said to blight the town. Well, in some ways that's right on. Adolescents on the transition to adulthood probably don't make good neighbors. Bars and pubs don't either. I've watched lots of nice yuppie-fied places get absolutely trashed by students sleeping on couches, spending long hours with a single cup of coffee and a laptop not spending money, etc. But I've also seen the opposite-- empty stores, bored clerks, etc, when the students are gone.

I've got no solution to offer here. I just know one has to be found-- and it probably needs to come from more adults in the state (any state) feeling more a part of the institutions that take their tax dollars. Feeling disenfranchised is crummy, and people respond in kind. I'm not for PR-stunts intended to make colleges think they've done their part and can pat themselves on the back; I'm for trying effective ways to bring more people into the college experience, and helping them to feel that they've got a fair shot. Let's think of some good ways to get that done.