OSU makes progress toward being more a part of community, aware of complaints
At the front of Thursday’s homecoming parade for Oregon State University, leading the way for nearly 40 floats and dozens of orange-and-black-clad entrants, were two students carrying a banner.
But they weren’t OSU students: Instead, they were 17-year-old Corvallis High School students, Brandon Kinney and Keliikahi McFadden.
They didn’t plan on being symbols. But their presence was a small part of a continuing effort by city residents and OSU officials to help close the gap between town and gown, and the homecoming parade – which started in downtown Corvallis and then headed west toward campus – was part of that effort as well.
Like any town that’s dominated by a university or any other institution, the relationship between midvalley residents and OSU occasionally has been testy over the years. And, while observers say there’s much more work to be done to bridge the gap between town and gown, others point to some recent developments that they say offer tangible evidence of progress.
But national experts who have studied the issue say some tension between a university and a community is inevitable, and other town-gown communities around the nation are exploring new approaches to bridge the divide.
Challenges of growth
Kim Griffo, the executive director of the International Town and Gown Association, said that relationships between universities and their cities have evolved substantially, especially in the past few years.
“In the past, universities have typically kept to themselves, and students weren’t off campus much,” she said.
But, she noted, college students are now doing more to branch out and become more involved in their communities.
While this may enrich the overall student experience, permanent residents and neighbors are often on the receiving end of issues that accompany growth.
“With that good growth come challenges along with it,” Griffo said.
The underlying causes can hardly be boiled down to one thing, but International Town and Gown experts say that student behavior off-campus usually plays a big role.
“It’s a strong point of contention,” Griffo said. “And if the university ignores problems off-campus, it’s not a pleasant experience.
“It’s more important now than ever for universities and cities to work together.”
In Corvallis, a city of roughly 55,000, an estimated 23,000 of whom are students at OSU, collaboration is not a simple endeavor.
It’s likely that nobody knows that better than Eric Adams, project manager for Collaboration Corvallis, the initiative between OSU and the city designed to work through the issues that have come in the wake of enrollment growth at OSU. The initiative has three workgroups, including parking and traffic, neighborhood planning and neighborhood livability; in each of the three groups, participants from both the city and OSU work on strategies to deal with that growth.
The project, established last year, is headed by OSU President Ed Ray and Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning.
Adams said some town-gown conflict is inevitable, in that it involves two different sets of people with different priorities.
“On one hand, you have the student body, that’s very focused on class schedules and coming and going; that’s what drives their lives,” he said. “On the other side, you have families and retirees — their life is focused on different aspects.”
These diverse interests and ways of life can lead to poor communication.
“When you don’t have a lot of commonality to begin with, it’s hard to develop opportunities to encourage communication,” Adams said.
Corvallis City Councilor Dan Brown represents Ward 4, which includes the OSU campus. He chalks up the town and gown divide to what he calls a “short student cycle.”
“As a professor at OSU for 25 years, I’m familiar with the student cycle. Because of transfers, it’s less than four years ... it’s probably more like two years.”
“Because of this turnover, they don’t really have an opportunity to be incorporated into the community, and that’s frustrating for long-term residents. We have this transient population that doesn’t meet community standards,” Brown said.
A group that aims to maintain those community standards in the face of increasing OSU enrollment is Citizens for Livable Corvallis. Group member B.A. Beierle, also president of the historic preservation group PreservationWORKS, said issues with student behavior are nothing new.
“On the livability side, there’s been issues with inappropriate student behavior since the Middle Ages, but when people can’t sleep through the night, it literally makes them grumpy,” she said, noting that she knows residents who leave town on the weekends because of noise issues.
Beierle and Charlyn Ellis, also a member of Citizens for Livable Corvallis, said they would not necessarily characterize the current situation as a divide between town and gown, since both entities face the same challenges.
“The town is not big enough and we don’t have enough staff to deal with 25,000 students,” Ellis said. “We’re living with a huge influx that we do not have the infrastructure to support.”
Another factor is at work as well, according to OSU apparel design freshman Rhett Ybarra, a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, said the divide is also a result of tight-knit student communities.
“I chose OSU because it gives you a community sense, because it’s enclosed, but that can also work against you,” Ybarra said. “Something can happen and we don’t find out about it until like two weeks later.”
The issues facing Corvallis are common at university towns throughout the United States.
“What I’ve been hearing from other communities, Corvallis and OSU aren’t the only ones going through these discussions,” said Adams of the Collaboration Corvallis effort.
Adams said he has looked at approaches taken by other universities, including Berkeley, Michigan State and Ohio State, to come up with the best solutions for Corvallis.
The issues that communities face, though they may vary in size, are relatively the same across the board. He said often times, problems arise in communities where the university is a large landowner.
“When they’re looking at how to develop the land, it (rings) the alarm bells for other people,” Adams said. “In other cases, it’s more of a persistance of issues that we’re seeing, like noise complaints.”
Griffo, at the International Town and Gown Association, had a number of examples of communities that had forged strong relationships with universities: Virginia Tech and Blacksburg, Va., Clemson University and Clemson, S.C.; Colorado State and Fort Collins, Colo.; and Auburn University and Montgomery, Ala.
A common denominator in all these communities, she said, is extensive student involvement in collaboration efforts.
“At Clemson University, students are at all the meetings,” she said. “They work side-by-side with the chief of police on party issues and zoning issues.”
“At Auburn, students sit in on City Council meetings and some are even elected,” she said.
She also said that some students obtain party permits to prevent gatherings from getting out of control.
In Corvallis, Adams admitted that the collaboration project does not include heavy involvement from students.
“It is one of the bigger challenges,” he said. “I don’t know to what extent that people are trying to look at issues from the other person’s perspective. Given the prevalence of these sort of negative issues we’re hearing about, it’s apparent it’s not happening enough.”
But a few students are involved, including representatives from the Associated Students of Oregon State University and Matthew Palm, a graduate student in public policy and a member of the parking and traffic workgroup.
Palm said that he believes he is seen as an equal on the committee and that his voice is heard.
“Representatives understand, when it comes to transportation and travel, the two sides have to coordinate their strategies and find something that works,” he said. “I know the workgroup is interested in hearing from students and hearing why they make the decisions they make.”
Bridging the divide
All parties agree that the work is far from over, but many seem to also agree that more progress has been made in the last few months than the past several years.
Last week’s homecoming activities, which were designed in part to attract greater participation from the community, offer a good example. In addition to the parade, Eric Taylor, program assistant at the OSU Alumni Association, also pointed to a competition in which businesses, including Peak Sports, Many Hands Trading and The Broken Yolk Cafe, decked themselves out in orange and black to see which would be named the “Orangest Business.”
“Oregon State University is a huge part of this community and Corvallis is obviously intertwined with the university in everything we do,” said Julie Schwartz, associate executive director of programs at the Alumni Association. “It’s a revitalization of what we’ve done for many years.”
But Ellis, who plays a role on the livability workgroup as well as the Citizens for Livable Corvallis, said though she agrees the project is making more progress now than it has before, the influx of students is overwhelming.
“What we’ve done so far is a start, but not a whole lot has actually changed on the ground,” Ellis said.
New OSU policies announced by OSU President Ed Ray – in particular, the university’s announcement that it would require true freshmen to live on campus beginning in fall 2013 and its statement that it would cap enrollment at the Corvallis campus at 28,000 students – are among the signs of progress that Ward 4’s Brown points to.
“This is the most cooperation I have seen between the two groups in the 38 years I’ve been here,” he said. “This is a huge improvement over what we’ve seen in the past. I’m glad to see there are things coming out of it that are tangible.”
“I’m glad to see a discussion of an enrollment limit,” Brown said. “I’m glad to see the idea that freshmen will be living on campus. This is something that has been discussed in the city for years and the first time the university has taken it seriously.”
Steve Clark, vice president of marketing and relations at OSU, offered some other examples of city-OSU cooperation.
One example: A recent initiative by Allied Waste to pick up garbage and debris from the sidewalks and street corners during student move-in week.
Clark, who also is a member of the parking and traffic workgroup, drew attention to a pilot program aimed at increasing the frequency of buses on routes to student-heavy residential areas such as Witham Hill and South Corvallis during peak hours of the day.
Clark said some of these signs of progress suggest that energy has shifted from just voicing complaints to starting to find solutions.
“In the last year and a half members of the community and campus and faculty and staff were saying ‘these are the issues we’re bothered by and these are the concerns we have,’ and that wasn’t enough,” Clark said. Now, he said, “folks are really starting to roll up their sleeves.”
For her part, Beierle said that residents who take part in discussions show less frustration.
“There are a lot of people who are very angry, and I think to a large extent, they feel they are not being heard, but those people who are involved are more patient,” she said. “We’re all dealing with unintended consequences, and we’re all part of the solutions. We’re just not all settled on what those solutions are.”
Adams said one thing he would like to see emerge from the collaboration project is the creation of more neighborhood associations – and he said he’s seeing some of that already taking place.
“I’ve seen a lot of energy and organization within neighborhoods that is very encouraging, and they play a huge part in this,” Adams said.
For Palm, the parking and traffic workgroup faces the task of establishing a better parking system.
“Parking districts are going to be the biggest challenge because they’re going to require financial commitment,” he said.
But not all solutions to town-and-gown issues require a committee and robust budget. Brown said that the simple act of neighbors introducing themselves to one another could make a big difference.
“I live next door to a group of four guys. They just moved in and they came and introduced themselves,” he said. “They took the initiative, they came over and met with me rather than me going over to complain about something. Now I know their faces and names.”