Campus & Community

Squabbles of varying intensity between the city of Athens and Ohio University are as old as the campus. The university and village of Athens clashed over ownership of the College Green as early as 1835 and, nearly 50 years later, university President William Henry Scott called the Green -- used by the town as grazing land for sheep, hogs and cattle -- "an offense against taste and wholly at variance with the proper association of a place to study."

When the university put up a fence, the town marshal tore it down. In 1887, a judge declared the Green part of the village rather than the university, and it wasn't until after a group of Civil War veterans asked to place a monument on the Green that a patriotic village agreed to a plan that called for the university to care for the land.

Today, as the city of Athens celebrates its bicentennial and Ohio University looks to maintain its steady enrollment growth pattern, many believe the campus and city resemble a veteran married couple: They have their disagreements over old grudges and new problems, but they still care a great deal about what happens to each other.

"The fact of the matter is we all have to do business together in this town and, just like in a marriage, there will be friction points," says Bob Gall, chair of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce and a local attorney. "But if you let those friction points overshadow the common interest you can pursue, then you end up in divorce. We don't want that; we are bound together in these hills and we're going to be here.

"I think, by and large, town-gown relations are pretty good. There are many areas of cooperation. Clearly, any time you have a large institution like Ohio University and a business community that is right up on the boundary, there are going to be points of disagreement."

This spring was no exception. But one controversial incident, an Uptown disturbance April 6 that spilled out onto Court Street after the bars closed, turned from "a negative into a positive" and was indicative of the spirit of cooperation between the city and campus communities, says Ohio University President Robert Glidden. The result was a relatively peaceful weekend of traditional off-campus block parties in Athens during the weekend of May 16-17.

"The April 6 disturbance could have generated a serious town-gown issue, but the fact is, it was a kind of wake-up call to everybody," Glidden says. "And the meetings that were held and the cooperative attitude of the mayor and the Athens Police Department, working with our students and staff, resulted in an amazingly calm Palmer Fest (block party). If the city and campus hadn't taken steps to work together with the students, Palmer Fest could have been a fiasco."

Forty-seven people were arrested during the nationally publicized April disturbance, including 34 Ohio University students. The students cited -- all for nonviolent, low-level misdemeanor offenses -- were notified in writing by University Judiciaries that a record of their involvement in the incident would be kept on file.

Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Joel Rudy, in consultation with Student Senate executive officers, initiated a series of meetings involving university and city officials and members of the student community following the incident. A group of three Athens police officers, led by Investigative Patrolman Roger Deardorff, and students continued to meet, focusing on promoting responsible behavior and improving relationships in advance of the May block parties.

"We had the community and the city employees involved together with the common goal of safety of everyone at that event, and we had an event within the rules of the law," says Athens Mayor Ric Abel, BBA '67.

With local discussion of housing and parking concerns forever simmering on the back burner, the business community and some campus officials had a difference of opinion on at least two other issues this spring that raised a few eyebrows and attracted local media coverage. A university proposal to open a campus-run convenience store on South Green was criticized by area merchants, who claimed the campus store would compete directly with private businesses. Students originally had urged campus officials to consider the convenience store concept.

The university canceled the plan to open the store in late May, but Glidden said three residence hall snack shops would be expanded to include more toiletries, packaged food items and cosmetics.

"I don't blame the merchants for being upset," Glidden says. "The situation could have been handled better. . . . We don't wish to be seen as a symbol of unfair competition, but on the other hand, our first responsibility is to serve our students, and that's what we're going to do."

In early June, Glidden concurred with a campus task force's recommendation that the university remain on the quarter system; the committee reported that no compelling academic reason to change to semesters surfaced during its examination of the issue. Local merchants had urged the university to consider switching to semesters and eliminate the six-week break between Thanksgiving and early January. Glidden said the campus will continue its long break so faculty and students can get the most out of research and internship opportunities.

"I understand the university's position, but when the students leave just before Thanksgiving, it really places a hardship on the business community, without a doubt," says Bob Wilson, president of the Nelsonville Area Chamber of Commerce and owner of Wilson Studios & Camera Shops on North Court Street and in Nelsonville. "That additional month of business around Christmas would be a heck of an incentive for more companies to move into the area."

Wilson believes that "in general, town-gown relations right now are pretty good," but that recent developments have created "more friction than normal" among some business owners and the university.

OU Vice President for Administration Gary North says "mildly growing tensions" between the campus and community began building when the Ping Student Recreation Center opened in January 1996. "It started when the Ping Center opened and there was lack of access for the community, then escalated when we announced a few months ago that we were closing Grover Center to community (recreational) use (because of renovation work)," North says.

North says the relationship between local government and university officials functions well in important ways that are not reflected in news coverage. "Our relationship with city government, from safety services to the police to the mayor's office, is extremely good, if not the best it's ever been," North says. "If we've got a problem, we sit down and talk about it. We reach out to them and they, in turn, reach out to us."

Abel and Athens Service-Safety Director Wayne Key regularly meet with North and his staff to coordinate efforts on road, construction and utility projects and special events planning. For the first time, the city of Athens and the university jointly bid repaving work last year, saving a combined $30,000. Six community organizations, eight campus offices and the university's Sorority Survivor Advocate Program combined efforts this year to begin a new method of reporting sexual assaults that officials hope will lead to a higher level of awareness and criminal prosecution of sexual assaults (see related story ).

City, county and university officials also are working jointly on proposals to create a new retirement center in Athens, a new baseball diamond that will be jointly used, and an extension of the runway at the Ohio University airport in Albany that could have important economic implications by allowing larger planes to fly into and out of the area. And, North points out, the university has a long history of leasing its land throughout the city for the building of restaurants, hotels, apartment complexes, the Athens Mall and other commercial development projects.

The Office of Institutional Research has estimated Ohio University's economic impact on Athens County at more than $300 million annually. According to the OU Payroll Office, the Athens campus' gross payroll of $170 million in calendar year 1996 resulted in a $2.4 million city tax payment.

Of town-gown relations, Glidden says he is most concerned about the fact that there "are people in Athens County who don't feel comfortable with the university" or setting foot on campus.

"A lot of people are almost afraid to come onto a college campus and that, to me, is a problem. We are a public university and we are here to serve everybody. You'd like everyone in our region to feel comfortable with the university and comfortable with the campus," Glidden says. "I believe overcoming that is more of an obstacle than any local issue."

Glidden points to the university's Kids on Campus program, children's programs at the Kennedy Museum of American Art, artists-in-residence Lark Quartet's chamber music concerts and Bobcat athletic events as examples of community outreach efforts that break down barriers between the campus and region. And then there are Ohio University's five regional campuses throughout Southeastern Ohio that are "looked on very favorably by their communities," Glidden says.

"We do a lot in the area of community outreach," Glidden says. "University Relations has arranged for the marching band to play at area schools. And we invite school kids, school teachers and others to campus for an endless number of programs throughout the year."

"We will continue to find ways to get regional families on campus, to introduce them to their university," says Adrie Nab, the university's vice president for university relations. "We have major resources that can and will continue to be used for those efforts."

In its initial effort last summer, the eight-week Kids on Campus program hosted 300 underserved elementary-age children for classes on everything from reading and writing to art and gardening. The university teamed with five area school districts, community agencies, local businesses and parents to provide the resources for the program.

Area teachers, college and high school students, and university volunteers staffed the sessions. The university provided meals, medical exams, vision and hearing screenings, and classroom access. More than 360 children are expected to take part in this summer's six-week program.

At the Kennedy Museum, 11 Saturday morning workshops attracting an average of 25 kids from Athens County were offered in conjunction with exhibits this academic year. Hands-on workshops have focused on print making, mixed media and photography.

Both city and campus officials point to the university's Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development (ILGARD) as standing tall in helping fuel development in the region. ILGARD provides technical assistance for area communities through a variety of projects, including mapping and computer training, project consultation and evaluation, and strategic plans.

In 1996, ILGARD worked with the Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission to update Jackson County's comprehensive physical and social infrastructure plan, and it is assisting in the development of a digital mapping system for Athens County.

ILGARD also is the coordinating entity for the 11-county Mayor's Partnership for Progress, a nonprofit organization designed to promote economic development, and it works with Glidden's office to sponsor a series of Presidential Leadership Forums for business leaders in the region. Forum speakers have discussed topics ranging from technology advances to funding development.

"The leadership forums have been a very positive development, because they've brought people together, provided information and helped us focus and analyze how we can cooperate as a region," says Gall of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce. "Let's face it: Athens is not exactly the center of the universe. It's a rural community in Southeastern Ohio that is not incredibly accessible, and Ohio University is a great resource. If the university can assist us in having cooperative discussions, I think that's great. And the university has played that role."

Many staff and students fill the role of community volunteers. Faculty and staff are active as volunteer members and leaders of community organizations. The university annually raises at least one-third of the total donations for the Athens County United Appeal drive.

Class projects conducted in university classes often have a practical effect on the community. For the past eight years, students in Associate Professor Anita James' interpersonal communication course have conducted community-interest surveys for the Athens mayor's office. The series of surveys presents a historical file of public opinion on city programming, Abel says.

"With the (income) taxes alone, the university creates a very stable base economy for Athens, which gives the city a definite advantage," Abel says. "But one of the best things I can say about the university is the development of its student volunteer program. It's a tremendous program. It teaches the students the need for volunteerism. It's good for students and it's good for the community."

The creation of the university's Center for Community Service in 1994 and expansion of service-oriented programs on campus have broadened the scope of student, faculty and staff volunteerism in Southeastern Ohio. The center is a clearinghouse for individual and group volunteer efforts as well as a place for community-based organizations to seek volunteer workers.

More than 100 agencies use the center annually, and an estimated 2,860 students provided community service in the Athens area this academic year, says Terry Hogan, BSC '77, MA '83, PHD '92, associate dean of students who oversees student activities and community service programs. Volunteer projects range from literacy programs and tutoring to environmental cleanups and blood donations. Among the center's projects is the Appalachian Access AmeriCorps program, now in its third year of working to improve access to health care and education in Appalachian Ohio.

Hogan says community service is one of the university's most effective ways to maintain a thriving town-gown relationship.

"It's one-on-one. Students get to know members of the community, and members of the community get to know students. They get to know each other as people and not as stereotypes," Hogan says. "There is a tremendous network of relationships between campus entities and community entities. It's a web. It's thick and it extends all over the place."

This story was written by Bill Estep, editor of Ohio University Today. Contributing writers included Corinne Colbert, BSJ '87, MA '93, and Emily Caldwell, BSJ '88.

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