In normal times, maintaining beneficial connections between campuses and communities is challenging. The healthiest relationships between campuses and communities have been likened to that of good marriages. Termed “harmonious relationships,” these associations are marked by high levels of effort on the part of both partners that, in turn, create high levels of comfort or satisfaction with each other. Bottom line: what works well in a marriage works equally well in a campus-community relationship.
During crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic, however, this becomes significantly more difficult, especially as resources dwindle. For example, the early exodus of students from campuses in spring created an economic crisis for college towns. In turn, state funding declines prompted furloughs and layoffs at universities that damaged the coffers of communities. In the face of such financial stressors, do campuses and communities have any hope of rebalancing their relationships to maintain some sense of harmony?
How does a comprehensive university fulfill its mission to the region, state, country, and world … [+]
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Ohio University recently made headline news when layoffs were enacted to deal with a budget shortfall that preceded the pandemic. These job losses sparked protests, as well as stories that warned of negative economic consequences for the town of Athens, Ohio. With additional cuts on the horizon due to further state appropriation reductions, leaders of this institution of higher learning are at risk of making further decisions that will anger employees and community residents alike.
The challenge for many universities is that they are large enterprises that serve many different constituencies, all demanding attention. Hence, one of the most pressing questions senior administrators and governing boards face right now is this: how does a comprehensive university fulfill its mission to the region, state, country, and world while maintaining a harmonious connection to its host community during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Ohio University serves as a case study of an institution of higher learning that has expanded its involvement with communities over the last several decades. For example, at the regional level the university created the Mayor’s Partnership for Progress, which convenes mayors and city managers throughout Southeast Ohio. This primarily Appalachian region also is served by the Ohio University Innovation Center, which provides meeting space and laboratories as well as access to executive coaching and industry expertise.
Ohio University operates at a more statewide level through 7 regional campuses and the residential campus in Athens (and learning centers in other municipalities), which means this institution of higher learning has many host communities to keep in mind as it works to maintain harmonious relationships. The campuses are united around the “One Ohio” banner, creating an experience that “is unique and transformative, not only for students, but for the entire southeast region of the state.” At the state level and beyond, Ohio University also has received the Innovation and Economic Prosperity designation from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, an accolade obtained by only 65 universities throughout the country that have demonstrated a commitment to economic development.
So, how does Ohio University maintain these expansive efforts while remaining dedicated to the local concerns of its numerous host communities? Dr. M. Duane Nellis, president of Ohio University, put it this way. “There is a great deal of synergy in the partnerships we maintain with all the communities we serve. Our regional campuses and learning centers provide access for students who cannot get to the Athens campus, many of whom are the first in their family to ever go to college. At the same time, the relationship we enjoy with Athens is special, as we are truly interwoven with one another. All efforts to reimagine and reposition our educational efforts in service to building the innovation economy begin in Athens. And increasingly, we have been working to create greater alignment between our other locations and what is transpiring here at the mothership.”
Dave Scholl, chair of the Ohio University Board of Trustees and an alumnus of the school, echoed the president’s sentiment in his own remarks. “Our work in communities throughout the state has been market-driven, where an area of expertise we possess lines up with a particular opportunity or identified need in a specific location. At the same time, we have built an nationally recognized and award-winning ecosystem for economic development that is centered in Athens, with tentacles that reach out to the other communities we serve.”
Notably, Athens and Ohio University were the winners of the 2018 Abernathy Award, the highest honor bestowed on a campus-community partnership by the International Town Gown Association. President Nellis believes all the ingredients that led to this recognition remain in place. “The pandemic has set us back in ways that are profound and yet are temporary. We have created a strong foundation between our campus and the Athens community that will allow us to come out of this both stronger and better.” This, of course, is the aspiration that all universities and municipalities share at this moment in history. Whether or not such hope is realized likely will rest on how well these relationship partners are able to lean on each other in the weeks and months ahead.