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Colleges, communities find ways to coexist

Brian Mitchell, president of Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, is working with community leaders to improve relations.
Brian Mitchell, president of Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, is working with community leaders to improve relations.

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(AP) -- Plagued by alcohol abuse and financial squabbles, they are marriages of necessity neither party can escape -- the sometimes contentious relationship between colleges and the communities that host them.

But tired of bickering, colleges and the towns that alternately love and hate them are increasingly learning to coexist by opening channels of communication and implementing programs that emphasize cooperation.

Brian Mitchell, president of Washington & Jefferson College, learned the hard way about his school's place in the community. His get-acquainted courtesy call to the political leaders of Washington, Pennsylvania, turned out to be anything but courteous.

"I managed to squeeze in just two words, 'interesting and fascinating,"' Mitchell said. "For the other 45 minutes they screamed at me for everything that had gone wrong in town for the past 50 years."

Most of their grievances, Mitchell acknowledged, were justified.

Five years later, Mitchell and community officials are making plans to build a private, off-campus housing project that will provide revenue to a cash-strapped city that once sued the tax-exempt college in a bid to get a $10,000 annual donation to offset its tax loss.

A member of the Knight Collaborative, a nonprofit group that studied community-college relationships, called the truce in Washington an example of what is required for schools and cities to get along.

"They really needed to forge a relationship with their community so when things don't go perfectly, it would be like working with family," said Joan Girgus, a Princeton University psychology professor.

She said several other schools, including some located in heavily urban areas, have been reaching out to the community. But as with families, the alliances struck in colleges towns are often complex.

Rowdiness, noise

Cities and towns that embrace the vitality of university campuses have also been repulsed by the drinking and rowdiness that goes with undergraduate partying.

With property around colleges in many places becoming more scarce and valuable, relationships are further complicated by turf wars that break out when campuses or communities look to expand.

"There are more possibilities for eruptions in town-gown relationships than ever before," said Robert Zemsky, a University of Pennsylvania education professor who worked with the Knight Collaborative.

David Warren, the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said gestures like making college athletic or entertainment facilities available to community groups can go a long way toward easing underlying tension. He also believes smaller schools and towns have an easier time of working out their differences, because it can be done more informally.

In East Lansing, Michigan, the reservoir of good will toward 45,000-student Michigan State University evaporated when Spartan fans overturned cars and set fires following the school's loss in the Final Four of the 1999 NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Jean Golden, a former nurse who now serves as East Lansing's deputy city manager, called the riot and subsequent civil disturbances -- students took to the streets after Michigan State was eliminated from the NCAA tourney again this year -- a "public health issue" rooted in alcohol abuse.

Michigan State and East Lansing have responded with a broad-based combination of legal and social remedies.

The measures include seminars for incoming students and their parents on good neighboring, along with prosecuting offenders with a new Michigan law that can prevent students convicted of "riotous behavior" from attending classes on any state university campuses for two years.

What has gained the most attention, however, is a program that pays students trained in conflict resolution a $1,200-per-semester stipend -- jointly funded by the city and the university -- to serve as liaisons between students and permanent residents of off-campus neighborhoods.

Lacking a similar program in Boulder, Colorado, homeowners living near Colorado University took it upon themselves to seize control of their neighborhood after a series of off-campus parties resulted in out-of-control violence.

A "zero tolerance" policy adopted by the University Hill Neighborhood Association has resulted in complaints to police for even minor drinking and noise disturbances. It's credited with making the neighborhood more tolerable for students and permanent residents alike.

"We want the students to understand they live near people who have families and jobs," said University Hill resident Terry Rogers. "And if they have a big party on the street, there are going to be consequences to that."

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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