Article City Forum Gary Sandy

Building Bridges With Local Universities

Gary Sandy, a former mayor of Woodland, is the director of local government relations for UC Davis. He can be reached at

 For centuries, cities and universities maintained a certain wariness toward one another. Yet historically, at least since the Middle Ages, the two have been closely linked. Many medieval universities sprang up in the midst of bustling cities. Universities needed the availability of existing infrastructure, and the local economy benefited from student commerce. Over time, a symbiotic relationship emerged between the city and the university. However, the term “town and gown” — emphasizing the city population as separate and distinct from the academic community — persists to this day.

Fast forward several hundred years and not much has changed in this regard. Many cities find the prospect of dealing with an annual influx of thousands of young people a daunting one. Similarly, public colleges and universities assigned the task of serving the needs of a growing statewide population find city complaints and constraints vexing.

The Benefits and Challenges of Student Populations

Obviously, the presence of thousands of young people primarily between the ages of 18 and 21 is going to impact a community. When students, many of whom are away from home for the first time, descend on a city, their arrival does not go unnoticed. Traffic and noise often accompany them. Compound these with parking problems and parties, and neighborhood relations can become strained. In recent years, the advent of technology such as text messaging has contributed to the size and intensity of student parties. In several communities, parties involving hundreds of local students have grown out of control, necessitating major outlays for police response.

The flip side of the coin is the tremendous amount of positive economic development a college generates. The local fiscal impact of a college or university is measured in billions of dollars. A sustained university employment base, consisting of well-paid, professional jobs, is a major benefit for host cities. Students spend an enormous amount of money in local stores, restaurants and gas stations and on rent for local apartments and houses. In addition, their parents and relatives often make repeated visits to the campus. The resulting economic boon is easy to see. Campuses also often contribute growth and vitality to the arts and schools, enriching the community and creating cultural amenities.

The Big Picture

California is home to more than 219 institutions of higher learning, ranging from small, church-affiliated colleges to massive, research universities. The University of California (UC) includes 10 campuses, while the California State University (CSU) system has 23. Combined, the two systems annually serve more than 600,000 students. The 109-campus community college system alone serves 2.5 million students. Added to this are enrollments figures for the 77 private colleges and universities in the state, ranging from the University of Southern California in the south to Stanford University and the University of San Francisco in the north.

Approximately one-third of California’s 478 cities are impacted by a college or university and vice versa, with some cities hosting more than one college.

Housing and Land Use Issues

In recent years, cities and community groups have sparred with campuses on a number of issues, including land use, housing and the fiscal impacts of university growth. UC campuses in Berkeley, Davis and Santa Cruz have encountered community opposition to a variety of initiatives associated with campus expansion, while CSU San Diego’s master plan, CSU Sonoma’s proposed off-campus housing project and Stanford University’s traffic woes have stirred concern in their host cities. Each of these conflicts underscores the need for improved communication and greater collaboration between universities and cities.

Finding Ways to Work Together

A number of mayors and university or college presidents have begun searching for common ground. One example is the League’s UC-CSU Host Cities Committee. Chaired by Riverside Mayor and League Past President Ron Loveridge and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, the committee consists of mayors and city managers of cities that host either UC or CSU campuses. The committee explores ways of enhancing the relationships between individual campuses and their respective host cities. Participating mayors and city managers are interested in fostering dialogue between college and university campuses and the community. With the realization that a cooperative relationship is in everyone’s best interest, these civic leaders are intent on creating new pathways for problem-solving, dialogue and collaborative planning.

Don’t Miss These Upcoming Opportunities to Explore Town-Gown Issues

At the League’s annual conference in San Diego next month, Mayor Loveridge, a former UC professor, and Mayor Bates will lead a workshop on best practices in town-gown relations. The aim of the workshop is to enable host cities to identify demonstrated ways of working with institutions of higher learning. Mayors Loveridge and Bates will be inviting city leaders to identify common problem areas and explore potential solutions. The “Town & Gown” workshop will be held 2:30 – 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 7 in Room 28A at the San Diego Convention Center. Times and locations are subject to change; check your conference program for the most current information.

Following the annual conference workshop, Mayors Loveridge and Bates, Mayor Ruth Asmundson of Davis and Rohnert Park Council Member Jake Mackenzie, in collaboration with Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef of UC Davis, will host the first statewide conference in California on city-university best practices. Titled “Bridging the Town-Gown Divide: Issues in Transportation and Housing,” the conference will be held Oct. 12 at UC Davis. City and campus leaders from throughout the state are encouraged to attend and participate. For more information, call (530) 757-8447 or e-mail:

Given their historic links to one another,cities and universities both have a lot to gain from working together. The opportunity exists to bridge old gaps and create a new paradigm for town-gown relations.

This article appears in the August 2006 issue of Western City
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