Page 1 of this week’s edition of your favorite weekly newspaper includes my interview with UW–Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields to preview UWP’s 2012–13 academic year.
Proving that the news cycle affects weekly newspapers too, the story was supposed to run last week, before the start of the 2012–13 academic year Tuesday, but breaking news intervened.
I mentioned before that one of the appeals of this job was the fact it was based in a college town. (A college town is not merely a community with a college in it; it is a community whose identity is synonymous with its college, or colleges. There are 13 UW four-year universities, but no more than six — Platteville, Stevens Point, Whitewater, and maybe Madison, River Falls and Menomonie — can be thought of as college towns. Of Wisconsin’s 23 private colleges, the only one that comes to mind as being in a college town is Ripon. Milwaukee has UW–Milwaukee and seven private colleges, but no one will ever think of Milwaukee as a college town.)
My 24 years in communications includes seven years as the public relations director for a private college. I got to deal with the good (student achievements, new building and academic program announcements, etc.) and bad (a meningitis outbreak, what was thought to be a student assault that wasn’t, some student misbehavior, etc.) in those seven years.
Between my PR work and living in college towns, I can understand how what’s known as the “town–gown” relationship — the relationship between a college and the community it’s in — isn’t always smooth. That’s especially true in the case of, to paraphrase a long-time David Letterman show segment, Stupid Student Tricks, but it’s also true in decisions a college’s administration makes, some of which require municipal approval, and some of which meet with disagreement from a college’s neighbors.
One issue college town government faces is that under state law nearly all of a college campus, whether part of the UW System or a private college, is exempt from property taxes. UW–Platteville has its own police department, but the Platteville Fire Department and EMS are called in case of an on-campus fire or medical emergency. Platteville’s streets department and the Grant County Highway Department handle snow removal on streets and main highways going into the campus area.
On the other hand, college towns have considerably more life and amenities than communities of the same size without college campuses. On Monday, UWP hosted a concert for its students to which the public was invited for free. On Saturday, UW–Platteville will host the University of Dubuque in football. When I first lived in Grant County I attended an outstanding speaker series that featured, among others, Scott Carpenter, one of the original U.S. astronauts, and Bernard Kalb, formerly of CBS and NBC news.
Platteville has businesses, not just bars (though bars are businesses), that wouldn’t be here were it not for the presence of UW–Platteville. Platteville has a healthier economy by far than other communities in southwest Wisconsin, even if you discount for Platteville’s larger size. The more businesses there are, the more people are employed, and the more money people can spend because they’re employed.
There is a certain no-win quality to some reaction to UW–Platteville’s strategic decisions. The growth of UWP’s undergraduate enrollment resulted in students renting off campus, which was claimed to crowd out families and Platteville workers from living in Platteville. So UWP builds a new dorm and is working on building another to get more students to live on campus, and some complain that UW–Platteville is taking over Platteville.
Based on some responses in the city survey about which I wrote a few weeks ago, there seems to be a belief that UW–Platteville is getting too big. UWP is the fastest growing four-year campus in the UW System. The more students UWP has, the more state resources UWP gets, similar to school districts. Again, in an era of diminishing government resources, growth is preferable to the alternative.
I’ve also heard suggestions that UW–Platteville runs Platteville because of the presence of people with UWP connections — current or former UWP employees, to name two — on the Common Council. I suspect Platteville is far from unusual in having UWP employees serve on various governmental bodies among towns with colleges in them. I’m not sure what difference that really makes. Certainly anyone who thinks an alderman has made a decision based on a conflict of interest can complain to the state Government Accountability Board. To suggest that any alderman must not have any connection at all to UW–Platteville seems unrealistic. (For that matter, UWP students can run for the Common Council; Madison usually has a student representing one aldermanic district.)
Platteville Common Council President Mike Dalecki, a UW–Platteville professor, has commented more than once that thousands of U.S. communities would like to have Platteville’s problems. Communities are organic; they grow or they shrink. The problems of shrinking communities — large numbers of vacant houses and storefronts, high local unemployment and shrinking population — are not preferable to the problems Platteville deals with today.
The final point is that today’s UW–Platteville students can be tomorrow’s Platteville taxpayers, homeowners, parents (whose children are automatically “townies,” of course), business owners, and church and civic club members. College degrees do not automatically confer wisdom. But even in today’s economy, college graduates have lower unemployment rates and make more money than those who never finished, or never started, college. Those are the types of people communities the size of Platteville should encourage to live here. But UWP graduates won’t live in Platteville after graduation if they didn’t feel welcomed, or at least tolerated, when they were students in Platteville.