A dozen mayors wrote to Big Ten officials last fall. Football was returning to their communities, and they wanted help.

“We humbly request,” the mayors wrote, “a few practical measures that the Big Ten Conference can take to ensure we have the tools we need to combat the spread of COVID-19.”

A humble request. The words are telling: about where power lies, and where it doesn’t. And about where the leaders of these Big Ten college towns — often dwarfed in size and in influence by their university neighbors — fit into the conversation. Which is to say, often on the side.

“Kill ‘em with kindness” is how Aaron Stephens explains the letter’s tone. He’s the mayor of East Lansing, home of Michigan State University. He didn’t really have to push many of his fellow mayors to sign the letter, he says.

After all, the requests weren’t that crazy. In the middle of a pandemic, the mayors wanted the Big Ten to make decisions about games based on rates of COVID-19 in the community, not just the teams. And they sought few or no night games, to cut down on parties and drinking.
Students gather outside Brothers Bar and Grill near the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, Ind., on Sept. 3, 2020.

The mayors never got a meeting. Big Ten planning, Stephens says, was well underway by the time they sent their requests.

Still, Stephens sees the letter as an opening. Maybe now there will be a thought that hasn’t been there before, he says. Some conference official, amid making the next decision, might say: Maybe we should reach out to these cities.

And that humble wording? “We want to work together,” Stephens says, and it’s a long game. “Do you really burn the bridge down?”

Life after COVID-19:Lessons college football will take from the pandemic
‘A colony of the university’?

The pandemic put new pressure on relationships between cities and their universities. They suddenly had urgent life and death decisions to make that affected each other. Should they bring students back? Should they close bars? Should they play football?

College towns were recording some of the nation’s biggest spikes in covid cases last fall. Of the 25 hottest outbreaks in the U.S. during the back-to-school season, communities heavy with college students represented 19 of them, according to a USA TODAY analysis.
Indiana University students gather on boats on Lake Monroe over Labor Day weekend in 2020.

Along the way, some city leaders felt railroaded. “We’ve begun to feel like a colony of the university with the degree to which we’ve been ignored and even blamed for the COVID outbreak,” one member of the Athens-Clarke County Commission, in Georgia, told the Washington Post last fall.

Others felt more included than they have in a long while. In interviews with a dozen mayors and top city leaders, including those in most of the cities of the Big Ten, many used the word “strengthened” to describe how their relationship with their university changed this past year. It took a crisis, but they’ve gotten a seat at the table. They’re having more regular interactions with university leaders. They feel noticed.

A lot has been written about the town-gown divide, a term whose origins stretch back to the Middle Ages, when European universities often kept their students (who wore distinguishing gowns) away from the towns, viewing them as corrupt.

Much of the modern focus has been on outright battles — the parking disputes, the noise headaches, the housing pressures — but the relationships have suffered from something more pernicious: low-level disengagement. In many places, town-gown connections have been defined by a comfortable distance and intermittent interaction. A transportation meeting here. A dean launching a pet community project there.

Ultimately, what the pandemic revealed about the relationship is both how interdependent the two are, but also how imbalanced the power tends to be. Universities have an outsized influence in their communities. Many are their city’s largest employer, sometimes by far. Their budgets are bigger and their missions are broader.

Stephen Gavazzi is trained as a marriage and family therapist, and that shapes how he sees town-gown relations. Often, when it’s not working, it’s because the gown is saying to the town: I’m just not that into you.

“Just like in marriages, it takes two to make a relationship,” says Gavazzi, an Ohio State University professor who studies town-gown ties. “There has to be motivation on both sides or it’s just not going to work. ”
The public is losing faith in colleges

But the pressure is building on colleges to do more to make this relationship work, because of both the pandemic and the politics.

“There’s never been a more important time for universities to be able to articulate how exactly it is they are benefiting communities,” Gavazzi says.

Before the pandemic, he says, the rise of populist politics had already begun to create a demand for colleges to articulate what they’re doing for the commoner. He’s conducting surveys of Americans’ views of colleges, and in them people say they want their campuses to do a better job of being open to all. On top of that, poll after national poll has shown the public is losing faith in its colleges.

There’s also a disparity in who’s being served. When 4 out of 5 incoming freshmen at a public flagship like Ohio State come from a family at or above the national median income, Gavazzi says, that fuels alienation.

Will all of this, though, be enough to prompt lasting shifts in how universities approach their communities? Will many of the nascent ties formed in the COVID-19 era persist? Will regular citizens start to feel more connected?

To get a sense of these relationships, just listen to how the people on the side with less power describe them.

Christopher Taylor, the mayor of Ann Arbor, calls his partnership with the University of Michigan benevolent but also volitional and asymmetric: “We’re not in the position to force anything.”
South Main Street’s outdoor dining scene in downtown Ann Arbor in May.

Deborah Frank Feinen, the mayor of Champaign, says the city and the University of Illinois had often included each other as little more than an afterthought: “We always recognized our interconnectedness, but acted as separate entities.”

Ronald Filippelli, the mayor of State College, Pennsylvania, is even more blunt about Penn State University, the 1,000-pound gorilla in his town: “It gets whatever it wants.
College students: A nuisance or welcome community?

In East Lansing, the pandemic really remade town-gown communication, says Stephens, the mayor.

In some ways, the crisis put the university’s reputation on the line, he says, which helped prompt engagement. If there were a COVID-19 outbreak, would the headline be about East Lansing residents or Michigan State students?

Janet Lillie, assistant vice president for community relations at Michigan State, says the pandemic prompted more people at the university to develop their own relationships with city leaders. That has added new layers to how the university interacts with East Lansing. “So many more people at the university realized there’s a willing partner across the street.”

During the pandemic, the university also saw that it needed the city. The restrictions East Lansing and the county health department placed on gatherings were stricter than what the state had enacted, Lillie says, giving Michigan State more leverage to enforce safe student behavior.
Michigan State University utility worker Kimberly Consavage adjusts a mask on the Sparty statue on April 22, 2020, on the campus in East Lansing.

Stephens first ran for the City Council four years ago, when he was a student at Michigan State, in part because he wanted to bridge town-gown gaps. Students are much more than a neighborhood nuisance — they bring life to a community and they support the whole economy, the mayor says. But over time, city residents have lost that perspective.

He’s hoping that the new lines of communication can start to end the blame game and encourage everyone to act as if problems are shared. What can the city do to protect student renters? What can the university do to help residents when off-campus students flood their neighborhood?

It will take a while to shift the public’s view. Residents regularly ask why the university isn’t doing more. “The answer I have to give is, ‘We’re working on this,'” Stephens says. “It’s going to take a little bit more than just one year of cooperation to get something to work.
Mask mandates, ad campaigns

Another approach to working with a university that wields a lot of power? Try to harness some of it for your city’s own goals.

In Columbus, Mysheika Roberts, the city’s health commissioner, has used Ohio State football players and coaches to help carry her messages. They appeared in ad campaigns about wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

When Roberts was issuing unpopular recommendations, like pressing for strong limits on spectators at football games, she appealed to the university to back her. And, she says, it often did, helping to win more public support.

“I kept telling them: ‘You need to be leaders,’” Roberts says. “‘People look to you in this community and around the state to be leaders, so be leaders.’”

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In West Lafayette, Indiana, John Dennis, the mayor, has gone all in on making the Purdue University brand the city brand. He worked with university leaders to annex the campus, bringing it within his city limits in 2014. Now, wherever he’s marketing West Lafayette, he’s adding “Purdue.” It’s on the city logo, it’s on welcome signs. And the URL for the city’s visitor center.