A profile in good town-gown relations

How one university and community work together for mutual benefit

Town-gown relations are often complex, says Princeton, New Jersey mayor Liz Lempert, but she argues that communities and schools can systematically work together to achieve common goals, reports Nicole Mulvaney for the Times of Trenton.

The 7,910 students of Princeton University make up about 27% of Princeton, New Jersey, according to U.S. Census data. The school is also one of the town's largest land owners and the largest taxpayer, Lempert points out.

"We may have conflicting needs at different times, but the town of Princeton would not be the same without the university, and the university experience would not be the same without the setting of the town," she says.

Divergent interests

In a forum held last Wednesday, Lempert said one of the main areas of tension between town residents and the university is land development. "The university and community are on fundamentally different group trajectories," Lempert observed. While the town is "essentially built out," writes the Times, the university still hopes to expand.

Breaking down the town-gown divide

For example, one item discussed in the meeting last week was the relocation of a local train station, which was done to accommodate a university construction project. "There was a shock that the university could do this, and you can argue whether it's a significant distance to walk or not, but I think part of the community felt that it was a government-owned station," Lempert said.

Finding common ground

However, Lempert says university leadership has been proactive about finding a way to work with the town on common priorities.

She commended Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber on his commitment to meet with the town council yearly. "I think he's been extremely successful in building a relationship with the community. He's shown a true interest in it," Lempert said.

In April, Princeton reached an agreement with the town to contribute $21.7 million over seven years to municipal services. The university also voluntarily pays taxes on certain properties that could qualify as exempt under state law, in order to contribute to the town's budget. That makes it "the largest taxpayer and largest non-taxpayer in town," quipped Lempert.

A new 'geography of innovation' brings more universities to city center

The municipality and Princeton have also worked to formalize their coordination, signing a memorandum in 2013 which defined areas of responsibility for public safety issues within the community.

Lempert encouraged students be more actively engaged in local government as well. "There is a lot to explore here and learn here in the larger municipal classroom," she said (Mulvaney, Times of Trenton, 2/25).

The takeaway: The Mayor of Princeton, New Jersey says conflicting interests shouldn't prevent universities and their communities from working together, citing the increased cooperation between Princeton University and its local government as an example of good town-gown relations.

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