Principles for College and Community Interactions

Gregory S. Prince Jr., July 1, 2003

This article is adapted from a keynote address delivered by President Gregory S. Prince Jr. of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, at a Lincoln Institute–sponsored conference in May 2003 at Lincoln House. Focusing on the topic “Universities as Developers,” the conference brought together some 40 college and university presidents and administrators who deal with real estate and development issues for their institutions.

“How do you build a relationship between an institution and the community in which it lives, in all of its forms?” This is a topic that I have struggled with for more than the 14 years I’ve been at Hampshire; building these relationships is an incredibly interesting process. I’m going to describe some of the salient points that have influenced the way I work on Hampshire’s community relations. It is not coherent. It does not start with a grand design. Rather, it’s inductive, based on my experiences and my observations. In addition, this interaction, this back and forth between thoughts and actions, between the college and the community, has been an important part of my own ongoing education about this critical topic.

This process for me began when I worked at Dartmouth College for 19 years. One of the things I found extraordinary at Dartmouth, which is so different from Hampshire, is that Dartmouth is taxed like any other institution, for profit or not, in the state. Because New Hampshire does not have the income tax or the sales tax, the town of Hanover is permitted to impose a property tax on all nonacademic facilities at the college. This tax policy has been in effect for decades, so it is an accepted part of life. People struggle over all the same issues that any academic community faces, but the conversation in town meetings is quite different when the college is paying just like anybody else. Granted, in Hanover tax dollars go to the schools where the faculty send their own children, so they have a vested interest. But, I saw a relationship between the college and the community that I found very healthy.

When I came to Hampshire College in 1989, everyone was talking about PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes). I hadn’t thought much about PILOTS until I found out that the University of Massachusetts was making these payments to the town, and the town manager wanted Hampshire and Amherst College to start paying as well. So I learned to talk about PILOTS, but I felt there was something intrinsically shortsighted about the arrangement because it was based on a very narrow conversation about money and not about needs. Both Hampshire and Amherst colleges have made contributions to the town of Amherst for certain items, but we have not called them PILOTS, and we have not made them on a regular basis. Now, I am not saying that when a college or university does make a payment in lieu of taxes to a city it is necessarily a sign of an unhealthy relationship. All too often, however, the negotiations about what universities and colleges ought to pay to their host communities focus on the cost of police protection or snow removal, for example, rather than what it means to be part of a community with the rights and obligations that accompany citizenship, what are some of the critical needs of the community, and which ones could the institution most effectively address.

As I tried to figure out how to change the conversation, I wanted all of us to understand that we were having a dialogue. That is, when I’m having a conversation at Hampshire about the town, or with the town about Hampshire, I need to acknowledge that UMass and Amherst College are also part of the conversation. Wherever possible, we try to make sure that all three of us are communicating with the town; admittedly, this four-way conversation is complicated. I found in the process that the real discussion was about how to build sustainable communities. At Amherst College or UMass, sustainability is viewed differently than at Hampshire, a 33-year-old institution with little endowment. We need to figure out how to sustain our college over the long term within these different, complicated relationships. The PILOT conversation never seemed to quite get at that issue, so we’ve tried to expand it.

Broadening the Conversation

Two very different sets of experiences influenced my thinking about how to broaden and enrich the conversation with the community.

Urban Conferences

When I first arrived at Hampshire, I received a phone call from the chief counsel for the Transit Police in New York City, whom I had taught years before. He asked if Hampshire College would host a conference in association with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, bringing together representatives from several large urban communities. My first question was, “Great, but why Hampshire?” The response was that at that time, in 1989, people like Lee Brown (former police commissioner in New York City and now mayor of Houston) and Bill Bratton (former police chief of Boston and New York City, and now police chief of Los Angeles) felt that America had lost its cities but didn’t know it, and they were trying to figure out how to talk about it. They wanted to meet at Hampshire because it was the last place in the United States one would think would work directly with the police. The partnership that emerged between Hampshire and the International Association of Chiefs of Police did send a signal, and people noticed.

The conference brought together not just law enforcement officials but also the heads of all the major departments of ten major U.S. cities. Los Angeles dropped out at the last minute because of the Rodney King incident, but Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New Haven, New York City, Phoenix, Seattle, Springfield and Tulsa were involved in the first group; other cities attended subsequent meetings. The police chiefs did not want mayors to come, because they wanted free and open discussion across professions and across cities. Because Hampshire paid for the conference, we were able to bring students into the process.

Among the most important outcomes of these conferences over several years was the creation of a forum for people involved in community schools, community policing, community health and other areas who never had a chance to converse, and that included the Hampshire students who contributed to an intergenerational discourse. In the first conference, we divided all the participants into groups, mixing professions and cities, and we gave them a four-block area of a fictitious city. Each group had three hours to write a proposal to a foundation on how they would use those city blocks to restore or revive the most problematic part of the city. They had access to unlimited funds, but out of the process came two critical principles that actually had very little to do with money and had everything to do with how people talk to one another and collaborate: (1) the need to have conversations across professions and across community boundaries; and (2) the need for every older adult committee or commission to have a younger counterpart organization. Guess who thought that one up? The students wanted to find a way to generate networks and initiate conversations in which common plans could be developed; they understood that no plan was going to succeed without that kind of cross-generational ownership. They came away with the realization that there is no single answer to what gets done; what is most important is how it gets done. Having conversations across boundaries, be they professional, historic, generational or institutional, may be the core value and core practice of community building.

We had three of these conferences over three years, and I think they had a profound effect on the strategic ways that people like Bratton and Brown and other law enforcement officers and community leaders changed their communities. These same principles of open conversation should be built back into relationships between colleges and universities and their communities. It’s not just about PILOTS or taxes. It’s about how you generate a conversation so that everybody is part of the process, respects the outcome and is committed to the sustainability of the community.

Cultural Village

The second set of experiences also began in my first year at Hampshire, a lovely campus of 1,200 students surrounded by 800 acres of farmland in Amherst, a small New England town in the western part of the state. Amherst also hosts the University of Massachusetts, a major state land-grant university with over 20,000 students, and Amherst College, with 1,600 students. A bus system links the colleges with the town, but many students complained that they were “in a little teenage encampment.” They wanted older adults and more activity around them so they could feel more connected to the community.

As I talked with people in the town and attended meetings on economic development issues, I learned that Amherst was fairly hostile to development. Lack of development intensified the feeling among town leaders that PILOTS were the possible recourse. As I began to understand that perceptions, strategies and concerns about development underlay the conversation about PILOTS, I began to look at land. Could land possibly help the community, since Hampshire had an abundance of land relative to available cash? Our land actually held the seeds for new possibilities in the form of creating a “cultural village.”

After many years of planning and negotiating, the grounds of Hampshire College are now being transformed into a center for nonprofit cultural and educational institutions that create more activity for the students and more economic activity for the town. The National Yiddish Book Center became the first new development when, in the early 1990s, it was looking for a new home. The center’s director, Aaron Lansky, is a Hampshire alumnus and he wanted to stay in Amherst where he had started the center. It took six years to persuade the boards of the college and the center to agree, but the center now has an absolutely gorgeous building with 40,000 volumes in the library. It runs tremendous events, bringing people together from all over the world. Hampshire College didn’t pay for it; the Book Center paid for it. But its building, its facilities, its activities and its staff are on our campus, enriching our life, putting people into our dining room, creating a more interesting intellectual environment for our students, creating economic activity for the town, and not using land that could otherwise be taxed.

The second member of the cultural village, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, opened in the fall of 2002. One may well ask, “What does it do for Hampshire College to be the site of the first picture-book art museum in the U.S.?” The 40,000-square-foot building sits on land that Hampshire donated, but Eric Carle, the author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, endowed the museum. It employs 18 people, including some of our students. So we’re enriching the faculty and cultural resources for our students, and the town of Amherst gets a large museum to sustain its economic base while limiting environmental impact on its land resources. Only 25,000 museum-goers were expected in the first year, but more than 40,000 attended in the first four months, bringing vitality to both the town and the college.

Intergenerational Viewpoints

These two experiences—developing the cultural village and learning from the urban conferences years before—make me feel that even though Hampshire is in a rural area, the principles that have guided community outreach are replicable even for large universities in urban environments. The key is to generate a conversation that crosses boundaries and in so doing weakens those boundaries. The process is ongoing and has led to many interesting new conversations.

Recently the town of Amherst approached me about developing open space on the edge of the campus for a commercial village center. The area now houses a well-known farm stand, but the town wanted to expand the amount of commercial activity. Through open conversation with the community, college trustees, students and residents, the land was purchased and given to Hampshire with the proviso that it be used to generate income to support the college. At the first public hearing on what to do with the land, we invited the entire community. All ages were present. A group of Hampshire students came to the meeting intending to argue against development; they wanted the area kept as open space. However, the first citizens to speak were in their 70s and 80s; they tore us apart about how terrible it would be to develop this area and how they had bought their apartments nearby because of this open beautiful land. In truth, their retirement community had been built while I was the president of the college, so I knew it, too, had been built on open land. Their attitude was, “we’re here and now we don’t want any more development.” The students understood these arguments, but found themselves thinking about how they wanted to behave when they were 75 years old. They didn’t want to imagine themselves as being opposed to growth and change, so this intergenerational conversation made a difference in their attitudes. Talks have continued and the plan is still in development, with a target date of spring 2004 to present it at town meeting.

Principles of Sustainability

Developing the cultural village and new developments in academic curricula converged to make sustainability an increasingly important issue. Suddenly, the cultural village was also becoming a laboratory. When the faculty, in response to issues in the cultural village, proposed seeking funds to do a sustainable campus plan focusing on the natural environment, I suggested that the most important principle in the plan be sustaining Hampshire College. My statement generated a very constructive conversation about what sustainability should mean for Hampshire. Let me summarize the principles that we developed.

1. The core goal in planning for the college must be the school’s long-term sustainability as an educational institution committed to providing students with the most constructively transforming liberal arts education possible.

2. In pursuing the first goal, the college must strive for human sustainability—for maintaining and enriching our capacity to live well together, for providing for the economic well-being of those who work at the college, and for nurturing their creative spirit and sense of fulfillment that comes from working at the college.

3. In pursuing the educational and social goals, we must recognize the fundamental relationship between the goals and the physical environment, and strive to achieve the sustainability of that physical environment to the greatest extent possible.

4. In pursuing the core goals of sustaining the college as an educational institution, we must strive to ensure that as an institution, independent of what its graduates accomplish, what we do makes a difference locally, nationally and internationally. Success in achieving the first three goals will ensure that we take a significant step in achieving the fourth goal. In effect, our primary aim is to provide the best education we can. We must model the behavior we expect of our graduates.

5. In pursuing educational and social sustainability, we must encourage entrepreneurial activity, invention and innovation, even if it entails the risk of failure.

6. In sustaining the human spirit of the college community, economic needs must be met, but with the recognition that we must also offer a meaningful mission, a stimulating and creative intellectual environment, and a supportive and enriching physical environment.

7. In seeking to create a sustainable, healthy and enriching social environment, the practical must be balanced with the artistic, the physical and rational with the contemplative, the values of individualism with those of community, and the needs of the college with those of the larger community.

8. In seeking to create a sustainable physical environment, efficient use of energy should be the highest priority, followed by other resource uses and resource disposal. Appropriate land use must be made another high priority. In maintaining the physical plant, we should consider the ease and efficiency of maintenance in terms of those who perform the work, as well as the level of resources needed to carry it out.

9. Wherever possible, physical infrastructure changes should include visible demonstration or interactive educational displays designed to educate about sustainability.

10. The cost of innovations in programs or in the physical environment should include the endowment required to ensure that those who follow us will not be burdened with their maintenance. The projects should be designed so they can be converted to other uses, removed or terminated.

The Board of Trustees reviewed the ten principles of sustainability, then challenged us on how we will interpret and implement them. In the process of working on these tasks, additional guidelines began to emerge:

1. Process is important: conversation and explorations can uncover interests as opposed to positions.

2. Geography matters. It may not be destiny, but it has a great deal to do with it and how you have to build and grow.

3. Focus on the culture, the economy and the environment comprehensively, not as separate subjects in conversations and plans, and involve them early.

4. Involve the community.

5. Involve young people, especially high school students, in any community planning.

6. Promote interdependence.

While these guidelines answer some questions, I struggle with other questions. One of particular importance to me currently is the issue of contiguity. Do our endeavors need to be within our current campus or town or can we successfully move into other communities? The five colleges in the region (Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, Smith and UMass) already work together on many joint programs and all of us have done a great deal of work in Holyoke, a small city about 15 miles south of Amherst that exemplifies all the problems of urban America.

We spent a lot of time trying to encourage UMass to move its art department to an old warehouse in Holyoke. We felt it would be a major boost to the community, but it looks as though it will not happen for equally legitimate reasons. Moving an academic department geographically from the rest of the academic community will increase intellectual isolation and fragmentation. Other ideas include building a five-college dormitory in Holyoke, and that possibility raises equally complex questions related to contiguity and community citizenship.

In both projects the issue is contiguity. Must you always maintain your place as a central, unbroken whole, or can you move outside of your special place? That’s the challenge. I think Hampshire has to somehow build a presence in Holyoke. We have made a huge investment there already, and I believe the city has incredible potential. I think we have to face the issue of opening ourselves up physically, not just maintaining the boundaries of our space but carrying ourselves outside of the institution as well. But others resist. What is exciting is the conversation and the process of engaging all of the related communities in that dialogue.

Gregory S. Prince Jr. is president of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.