Tales of Town and Gown: Is the Campus Isolated?

To the Editor:

Re “Elite Universities Are Out of Touch. Blame the Campus,” by Nick Burns (Sunday Opinion, Aug. 7):

Mr. Burns writes that faculty and students, especially at elite universities, are too sequestered from society because of the isolated nature of the campuses themselves. There is a flaw with his overgeneralized argument. Having taught for over 40 years at an urban campus, I have had ample opportunity to observe campus-community interactions.

Forcing more students to live off campus, as Mr. Burns suggests, only exacerbates the town-gown split. Students drive up rents by piling into units and sharing the costs.

As transient residents, students have little incentive to engage with a community. They displace families who typically have been long-term residents. Those who remain are plagued by some of the most disrespectful behaviors imaginable, making their lives not only less comfortable but also less safe. Noise, public drunkenness, big parties and reckless behavior degrade communities and often go unpunished by university administrators.

Martin Ross
Rockport, Mass.

To the Editor:

Nick Burns claims that elite universities are walled off from reality and their surrounding communities because of campus geography, and he used Yale as an example.

Far from being out of touch with New Haven, members of the Yale community embrace the city. Many faculty, staff and, of course, students live in New Haven, and our Homebuyer Program has helped over 1,300 university employees purchase homes in the city.

New Haven and Yale work together daily to foster mutually beneficial growth. Together, we sustain hiring initiatives for city residents, economic development projects, and service opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. We support New Haven youth through many educational programs, and Yale employees engage in civic activities and serve on local boards. We also partner with the city to improve access to education and health care, tackle environmental problems and address other challenges.

Our partnership was recently reinforced by a $140-million-plus commitment from Yale. There are no walls between Yale and New Haven; our past, present and future are inextricably entwined.

Peter Salovey
New Haven, Conn.
The writer is the president of Yale University.

To the Editor:

Colleges, especially elite ones, can be utopias where students and faculty who are largely upper-class live more or less unaware of the troubles that exist in their city.

However, to suggest that universities should decentralize their campuses, expel students to surrounding neighborhoods and make themselves indistinguishable from their host cities is to strip them of their identity and appeal.

A large part of my college’s charm was its location in a college town where my neighbors were my fellow students. I was still able to interact with people from many backgrounds through my classes, volunteer opportunities and work for the university. A better way to encourage students to mingle with people from different backgrounds is to matriculate a class that is diverse in every sense of the word.

As Nick Burns noted, it will always be true that “reasonable people” will disagree with you, but I argue that they can be found in your classroom.

Javier Nishikawa
Birmingham, Ala.

To the Editor:

The same old town-gown argument. It seems that the author’s real point is that we academics are so darned liberal because we spend all our time on gated campuses.

My colleagues and I ride city buses to our homes in real-world neighborhoods, our kids usually go to public schools, our partners typically have jobs outside academia and we shop at the local grocery and box stores. Many of my students hold real-world jobs off campus to help pay tuition.

It’s not lack of contact with the world off campus that leads to the liberal views common in academia — it’s being trained to think critically and practicing this craft daily as we look at the world around us that makes us the libs conservatives so dislike. Scattering university buildings around communities won’t change our critical gaze.

Eliot A. Brenowitz
The writer is a professor at the University of Washington, Seattle.

To the Editor:

Nick Burns fails to recognize the importance and great benefits of an isolated campus.

There is much to be said for spending four years isolated from the distractions that might lure students away from intense study, and the opportunity for self-reflection in discussions with teachers and peers.

If the college admissions staffs have done their jobs well, each student will have the opportunity to meet a diverse student body, probably more diverse than the high school the student came from and the work environment to which the student is headed.

There should be room enough in our huge postsecondary education infrastructure for both isolated and more civically engaged places for a college education. Many societal improvements originated in monasteries, convents and isolated campuses. Even Henry David Thoreau took a break from the real world; it had great benefits for him and society.

Joseph C. Small
Princeton, N.J.

To the Editor:

This bird’s-eye view would gain perspective by a walk down the streets of the modern urban university. The legacy of the fortressed campus has long been surpassed as universities expand their research enterprises and community services. Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia have all undergone engaged campus planning in the last 25 years in concert with local government officials and communities.

University campuses today are diverse workplaces and economic engines. They operate clinical practices, public programming and performing arts. Many are union employers and provide reliable service jobs and contracting opportunities. University housing provides students with affordable short-term leases not available on the open market.

The future of the university campus is uncertain, particularly given the popularity of online education, and citizens have a vested interest in the campus’s prosperity. Perhaps when tomorrow’s youth are studying in the metaverse, these campuses will offer lifelong learning, housing and community to an aging population.

Lori Pavese Mazor
New York
The writer is the former vice president for administration at Hunter College and a former administrator at New York University.

To the Editor:

Campuses serve a crucial function that is neglected by other American institutions: They provide social spaces for young adults. The American legal drinking age often causes bars, concert venues and dance clubs to exclude patrons under 21, even when they do not intend to drink alcohol. Even hotels and campgrounds will often refuse to accommodate those under 21 without a parent.

In contrast, the legal drinking age in most European countries is 18 or lower, and opportunities for socialization — from dance nights to youth hostels — are plentiful for older teens (including those under 18).

American laws and norms, which too often ignore the needs of older teenagers, need to be changed if we want those teenagers to spend more time around other people.

Leo Reyzin
Needham, Mass.
The writer is a professor at Boston University.

To the Editor:

As a former campus dweller at Columbia University, I find Nick Burns’s critique misplaced and untrue to my college experience.

Columbia should be emblematic of Mr. Burns’s “elite” campuses: a demarcated area encircled by student housing and academic buildings. Yet the school is ringed by entrances and exits. The gates at 116th Street stand open 24/7, letting students out and Manhattan in.

I lived on campus for four years, but I interned in Midtown, volunteered in Harlem and performed at Lincoln Center. My friends regularly left campus to study, work, play sports and make art anywhere from TriBeCa to Washington Heights. We met people outside the university system at festivals, marathons, charities, barbershops, churches and synagogues, encountering their lives up close.

We could do this because of the way the Columbia campus is set up. The university offers students a home and built-in community, but its campus functions as an entry point to hundreds of others. New York City surrounds the campus and permeates it; all Columbia students need to do is walk through the gates.

Nina Francus

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