College Towns — and Their Mayors

One thing that struck me about Mark Burstein when I met him last summer was how much attention he paid to a relationship college presidents don’t often talk much about: the one with the mayor.

When Burstein arrived in Appleton, Wis., seven years ago, to be announced as president of Lawrence University, an appointment with Tim Hanna, the mayor, was one of a handful he insisted on setting.

Before moving into higher education jobs, Burstein worked for New York City as director of economic development for the sanitation department. So he appreciates the inner workings of city government. He also sees the power in developing a pragmatic ally.

Getting More Done

Here’s why Burstein made meeting with the mayor an early priority: In a city like Appleton, knowing the mayor means you can get more done, even if you don’t always agree.

Take a very specific issue like pedestrian safety. When Burstein had a concern, his relationship with the city helped him get a quick response. The city fixed crosswalks and traffic-timing problems, the campus improved lighting and sight lines.

Or take a broader issue like diversity. About a quarter of Lawrence’s students are from minority backgrounds. About 15 percent are international students. Appleton is less diverse.

Burstein wanted Appleton to become more inclusive and for Lawrence’s students to feel more at home there. The mayor shared his goals. They created citywide campaigns and diversity training for businesses. They attacked the issue from multiple angles, Burstein says, and that doesn’t happen without a deep relationship.

Where Campuses Loom Large

In small towns across the country, the connections between colleges and communities are suddenly looming larger — from a public-health standpoint and an economic one. College towns like Tuscaloosa, Ala., are predicting monthly losses of $1.8 million in expected sales and tax revenue now that the University of Alabama’s 38,000 students are gone. (If football doesn’t come back this fall, the absence of just one game-day weekend could cost cities like Tuscaloosa millions of dollars more.)

In cities like Pullman, Wash. — where Washington State University students make up nearly half of the population — the loss of students is not just a revenue hit, it’s a quality of life hit.

I recently talked with the mayor there, too. What Glenn Johnson is missing right now is all of this: Cars parked outside businesses on Main Street. People sitting outside having coffee. The sounds of the marching band practice.

Johnson, who’s been mayor since 2004, saw the town through the 2008 recession. Back then, though, businesses were open, people were employed. The college students were still there.

What will they do if students can’t come back in the fall? Or if football games don’t happen? Johnson, as it happens, is the “Voice of the Cougs,” the public address announcer for the university’s football and men’s basketball games. “Talk about impacting the revenue stream,” he says.

A Symbiotic Relationship

What he sees is what Burstein, over in Wisconsin, sees. “The pandemic reinforces the symbiotic relationship we have to Appleton.”

The whole pandemic, Burstein says, is forcing all of us to see things as ecosystems. You may think that the closing of a meat-packing plant in South Dakota doesn’t affect you. But three weeks later, you’ll come to find that your local supermarket is rationing pork.

“In the United States we tend to think of ourselves individualistically,” he says. But many systems work better when they are interdependent.

In the midst of all of this, Appleton is getting a new mayor. After nearly a quarter of a century, the former mayor decided not to run again and, just three weeks ago, Jake Woodford took over.

Burstein believes his relationship with the mayor’s office will only get stronger. It has to because of the pandemic, he says. Also, the new mayor’s previous job? He worked at Lawrence University as the president’s chief of staff.

— Sara Hebel

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Who the Vice President Missed

No gathering of a dozen or so colleges and universities could fully represent the diversity of America’s higher education system. But you could probably do better than the 14 institutions that Vice President Mike Pence talked with this week about “best practices to get students back to school in the fall.”

Betsy DeVos, the U.S. secretary of education, and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, joined Pence on the call with leaders of 13 research universities — plus Hillsdale College. Presidents from places like Purdue, Wake Forest, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and Arizona State were part of the discussion.

Certainly, those universities are going to be among the trendsetters for what happens in the fall. But the White House could have included a wider range of colleges, including those managing very different issues. For context, about 70 percent of the 20 million college students in the country don’t attend major research universities.

P.S. Hillsdale does represent a different, if tiny, slice of colleges — places that are so independent they refuse to participate in federal financial-aid programs. (They enroll a good bit fewer students than community colleges do, about 0.07 percent of the total.)

Career Advising in a Paused Economy

As unemployment rates climb and companies freeze hiring, recent graduates are struggling to find work and current students are suddenly finding their internships and summer jobs canceled.

Colleges are scrambling to try to help. They’re moving services like resume editing and interview practice online. They’re teaching students skills like how to make interpersonal connections while talking through a webcam.

And they’re connecting students with alumni, parents, companies, and local organizations to try to help them find new jobs or shorter-term projects and internships.

In the midst of change and uncertainty, Neil Burton, who runs Clemson’s Center for Career and Professional Development, is focused on building students’ confidence. He’s reminding them that even if they hear a lot of “noes” they should keep trying — even now.

For recent graduates and current students whose opportunities are drying up or being canceled, Burton says there are always ways to build job prospects. Here’s what he advises:

Don’t be idle. If students can’t find work right now, Burton encourages them to continue building skills through online classes or self-run projects. When the economy picks up, they’ll be able to show experience they gained rather than a large gap in their education or work history.

Reach out. Communicating and building relationships can help students find opportunities down the road. With many employers working from home, Burton encourages students to reach out and talk with people in positions or companies they like for informational interviews. It may not lead to a job tomorrow, but expanding their network could help in the long run.

It’s a zig-zag. Especially now, students’ first jobs likely won’t be at their dream company. Burton says to remember that careers often change, and most people’s paths aren’t simple. Don’t get bogged down if you’re offered a less-than-ideal job. Students and recent grads should take advantage of the opportunities they have, to build skills and connections however they can.

— Andrea Klick

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Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus