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.

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?” 

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

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. ”

“Just like in marriages, it takes two to make a relationship. There has to be motivation on both sides or it’s just not going to work. ”

Stephen Gavazzi, Ohio State University

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.” 

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.” 

Michigan State University Infrastructure Planning and Facilities Landscape Services utility worker Kimberly Consavage adjusts a mask on the Sparty statute on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing. The mask was put on as a way to spread awareness in slowing the spread of the coronavirus. (Lansing State Journal)

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.

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.”

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.’” 

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? Homeofpurdue.com. 

The Purdue brand — and the fact that he can proclaim constructive town-gown relations — helps West Lafayette attract businesses and grow the economy, Dennis says.

Sometimes Purdue has more agility and resources to get things done, and partnering can mean an easier path to money for infrastructure and development. He has professors and students on city boards and commissions. He has a personal relationship with Mitch Daniels, Purdue’s president, and a direct line to the dean of students. 

Those connections helped as they entered the pandemic, the mayor says. Purdue, from early on, staked out one of the more aggressive plans to keep campus open, with students returning to West Lafayette in person last fall when many others were shutting down. 

From Dennis’ perspective, both sides took tough stances to help the other: Purdue put students on notice for their behavior by requiring them to sign a pledge, and he issued an unpopular mask mandate when infection rates rose. “My face was on every dart board in the community.” 

Dennis doesn’t get why other cities go to war with their universities. “You have to look out for the best interests of your community and for quality of life,” Dennis says. “To be able to do that you need to have a solid relationship with your partners, and Purdue is our strongest partner.”

“You have to look out for the best interests of your community and for quality of life. To be able to do that you need to have a solid relationship with your partners, and Purdue is our strongest partner.”

John Dennis, Mayor of West Lafayette, In.

When Matt O’Neill opened a restaurant along the border of Purdue’s campus and downtown, he thought it could help bridge the two. He even named his business with that in mind: the Town & Gown Bistro. 

The antagonism that gets talked about between local residents and the university often seems exaggerated, he says. There’s some suspicion of intellectuals, but a lot of people benefit from them. And what resentment there is seems to be “for the vaguest of reasons.” 

Sure, people from the university can be picky. There’s one professor they call the “butter man.” He’s allergic to everything, O’Neill says, including corn and oil. So his burger goes in the skillet with just a big slab of butter and some slices of potato.

Sometimes the customers from campus can come across as standoffish. But O’Neill mostly sees it as different people with different interests. “Who knows, maybe they’re working on some equations for NASA or something,” O’Neill says. “The last thing they want to do is small talk.”

A sense of superiority, though, can sometimes come through in how universities do try to engage with their community, says Gavazzi, the Ohio State professor. When they reach out, it can often be on their terms. A professor wants to share some expertise. A researcher wants to test a theory in action. 

That can all be great, Gavazzi says. But engagement should be developed around mutual priorities and exchange.

Maybe what the city really needs most is more help from the university expert in water quality who’s instead doing research in another part of the country. Maybe the local school district has expertise that the university should spend more time learning from

With service projects, Gavazzi says, “the question always becomes, ‘How long are you going to stay?’” A researcher working in the community may lose funding or interest. When universities face budget pressures, those types of community engagement projects are often among the first cut. When engagement is fleeting, it fuels skepticism. 

There’s no ignoring that in most cases, this is not a marriage of equals. Universities almost always control more than cities — and that can feed resentment, especially if residents feel they aren’t getting their fair share. 

Students gather outside Brothers Bar and Grill near the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, Ind. on Sept. 3, 2020. (Mary Claire Molloy)

In Evanston, Illinois, there’s a long history of uneasy relations between the city and Northwestern University, much of it over money. The battle centers around a common town-gown frustration: As a nonprofit entity, Northwestern is exempt from paying property taxes.

In recent years, the city and the university have negotiated a “good neighbor fund” through which Northwestern is providing $1.5 million this year to Evanston. That’s helped, says Steve Hagerty, Evanston’s outgoing mayor. But a lot of residents and city leaders still tell him it’s not nearly enough, considering the university’s magnitude —with its endowment of about $11 billion and its 240 acres of land, much of it prime lakefront real estate.

Some of the Big Ten mayors joked that their budgets could almost be considered rounding errors compared with their universities’. In Evanston, the city’s budget is about $300 million; Northwestern’s operating budget is about $2.5 billion.

Before the pandemic, Hagerty, who founded his own emergency management consulting business, had worked with Northwestern to set up a joint emergency operations center. Part of the impetus, he says, was the fact that the university is so much bigger than everyone else, including the city and the hospitals. Even pre-pandemic he knew that Evanston couldn’t respond to an emergency if it didn’t have Northwestern at the table. So he got them there.

Being the smaller actor, Hagerty says, doesn’t mean you can’t put your foot down or advance your own priorities — and win the university’s help, too. What matters, he says, is forging a genuine relationship that transcends the transactional. That’s the path to something mutually beneficial. 

After all, he says, there’s just no getting around power differentials. Bemoaning them won’t change a thing. “We’re all under the thumb of someone bigger than us.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association’s Reporting Fellowship.

Cover photo: South Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor, May 2021. (Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press)