The city of Akron wants to boost its population. The University of Akron would undoubtedly like to see more students. Those quests can be intertwined.
“If you look at successful universities and successful cities, they have relationships that are positive,” said Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan.
In a talk with the Akron Roundtable last month, UA president Gary Miller said the university needs to redefine what it means to be a campus post-pandemic. Officials are turning to their downtown partners and the area’s art scene to help figure it out.
AkronArts is a new wide-ranging initiative that looks to better connect some of the university’s arts offerings with the city. University spaces, like the Polsky Building in Akron, will be repurposed. The downtown dwelling will house some of UA’s arts programs while becoming a place for community members to visit for arts offerings.
E.J. Thomas Hall and the Akron Civic Theatre will pair together to host more programming, and the National Center for Choreography will have more offerings, too.
The move centers on stressing the idea of place. The city started to think about the importance of that before UA did, Miller said. Even though a lot of university employees were involved in Akron’s ongoing revitalization efforts in some way, Miller said, UA officials detected the city was waiting for more institutional involvement from their end.
The president pushed back, though, when asked if it’s the first organized partnership between the two. Miller highlighted how the Greater Akron Chamber is collaborating around efforts with polymer science and stressed how the university’s athletics teams have been embraced by the community. But there’s still room for improvement.
“In a way, we, as an institution, have been preoccupied with some challenges that we’ve had,” he said. “I think as we move out of those, we need to become now more of a community partner.”
Several of those challenges have been well-publicized over the years, including leadership changes and layoffs. And like other universities across Northeast Ohio and the country, enrollment struggles were amplified during the pandemic. Last fall brought a reported 8% drop in full-time enrollment at UA. The upcoming academic year is expected to bring a 4% decline.
Miller said the university’s efforts to market the city’s connection to the student experience are increasing. UA is considering incorporating more of the city into prospective student tours. The arrival of electric scooters has made connecting downtown and the campus easier for students, too. Yet some hurdles remain.
“It’s a matter of perception,” he said. “Why would I go down there, or if I’m down there, why would I come up onto campus? Those are the things we have got to work on with this vision.”
And while the arts often are thought to be on the periphery, they can play a big part in reviving an area and getting people to want to stay there, Miller added. According to the Akron Cultural Plan, the creative economy in the city’s metropolitan statistical area generates $1.4 billion and supports more than 17,000 jobs.
“The university partnering with us with those institutional things that they have within their campus certainly provides a tremendous benefit and boost,” Horrigan said.
In fact, arts have been used in other places to help boost “town and gown” relationships, like a Columbus art gallery that also serves as a learning space for Ohio State University students.
“There are countless other examples of where they’ve used the arts, some to greater impact than others,” said Stephen Gavazzi, an OSU professor who studies campus and community relationships.
He added that he pushes universities and cities to rely on data, not anecdotes, when it comes to working together.
“There needs to be some way of saying, well, what’s the baseline before we start this arts district, what is it that we’re trying, who is it that we’re trying to impact, and where are we right now?” he said
More logistics of the AkronArts initiative are still set to be hammered out over the summer and into the fall. Miller said they’ll raise money to pay for the effort, particularly the work at the Polsky Building, as part of the university’s ongoing capital campaign.
Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.