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COVID-19 pushed universities and their home cities to close the communication gap

City of East Lansing

Universities and the cities they call home often have relationships that are both symbiotic and strained. Some city leaders simply feel ignored by their biggest neighbors. But the COVID-19 pandemic created a new layer to the so-called town-gown dynamic. 

Sara Hebel is the executive editor of Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization that investigates higher education. In a story for USA Today, she wrote about how universities and their home cities collaborated, or didn’t, during the pandemic. Hebel joined Michigan Radio's Morning Edition to talk about what she learned.  

The town-gown tensions in these cities are complicated. The universities are often the biggest employer in those communities. At the same time, because of their non-profit status universities don’t pay property taxes, although many make voluntary payments to cities.

Hebel’s story starts with a letter that 12 mayors sent to the Big Ten athletic conference. This came in the fall when the conference was getting ready to bring back football. The mayors had concerns about what games – and all that go with them – could mean for the spread of COVID.

“What they wanted were some basic things: to have conference take into account not just the COVID rates among the players and teams, but also among the broader community to think about whether there might be a bigger risk to the population of the towns,” Hebel says. 

For more on this story listen to the interview near the top of this page and read Hebel's article at the link below.

Further reading: "College towns felt ignored by universities and resented the students. Then COVID-19 hit" by Sara Hebel for USA Today.

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