Grunke Column: Let’s build a town-and-gown connection

I recently had the privilege of serving on the search committee for the new dean of the University of Montana School of Business Administration. While I have long admired the superior talent of the faculty and staff at UM, this experience strengthened my resolve.

Across disciplines and departments, it would be difficult to find a public university in the Intermountain West that boasts finer talent than our own backyard university.

The committee’s work also got me thinking about the town-gown relationship that exists in a college town. Most businesses I work with, whether a longstanding local icon, a start-up or a firm eager to expand, want a relationship with the University of Montana or Missoula College.

However, I am not sure that we as a community have done a good job of fostering a climate that encourages “gown” relationships with the “town.”

While I believe the Missoula Economic Partnership does a fair job of interacting with UM, we could better leverage the unbelievable expertise that exists to fully maximize our business and civic interests.

In fact, we all must look for more and better opportunities to engage UM’s faculty and staff in our community.

Consider the members of the business school’s recent search committee:

First, we were led by a dean who can only be described as a rock star; it is easy to see why her college is posting robust enrollment numbers. Then came a management professor who grew up on the Hi-Line and is among other things, a Georgia Tech-trained mechanical engineer, an accounting professor with a global reach, a marketing professor who is a world-class athlete and whose research has been cited by ESPN, a law professor who is a former partner in one of the West Coast’s most prominent law firms, an MIS professor who spent a decade with one of the most prominent consulting companies in the world serving Fortune 100 companies, and a world-class research professor of finance with a degree in chemistry, a master’s in civil and environmental engineering and a doctorate in finance.

And this level of renown can be found in every college and school at the University of Montana.

So how do we better engage the “gown” in our “town”? Communication is key, along with professional courtesy and respect. The tone is set from the top leadership down.

The best town-gown relationships are in communities where you see the university president and community leaders side by side at welcome events for students and at significant university and community events. They meet routinely, show up when they don’t need anything, and have joint university-city boards that provide a venue for the care and keeping of their relationship.

The best town-gown partnerships exist where students are highly engaged with city leaders. They’re interns at City Hall, serve on civic and governmental committees, and are routinely included in significant community conversations. Students are an amazing resource for their host cities; showing intentional interaction is key through all layers of leadership.

The resulting energy literally greets everyone in a university town every day. Students and neighbors show genuine respect and kindness for one another. The economic sector takes notice, and the community both retains and attracts businesses, a benefit to students and the workforce.

In a recent article in the Innovation Journal, Lawrence Martin, Hayden Smith and Wende Philips showed how some cities cultivate their town-gown relationship. Among the partnerships they highlighted:

  • Service learning, where university students volunteer for academic credit.
  • Service provision, where faculty and staff conduct long-term service projects in a community.
  • Faculty involvement, where faculty become part of local initiatives in a coordinated way.
  • Student volunteerism, where students volunteer their time, but do not receive academic credit.
  • Community in the classroom, where courses enhance community building by drawing upon local experts and thought leaders.
  • Applied research, where faculty and staff use their research skills to address local problems.

The benefits of highly educated community members, improvements to physical design made by campuses and contributions to the local tax base are assets that universities bring to their communities.

By constructing meaningful local projects, well-cultivated town and gown relationships can expand upon and enhance these contributions.

We have all this at our fingertips here in Missoula. Let’s grab onto the opportunities, embrace the richness of resources at our door and build a town-gown connection that truly sets the standard.

James Grunke is president and chief operating officer of the Missoula Economic Partnership. This column originally appeared in the May 28, 2016 edition of Missoulian’s InBusiness.

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