January 21, 2011

SIUC to host expert on 'town-gown' relations

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- During his nearly two decades as president at Virginia Commonwealth University, Eugene P. Trani was widely recognized for his efforts at knocking down fences -- literally and figuratively -- separating VCU, Richmond, Va., and the surrounding region.

But the fences that can divide the economic and social development of a university and the community it serves and relies upon still exist in many parts of the country, said Trani, president emeritus and university distinguished professor at VCU. Trani will discuss the intertwining roles that both entities must embrace to succeed next month at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Trani will present, “Universities and their communities in the 21st Century: An Economic Partnership,” at 7 p.m., Feb. 1. The event will be in the Student Center ballrooms. Admission is free, and the public is welcome.

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute is sponsoring Trani’s lecture. The discussion will also be available via live stream for free on the Institute’s website, http://paulsimoninstitute.org/.

“We hope his lecture and appearance will focus attention on some of the ‘town and gown’ issues that confront the University and the community,” said David Yepsen, Institute director. “We have wide-open races for both mayor and some of the city council posts that will be decided in the coming elections. The outcomes will have an impact on both the University and the community for years to come so it’s important that candidates and voters address some of these issues in the campaign.”

Trani, who retired as VCU’s president in 2009 after 19 years, was on SIUC’s faculty in the Department of History from 1967 to 1975. He is co-author of a 2010 book, “The Indispensable University: Higher Education, Economic Development, and the Knowledge Economy,” which looks at the roles that universities play not only in their communities, but also with regional economic development efforts.

In his presentation, Trani will review the partnership between VCU and Richmond, Va., discuss case studies in the book, and also include pertinent information on SIUC.

Collaboration is key, regardless of the size of the university, college, or community, Trani said. “The Indispensable University” examines successful collaborations that involve large universities -- VCU, University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Minnesota, and The Ohio State University, and also three community colleges: Miami Dade College, Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., and Maricopa Community College in Arizona. The book also looks at successful relationships involving universities and communities in several countries.

“It’s clear that universities and communities have to recognize their mutual dependence,” Trani said.

While structurally there can be many ways to foster cooperation, it begins with elected officials and university presidents, Trani said. Many universities have an official who is principally involved in economic and community development.

But the outreach must also extend beyond university and local leaders, and focus more on community involvement, Trani said. A “community service associates” program at VCU freed up more than 300 faculty from teaching one course each semester to become involved with a community project within their discipline.

“It sounds like a little thing but it’s really not,” Trani said. “The community realizes you have this expertise and they (faculty) are willing to share this expertise.”

VCU’s two campuses and the Richmond community also began a community advisory board for officials and community leaders to regularly sit down and discuss issues. The board is “another vehicle that builds collaboration,” Trani said.

“You are constantly working at both sides understanding the advantages they receive from cooperating,” he said. The “last thing” a university or community needs is to learn of a surprise announcement that impacts them, according to Trani.

The cooperation also benefits students and local residents, Trani said. Where neighbors once protested when urban universities began building new buildings, “you now have neighbors saying, ‘build it this way’,” he said.

As VCU’s student population increased from 21,000 to 31,000, economic development also hit the community. A new Kroger supermarket and new Lowe’s home improvement store are within one block of the campus, which “is unheard of in a downtown area,” Trani said. The activity along Richmond’s Broad Street, next to the campus, has attracted more than $100 million in business and residential apartment development, he said.

Trani recalls a Yale University graduate once told him that Yale “was a state of mind” and could as easily be located in Prescott, Ariz., as New Haven, Conn. However, that’s not true anymore, said Trani, explaining that Yale President Richard C. Levin has spent “major parts” of his nearly 18 years in that office working to relate the university to the community.

“They are trying to break down the boundaries between the university and the community so the town-gown relationships are strikingly good and not strikingly bad,” Trani said.

While at SIUC, Trani was among SIUC faculty assisting Institute founder Paul Simon during Simon’s 1974 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 1975, he wrote a chapter for a then-planned book tracing Simon’s political life from 1950 to 1973. Trani’s work, “The Man and the Land: The Politics of Paul Simon and Southern Illinois, 1950-1973,” is paper No. 21 in “The Simon Review” series on the Institute’s website.

Trani said he has fond memories of his time in Carbondale, recalling car trips with Simon during Simon’s early campaigns, finishing up a dissertation that later became his first book, and his many students.

Trani’s return to SIUC will be a family affair; in addition to his wife, Lois, his children, Frank, and Anne, both of whom attended elementary school in Carbondale, are also returning.

Trani also noted some irony relating to his SIUC-VCU connection. Simon and Trani were returning to Carbondale one evening in 1974 in Trani’s Volkswagen when they noticed a sign announcing SIUC’s new President, Warren Brandt, who was then VCU’s first president. Sixteen years later Trani became the university’s fourth president.

Prior to coming to VCU in 1990, Trani was vice president for academic affairs of the University of Wisconsin System and professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, according to his biography. He was vice chancellor for academic affairs and professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City from 1980 to 1986. From 1976 to 1980, Trani was assistant vice president for academic affairs at the University of Nebraska. Prior to coming to SIUC, Trani was a history instructor at The Ohio State University.

For more information on this program, contact the Institute at 618/453-4009, or visit http://paulsimoninstitute.org/.