Town and gown relationship strong under UGA President Michael Adams

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On his first day as president of the University of Georgia, Mike Adams stepped through the Arches, crossed into the downtown, climbed the hill to City Hall, ending up at the desk of the Athens-Clarke County mayor.

Many saw that action as testament to the new president’s commitment to the UGA-Athens relationship.

Now, 16 years later, many agree the relationship is better than ever.

Interviews with Adams, Mayor Nancy Denson, and others show the mindset, the projects and the systems that propelled the improvement.

Relationships between college towns and the colleges they contain can be tenuous amidst the clash of university administration and city government, local and student. Denson said before her time in Athens government, there was a “wall” between the school and the city. Now, the relationship is much improved, thanks in large part to Adams. That improvement, though, doesn’t mean smooth sailing. It means fostering awareness and mutual respect despite the disagreements.

“That tug and pull between different interests makes us arrive at the best interests for everybody,” Denson said.  “Because if you’re just running along smooth and everything’s going great, you don’t look at your processes very closely.”

A collaborative attitude

Director of Community Relations Pat Allen said it is important for the University to be mindful of the importance of its relationship with Athens. Attracting the ideal students and faculty requires a “solid town,” he said, in addition to all of UGA’s qualities.

“I guess we have a self interest in ensuring that we have a vibrant economy in our community,” he said. “That it’s a safe place, and it’s a place that people will want to come for four years or for 40 years.”

The University also has a responsibility to the state, which incorporates its responsibility to Athens.

“And of course as a state institution we have a commitment to the state of Georgia, including Athens-Clarke County, to bring the resources of the University to bear on the biggest problems in the community,” he said.

Denson and Adams both acknowledged that they encounter Athens residents who bemoan the amount of land the University owns but doesn’t pay taxes on. Both, coincidentally, used the term “short-sighted” to describe this mindset, and counter with their own.

Adams pointed out that comments of this type are “potentially harmful to our state support base.”

“They contribute to a negative feeling in Atlanta, not widely shared by our funding partners, who still believe that sending some $400 million of taxpayer money every year to Athens is a pretty strong level of commitment,” he said.

Denson disagreed with these complaints on an even more fundamental level.

“It’s important to note that the University wasn’t just plopped in the middle of town. The town and the university grew together. And basically, without the university, Athens would just be a sleepy little village,” she said. “If we didn’t have all those taxes in property taken by the university, there would probably be just raw land sitting there and it would not have much tax value to it.”

Instead of “raw land,” she said having the University in her city brings a variety of positives – including a more “cosmopolitan” attitude and business growth.

“The University is more of an asset than anything else to the community, but it’s not a uniform asset to every member of the community,” she said.

Allen’s job, created in 2003, is a product of this collaborative attitude.

“It’s called a liaison, it’s called a lot of things, but my role is to assure that we communicate with local government and community groups on issues and opportunities for us on issues that we might be having,” he said. “As self-serving as it may sound to you, him recognizing that we needed someone focused on this every day, that’s a commitment of the University’s resources to the issue.”

Project-based collaboration

Adams’ tenure has seen a variety of projects that strengthened the relationship between UGA and Athens. Project-based collaboration. just one part of the complex relationship, has increased dramatically while Adams was in office.

The University contributed $3.6 million to ACC’s new water treatment plant for odor control in 2011.

“You remember the terrible smell over on East Campus? That impacted the University and our quality of life,” Allen said. “So we recognized first that a lot of the products they processed in that plant comes from campus, so we partnered with them and helped them with some odor-control technology.”

Part of that contract also dedicated UGA resources to helping expand the College Station Road bridge. The bridge expansion will also provide better access to the University’s Veterinary Medicine Learning Center that will be built beyond it.

The University also gave the city land for a fire station adjacent to the plot of land designated for the new Veterinary Medicine Learning Center.

Allen said these are examples of mutually beneficial exchanges.

“We also worked with the city on the bridge at college station road that goes across the Oconee River, to connect not only with that plant but to connect with property that the university owns past that plant,” he said. “We can have much better access to our own property, but at the same time are able to provide another access point for the sewage treatment plant.”

He said the fire station helps both communities as well.

“What that does for the county is it saves them the cost of buying property to build a new fire station,” he said. “What it does for us is it gets us assurance that we have close-by, adequate fire protection on the south part of our campus, especially now that we’ll be building a $90 million building next door to that fire station.”

Another prominent collaboration between the city and the University was made over a building built two decades before the Civil War. The Wray-Nicholson House has flipped between University, city and private ownership over its long history. The antebellum home traces its roots with UGA back to 1825, when it served as the dining hall. It then returned to private ownership in 1845.

ACC saved the house from demolition in 1994 as part of a $64 million sales tax referendum vote. The house took up $4.4 million of that referendum. The city bought the property for $860,000 and spent the rest of the money to renovate the house and the four smaller buildings nearby.

The University, with approval from the Board of Regents, bought the house in 2000 for $2.3 million. It is now the home of the UGA Alumni Association.

The University subsidizes the Athens Transit bus system, “which is what’s kept this city bus system alive,” Adams said.

The University pays 86 cents per rider today, which Adams said puts the University support of the system between $800,000 and $850,000 annually.

A commitment to long-term partnership

Partnership means more than occasional project collaboration. Cooperation on longer-term, issues-based initiatives deals with the broader relationship between the town and University. Allen said this has been one of Adams’ priorities since before his job was even created.

“Since the mid-90s, a group of University administrators and the senior staff for Athens-Clarke County have breakfast once a month, and we talk about those very types of things,” Allen said. “So we look for things, and communicate openly about what projects that each of us have and how me might compliment each other with those.”

the University has a neighborhood relations roundtable, composed of “of Athens-Clarke County elected officials, Athens-Clarke County staff, neighborhood leaders and University folks,” Allen said.

The committee used to meet regularly to address issues of ACC citizen concern. A neighborhood leader chaired the group. Allen said the chair eventually told the group that the major issues had been addressed. The neighborhood leaders suggested meeting on an as-needed basis.

“To me, that is a very good example of improving town and gown relations,” he said. “We have the group that was formed to fix the problems saying we’ve come so far that we can just meet on-call. And there hasn’t been a meeting in several years.”

Denson and Allen individually lauded the UGA College of Education partnership with ACC schools.

“We’ve really invested our faculty and staff in assisting the Clarke county school system,” Allen said. “And we help them operate what we call professional development schools, every school now has some type of relationship with the University, though at different levels, some have on-site faculty some have more of a consultative relationship.”

This collaboration began in 2007, but Denson said she hopes to see even more done to solidify the partnership.

“It’s something that has begun to happen but I’d like to see it happen to a much larger degree,” she said. “So it’s a great benefit to those student-teachers that are coming in because they’re getting hands-on, real world experience with students, but it’s also expanding the faculty of the school because you’ve got more people working with those students. So that’s a perfect example of how you mutually help each other. I think it’s just as beneficial to the university as it is to the elementary schools.”

Allen also noted UGA’s involvement in Partners for a Prosperous Athens, an organization that broke ground in 2005 to address poverty issues in Athens. The organization was a collaborative effort on the part of UGA, ACC government, the Clarke County School District, the Athens Chamber of Commerce, and various local nonprofits.

“We formed a group called Partners for a Prosperous Athens where we had a major initiative to identify and address poverty issues here and develop strategies to try to deal with that, understanding that the poverty level of this county, being whatever the numbers show now, is just an embarrassment to a county with the flagship institution of the university system located within it” he said.

He said the University’s ability to collaborate is important to ventures like this one.

“We got involved and partnered with these other people,” he said. “We didn’t come in and say we’re the university we can fix this for you, what we said is let’s work together and we’ll bring our resources in terms of facilitators and office space and back-room support to help our community address what we think is the major social problem here.

PPA spent time and resources fact-finding and adopting an action plan to address poverty in Athens. It then transferred their findings to a nonprofit called OneAthens. This organization has addressed a variety of needs in the community – most recently helping to develop the Athens Health Network.

Bumps in the road

This positive relationship has had its bumps along the way.

A highly publicized scuffle occurred at Sanford Stadium beginning in 1999. The teams weren’t composed of athletes, but rather of administrators – the University versus ACC.

Before the 1999 football season, UGA workers noticed a brown liquid that looked and smelled like sewage bubbling up from that sacred piece of grass between the hedges and causing patches of grass to die. UGA brought in the company that installed the field to determine the cause of the problem. That company brought in an environmental consulting firm, which concluded that leaking sewage from an ACC line was the crux of the problem.

The cost of repair to the field, the University said, could be in excess of $1 million.

The University took the report to ACC officials and indicated they may be at fault and liable to pay for repairs to the field. ACC responded by hiring their own consulting firm. This firm’s report concluded that the smells and liquid could not be sewage due to the depth of the line beneath the field.

A third report concluded that the smells and liquid was indeed sewage, though the sewage leaks weren’t as bad as in the past. It said the death of the grass was due to old age.

UGA and ACC retained lawyers. The threat of a lawsuit was eminent. But Adams and then-mayor Doc Eldridge announced a solution to the problem in April 2000.

The city agreed to remove a discontinued sewer line discovered beneath the field during investigation. The project cost approximately $40,000. The University agreed to bear the cost of installing new turf and restoring the field before the 2000 football season began.

The relationship has grown since.

Allen said community relations is about bigger questions than periodic projects, whether they be successful or not.

“It’s not just helping build a bridge or a fire station, but it’s helping to address issues that are more long-term and not project related, and might have a long-term impact to the University and the community,” he said.

For richer and for poorer

This isn’t a perfect marriage.  When times get tough, the relationship is strained. But Adams and Denson have worked hard to fulfill their primary responsibilities, despite the dwindling dollars.

“We would like to help in more [ways],” Adams said. “But there’s just not been that much venture capital over the last three to four years to do anything new.”

The University must stick to its “core functions” of teaching, research and public service when money gets tight, Adams said, “and probably in that order, if you look at the budget.”

In his State of the University address this year, Adams said “some have forgotten that the University of Georgia is a charity, not a donor.”

He praised the collaboration on “mutually beneficial” projects in the past, but he reminded the audience that UGA is “a nonprofit educational institution” whose “resources have been more limited in the past three years than at any other period in my 16 years here.”

Adams said it’s important to remember that UGA’s commitment is statewide, not just to Athens.

“I get up every morning thinking, ‘OK, how do I serve the state of Georgia?’ I don’t ignore Athens, I love Athens, I live in Athens, I’m going to continue to be in Athens going forward, but my job is a statewide mission,” he said. “So sometimes I have to balance what’s the request from Athens versus what does the whole state need. And that’s not always a perfect answer.”

Denson said there’s a fundamental imbalance, but the right attitude helps maintain a good relationship.

“Of course the university’s core responsibility is educating its students, and our core responsibility is providing for the safety and welfare of everyone here, including the students,” she said. “So when money gets tighter, that gets to be harder for both of us. But I think that we can make that easier to both groups by having an attitude that we are responsible for each other.”

Looking forward

 When Adams steps down July 1, current Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Jere Morehead will take his place. Denson said she thinks Morehead will be “a real asset to the community.”

The mayor praised his academic background, but said “the fact that he was the first person in his family to graduate from college” will give him the sensitivity to understand the people of Athens.

“He’s going to have the sensitivity and understanding of regular people,” she said, “that people in academia in previous generations may not have had.”

 

 

 

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