Reviving America, One College Town at a Time: How symbiotic relationships between colleges and their communities have reaped rewards in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Waterville, Maine.

AuthorFallows, James

Gannon University started out in a working-class community during the boom years of the 1920s. John Mark Gannon, a native of Erie, Pennsylvania, who returned from the Vatican to become the Catholic bishop of Erie, had long been conscious of what he called the "cruel inequality" of higher education. "Those whose parents are wealthy may set out for college," he said, according to the university's history. While "the sons of workingmen, no matter how virtuous or talented, are forced to give up hope of a college education."

The two-year college for which he led a building campaign, which is now a full-fledged university named for him, opened in 1925 in downtown Erie with the goal of bringing opportunity to its industrial community.

Nearly a century later, many schools like Gannon-small, private, regionally focused, not part of the crazed status competition for elite admissions slots, not in a fancy small-college town--have been struggling.

By comparison, Gannon is thriving. Its total enrollment is modest by national standards but has been going steadily up rather than down. Ten years ago, it had just over 4,000 graduate and undergraduate students. This year it has nearly 4,800, the largest in its history. Of the current students, about 20 percent are international, and 14 percent are counted as diverse. It is known for its programs in engineering, the health sciences, infotech and cyberskills, business, and others.

Gannon's recent success parallels the ambitions of its home city, which is more than a decade into a sweeping civic recovery process. Tucked into the northwest corner of the state, Erie has a spectacularly beautiful natural setting but has been through the rigors of many northern industrial towns. Between the 1970 and 2020 censuses, Erie shrank from 130,000 people to 95,000, as manufacturing and other business fled the city amid postWorld War II deindustrialization. Yet in the past decade the city has seen significant revitalization--in significant part because private businesses have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Erie, especially its downtown.

Among corporations, the locally headquartered Erie Insurance has led the way, with a new $150 million campus in what had been a decaying part of downtown. One of the biggest investors, however, is Gannon itself. The university has renovated woebegone buildings to launch the Center for Business Ingenuity in the city's downtown; contributed to a research and conservation program for Lake Erie; and opened the Institute for Health and Cyber Knowledge, or I-HACK. But as I have heard on numerous visits to Erie in recent years, Gannon's role has been indispensable not just in money but also in leadership, in coordination, in tying its ambitions to those of the town. For instance, it cofounded Our West Bayfront, a citywide initiative to revitalize a distressed middle-class neighborhood near the university.

Colleges can make news for a lot of the wrong reasons: How they're ranked. Which applicants they admit, and why. How much they cost. What they teach students about the world, and what they encourage or permit them to say.

These are real issues. But there is another underemphasized way to talk about, report on, and assess colleges and their success. It's the one that Deb Fallows and I wrote about in the Monthly's college issue last fall: that is, how seriously and skillfully colleges take the opportunity that many of them have to become centers of "place-based" economic and civic renewal in their home communities.

Where colleges are located is, in most cases, now a given, like the presence of a river or a major transportation hub. But what a college decides to do with and for the community outside its gates is a choice. And, as Deb and I wrote, more and more colleges are recognizing both the responsibility and the potential rewards of choosing to make "town and gown" a serious priority rather than just a slogan. Gannon University epitomizes that trend, as does Colby College, a liberal arts institution in Waterville, Maine.

The sense of responsibility comes in different forms for...

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