Saturday, January 10, 2009

Comment: Middletown and Wesleyan?

Melissa Pionzio writes a blog on issues in Middlesex County for the Courant. The other day she reported that every month she gets sent a copy of a newsletter from the Middletown Managers and Professionals Association. These newsletters often include an opinion piece by the group’s president, John Milardo. This month’s installment, which she links to on her blog, is entitled, “Where is Wesleyan University?” It is an interesting, thought-provoking piece. After paying Wesleyan several compliments, Mr. Milardo writes, “I grew up in the neighborhoods surrounding the University. My parents and their parents lived in the same neighborhood before me. I know the school grounds like the back of my hand. The only thing I don’t know about Wesleyan University is; what do they do for the City of Middletown residents?”

Mr. Milardo feels that the university is too isolated from the town, that by creating lounges, eateries, etc., it has created too much of a town within a town – and that “[o]ther universities and students’ involvement with their towns is much greater and noticeable”. While I’m not sure I agree entirely, I do think it is the case that too few students are aware of what an interesting, welcoming place Middletown is.

Most of Mr. Milardo’s piece, however, is devoted to a different if related topic. He feels that Wesleyan needs to “step up to the plate” for Middletown in the way of a financial contribution, in short, that Wesleyan should pay higher taxes, particularly in this time of economic stress. He observes that though Wesleyan has a physical plant and real estate valued at nearly 290 million dollars, it only pays taxes on about 7.5 million. This translates to about 230,000 dollars per year in taxes. Mr. Milardo then compares Wesleyan's contribution to the city coffers to those of other colleges and universities, mostly unnamed – save for one important exception – which, he argues, do much more for their host municipalities. The example Mr. Milardo cites is Yale University, which (according to Mr. Milardo) pays about 10 million dollars to the city of New Haven every year in addition to boasting its own police and fire departments. 10 million per year is about 43 times more than Wesleyan contributes to Middletown's treasury. What is Yale's endowment? About 17 billion (with a 'b'). Wesleyan’s, meanwhile, is about 500 million (with an 'm'). [These figures are based on where Wesleyan and Yale thought they stood as of about December. Neither figure reflects debt obligations, as far as I am aware.] Yale's endowment would appear, therefore, to be about 34 times greater than Wesleyan's. So while Wesleyan’s relative tax contribution, when factored only for size of endowment, is slightly lower than Yale’s, it is not dramatically so. And this comparison does not take into account other 'contributions' Wesleyan makes on an annual basis, such as the amount Wesleyan has spent on the Green Street Arts Center in recent years, which is sizeable (probably equal to or more than Wesleyan’s tax contribution). Or the considerable financial assistance Wesleyan provided several years ago to bolster the Inn at Middletown development on Main Street. Or more routine line items like occasional free events at the Center for the Arts or in the athletics program, the occasional gratis use of Wesleyan sports fields and gallery space by city schools, and the various 'service learning' activities that emanate from the Center for Community Partnerships at Wesleyan, including big brother/sister programs or tutoring or research on childhood hunger, etc.

Now, one may argue about the real worth (not to mention worthiness) of some of these additional 'contributions', which is why I put the term in quotes. Whereas the Green Street and hotel projects can be quantified fairly easily, some may feel these are not wise expenditures. Meanwhile the value of free athletic events, mentoring, tutoring, and usage of CFA space and sporting fields is harder to calculate. In any case, reasonable people can disagree on whether Middletown and Wesleyan should sit down and recalibrate its tax burden.

But a larger and more important point is raised in Mr. Milardo's letter, which has to do with how Wesleyan approaches Middletown (and how Middletown too often perceives Wesleyan). So long as the city's relationship to Wesleyan University is perceived and promoted solely or mainly as one of "what can Wesleyan do for us" – or, from Wesleyan's perspective, "what can we do for Middletown?" – the image of Middletown as a basket-case community perennially in need of charitable handouts will persist. Certainly this is the perception of too many people at Wesleyan, especially as you move up the food chain, who prefer, perhaps partly as a result, to live in other villages and towns such as Guilford, Madison, the Haddams, Chester, Old Lyme, and West Hartford (of course, there may be other perfectly good reasons as well, such as the quality of schools, but that is an issue for another series of posts). The “basket-case” rhetoric unfortunately also underwrites much of Wesleyan’s institutional engagement with the community, some examples of which are noted above.

The “basket-case” rhetoric is bad for Middletown, and bad also (I feel) for Wesleyan. Insofar as it deters Wesleyan employees from living in Middletown, it means lower homeownership rates, a depressed grand list and lower tax revenues for town hall, less consumer spending in town (especially in Main Street businesses), and less engagement in town politics. It means more cars and parking lots clogging the streets and neighborhoods, more speeding by commuters in a hurry, and less pedestrianization and bicycling, especially in the core neighborhoods of the city. For Wesleyan it means faculty and staff who are not as involved as they should be in the life of the institution, particularly those occasional faculty who decide to come to campus only on the two or three days per week when they have to show up to teach. (Of course, it’s not clear that living in Middletown would produce an appreciable change in this behavior.)

In my opinion, we need to get beyond the “what Wesleyan can do for Middletown” thinking. Like any town, Middletown has its problems. But Middletown is actually a fairly nice place to live. It has many beautiful old houses and an increasingly lively and, for the most part, walkable downtown (save for the occasionally poorly placed parking lot). It has a fascinating maritime history. It has a multiplex theatre, a decent array of restaurants, a great “children’s museum” (KidCity), a “top-100” hospital, and is situated in a beautiful natural environment. And what Connecticut town has a better public library? Sure, we need more retail on Main Street, and it would be great if we could reconnect with our waterfront. But these are problems that can be overcome, especially with a more engaged population.

Rather than constantly harping on “what Wesleyan can do for Middletown”, perhaps we should be thinking in terms of “what Middletown can do for Wesleyan”. (And, insofar as it is possible, we should avoid expressing these issues in terms of dollars and cents.) For example, instead of being embarrassed about Middletown, Wesleyan should showcase the town’s many amenities for recruitment purposes, whether to students, faculty, or staff. I do so, on a regular basis - often to the amusement of my colleagues.

The best thing that Wesleyan can do for Middletown, and that Middletown can do for itself, is to stop thinking in terms of “what Wesleyan can do for Middletown”, and to start asking, “how can we leverage Middletown’s many unique and positive features to improve Wesleyan?” This will, I believe, pay dividends for Middletown.

[Full disclosure: I am on the faculty at Wesleyan. And I am a homeowner in Middletown.]

26 comments:

wyldeone said...

As a freshman at Wesleyan, I am often surprised at the strongly negative reaction the university seems to produce amongst members of the community. Coming from a relatively small city with a large university—50,000 residents, about 15,000 students—and all the attendant issues I'm no stranger to town-gown politics.

And for all the fights, there is a recognition that the school is a major driver of our local economy and brings many other, less quantifiable cultural benefits. This recognition seems to be lacking on the part of many Middletown residents who see Wesleyan just as a burden.

Never mind the many wonderful performing groups, authors, plays, etc. who would never come to Middletown were it not for us. Never mind all of the students who volunteer in the community, helping at Green St. or tutoring kids. Never mind the tax revenue brought in to the community from the many conferences held at the school (the Society for Ethnomusicology conference, for example, brought around 800 people into Middletown, filling up many of the restaurants on Main st).

And to suggest that right now, when Wesleyan—like virtually all schools—has seen its endowment drop precipitously, forcing cuts and a choice between several unsavory options for closing the severe budget deficit, is the right time to get Wesleyan to pay more taxes is wrongheaded.

For Middletown residents who decry the school's presence in your community, I have two questions. First: how can we improve this relationship? And second: do you really think Middletown would be a better place without Wesleyan University?

Anonymous said...

I thought this was an excellent assessment of the town-gown relationship. But I've come to realize that some people in town (Mr. Milardo?) have made their minds up about Wesleyan being "out of touch", in spite of any current evidence. AND there are plenty of people at Wesleyan who have made shallow conclusions about Middletown.

I think we just have to live here and stay involved, and eventually the yeas will outweigh the nays.

Keep up the good work!

-A. Nona Mouse

Karen said...

great points and I couldn't agree more. I also feel that Middletown is an excellent place to live (otherwise I wouldn't live here) with a wide array of charms ... but you forgot to mention The Buttonwood Tree, Oddfellows Playhouse, the YMCA right in our town, our own Yoga studio Yoga In Middletown, the vast programming offered by the Middletown Parks and Rec department, Palmer field , and myriad nature trails and conservation areas (14% of Middletown's land is dedicated to open space), etc. ..... all of which could be, as you say, a source of pride for the city and a bit of allure that Wesleyan could use to its own benefit in recruiting students

Judy Konopka said...

I hope I don't open a can of worms here, but I feel that indeed, Wesleyan does keep itself a bit isolated from the town. Other than the Green Street Arts Center, and the Center of the Arts performances, I don't see a lot of programs which are open to residents or involvement in town programs etc.

Now, there very well could be, and I'm just unaware of them. I hope so, and encourage readers to educate me.

I'm proud that I do live in a town with Wesleyan University, and I'm sure it's a great school. But I've been here over 10 years, and I have no idea if they offer services, programs, facilities, etc. other than the two mentioned above for residents. If so, they need to promote them more!

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Great commentary Vijay.

I live across the street from Wesleyan, and moved to town because I consider it to be one of the many resources that make Middletown an interesting place to live.

As Vijay correctly points out, any line of reasoning that begins with "Wesleyan is isolated from Middletown" or "Middletown is hostile to Wesleyan" and from there moves to "what can Wesleyan do for Middletown," or "what can Middletown do for Wesleyan," is fraught with tension from the outset.

It's legitimate to ask "how can we get more students involved in the community." That's a question all college town (maybe with the exception of Boston and its environs and New York City), have asked for decades. College kids want to hang with other college kids. They want cheap food, and cheap beer, and cheap diversions. They like places to gather, and cutting edge music. If those things exist, or existed, there'd be no keeping kids away.

But it's a false premise. Lots of Wes kids eat downtown at one point or another. Lots of them are involved in community activities. I don't know about Mr. Milardo, but I go out of my way to meet students who live near me. I attend Wes functions frequently - many of them are incredible, and free!

While asking why professors don't live in town may be an interesting exercise, it doesn't likely reflect residence choices that are out of the norm for the general populace. Why don't all city employees live in Middletown?

As far as I'm concerned, if you ain't living in Middletown, you're the one who's losing out.

B3 said...

This is a great discussion. I'm a grad student at Wesleyan and therefore have a different perspective. I'm ten years older than the average student and have a family, yet I'm still very involved in many of activities at the university so I feel that I can speak a bit to both sides.

Under President Bennett it's rather inarguable that Wesleyan made some moves to strengthen the walls on the university's bubble. I was most disappointed with the Usdan center along these lines; it's a large space with room for several eateries and, rather than open it up to local restaurateurs, they contracted it out to one single provider. Worse (and I know this from helping plan the Society for Ethnomusicology conference), that contract strictly prohibits food from outside vendors even being carried into the center. Wouldn't it have been fabulous to have a mini-Javapalooza or Brew Bakers on the first floor of Usdan and a cafeteria upstairs from which the students could choose Pattie Palace, local Thai, Vietnamese or Italian food?

Nonetheless, I would suggest that overall Wesleyan contributes mightily to Middletown. I know from working on the committee that the CFA is very concerned with programming performances that are artistic, cutting edge and appealing to a community outside the school grounds. The Sunday afternoon concert series at Russell House--always free with free snacks, coffee and tea as well--is conceived of and programmed specifically as a gift to the community. That's just the tip of the iceberg really.

So my question to Judy (and most other people with similar feelings really) would be: Have you looked around? Have you surfed Wesleyan.edu or walked over to pick up a CFA brochure? Do you expect representatives to come knocking on your door? Green Street struggles to fill the seats at the concerts they host, and some of the best shows at the CFA are underattended. Many free music workshops, lectures and various masterclasses are delivered to a small handful of people in a large room, yet are continued--even at a financial loss--because of the perceived positive impact they have.

Moreover, to those that want further engagement, what specifically should Wesleyan do? I wouldn't be surprised if the very first suggestions were already being done.

Of course there's always room for improvement and growth in such a relationship, but it's also important to remember Wesleyan's ultimate responsibility is to the undergraduate students that pay an unfathomable amount to attend (as a grad student on fellowship, I find myself 2nd to them frequently).

Anonymous said...

Other communities that have started similar blogs have over time become vendetta rags.

I fear that the Middletown Eye is following a similar path and any net positives it provides the community are quickly turning to net negative with a cliquey group think.

No standards for fact checking or firewalling op-ed versus factual reporting. Diversity of opinion is lacking.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Vendetta Rag? Hey maybe we should change the name of the blog. Vendetta Rag sure has a cachet.

While your curiously anonymous critique has some validity, the Eye has never pretended to be something we are not.

We appreciate any correction of factual errors. We try to label commentary as such. We welcome diversity of comment, though we have been unsuccessful in eliciting it.

I'd be happy to make you an author. Just drop me an email with your actual name.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

BTW, "cliquey group think" would describe most editorial boards.

I await your email, anonymous.

Judy Konopka said...

Let me be clear, I have nothing against Wesleyan University at all (I hope my earlier post didn't come off like I did, I tried to be careful for it not too).

It would be wonderful if Wesleyan would open up some of their sports facilities (ice skating, fields, etc.) to residents...or do they? What part of their grounds are open to the public? Is it OK if we just wonder around up there?

And, it would be nice if they offered more programs for adults - I know the Green Street Center is more for children....again, they may, but I don't know about it.

I was able to take a musical instrument class by a teacher from Wesleyn in his office, but it was after much searching and making phone calls.

Maybe it's just a matter of communication.....it would be wonderful it Wesleyan mailed out, or communicated in some way, information on services, or what is "open" to residents, other than their schedule at the Center for Arts.

Judy Konopka said...

@B3

Yes, I am mailed the CFA performance schedule each season and have attended a few performances. I love that aspect of Wesleyan!

As far as the Green Street Art Center, sadly, I don't feel safe walking in that area, and would hesitate before attending events or classes. My loss, I know.

My point is I would like to see more marketing or communication about what services, events, performances, facilities, are available to residents. I know the Middletown Eye has been an incredible help in this area, but I feel there could be improvements in this area.

David Bauer said...

Great post Prof. Pinch. You articulate the issue very well, and you might also be at the core of solving some of the problems you describe.

The student population of Wesleyan is an evanescent bunch compared to the Faculty and Administration of WesU. I would hope that the Faculty and Administration would find their "community voice" in the post-Bennet era.

55 years ago we had a Mayor who was a Wesleyan professor. When was the last time that we have had someone from Wesleyan on Middletown's Common Council?

Perhaps the relationship between Middletown and Wesleyan should be one of the featured topics when we have our Community Conversations on January 20th?

David Bauer

Cathy Lechowicz said...

This is a great discussion and one we often have with the advisory board for the Center for Community Partnerhips -- a group of 20 people, about 25% Wesleyan, 75% community members. Vijay, I appreciate your comments of how we can, together, leverage the incredible resource of Middletown, rather then what do you do for me or me for them.
We, admittedly, do not do a great job communicating all the resources open and available to the public, as well as the incredible contributions our students make with the local community through volunteering, work-study and research. We are making a concerted effort to improve this.
One resource I would encourage you to take advantage of is a weekly calendar of events sent to you via e-mail every week of all the events happening on campus that are open to the public. If anyone is interested, please send me an e-mail (clechowicz@wesleyan.edu).

Anonymous said...

What can Middletown give Wesleyan? How about the property at Long Lane which could have been used to build a new High School?

Anonymous said...

I think Wesleyan is a great asset to Middletown and brings many events/opportunities we would not otherwise have. There are plenty of events open to the community (free and fee) -- take a look at the Wesleyan calendar http://events.wesleyan.edu/. In the last several years I have seen illustrious speakers including Barack Obama, Michael Ondaatje, Jhumpa Lahiri, David Remnick, Art Spiegelman, among others.

Wander around the grounds, take a picnic, head to Foss Hill for some sledding, attend a sporting event. Take advantage of what we have in our own backyard!

B3 said...

A great conversation, certainly not a "vendetta rag!"

Judy, I was afraid I came off as singling you out, which was definitely not my intention. I think your concerns echo those of many people and they're totally legitimate.

I'm not an administrator, but I can say for a fact (you don't need to check this one Ed) that you're more than welcome to come wander around Wes all you want. You'll probably meet several other wanders as well (especially if you don't mind dogs). I took my kid sledding on Foss Hill yesterday morning after my last post and was looking around at the large groups of ecstatic kids and families and thinking that Foss Hill is another great asset that Wes shares.

Regarding the athletic facilities, I don't believe they're open to the public, but I do know that they're used by many more people than just Wes-affiliated folks. The pool and hockey rink are both used by various high schools, and, though I don't know for sure, I imagine the field house is as well.

Regarding the anonymous comments on this blog: Please folks, this blog is fantastic. A "vendetta rag?" - laughable. The quickest way to make a blog a vendetta rag is to pepper it with short, hastily typed and nasty comments without names attached.

And finally, to the last anonymous comment: do you really expect Wes to just "give" a large piece of land to the city of Middletown? One on which they could develop more programs like the Farm? Would you give a piece of land to me? I'd settle for $1000. My name is Bill Carbone, contact me offline for a mailing address.

Anonymous said...

Middletown is a great community--there is no reason to be apologetic when showing recruits the area. I know of many Wes professors, staff and alums who live in town. If people would rather live in fancier places like Madison or Guilford, so be it!

johnwesley said...

Wesleyan is an incredibly open place compared to its peers. What Ivy League university allows townspeople to explore the stacks of its libraries or to wander its courtyards without a student i.d.? None that I can think of.

Wesleyan functions well as a conservator of Middletown's past and as a place where modern day scholars, artists and researchers can toil and pursue their callings in relative peace and quiet.

Middletown functions well as a place where people from all walks of life can gather in dignity and commerce to run businesses, to raise children and to care for the sick and elderly. All in relative safety. Purely as an aside, Kay Butterfield, the widow of one of Wesleyan's finest presidents, spent most of the last seventy-two years of her life here (she just passed away last year at 101) and just a few blocks from Main Street.

Surely, there are some things that Wesleyan can do better. But, there are some things Middletown can do better, too. Both sides obviously have to hold up their ends of the bargain.

Anonymous said...

Like another poster, I took my kid sledding on Foss Hill yesterday, and today I am leafing through the CFA Spring catalog, booking those always-fabulous events into my calendar. Wake up and smell the coffee Mary, there's a whole wide world out there called Wesleyan, and you ben missing it, girlfriend!

Thank you, Wesleyan, for your commitment and contributions to Middletown and to the North End through Green Street Arts Center (HUGE investment!) and the many other ways it is contributing to this hometown (LL Farm, Feet to Fire, BioBlitz, and for the interesting friends at my parties.)

But great and powerful Wesleyan, I BEG you for your help with our school system....please do INSERT yourself into the business of improving our Middletown public schools, and not just with your money, but with your people and with your students and with you know-how. Please, we need your help there next!
Signed,
D-O-R-O-T-H-Y

Anonymous said...

To clarify a comment made here, the Long Lane property was handed over to Wes on a silver platter by our state representative Joe Serra and then-mayor Dominique Thornton, who was Serras puppet--yes, of course Wes wanted it, but we are the ones who gave it away. We can only blame ourselves for losing Long Lane--us, the electorate who keeps voting in the same old good ol' boys. We get what we deserve.

johnwesley said...

@2:43
oh, let's not fight over Long Lane again. That site was unsuited for anything on Middletown's immediate horizon. It took two years just to remove the environmental hazards that were left over from years of occupation by the State of Connecticut. If Wesleyan hadn't stepped in, there'd be a failed, medium-security, youth detention facility six blocks from Main Street to this day.

Anonymous said...

A very pretty failed, medium-security, youth detention facility.

Anonymous said...

Vendetta Rag...isn't that a little known Scott Joplin piece?

Anonymous said...

After reading this I have realized that as a Wes student I have not personally given as much to the Middletown community as I could/should have recently. I hope to rectify this in the coming months.

However, Wes is, for the most part, a completely open campus. This cannot be underestimated. I have friends at places like Wake Forest where the surrounding community is also no where near as well off as the student population in some cases. Wake Forest is a gated campus. Consider the alternatives.

Middletown residents please come use Foss Hill for sledding! Especially the guy who brought the shell of his pick-up bed for sledding a couple years ago. That was off the hook.

Anonymous said...

Milardo's opinion piece is just a money grab. He is clearly looking for additional revenue to Middletown to avoid union layoffs and contract rollbacks in this period of taxpayer pushback to taxes. Wesleyan should stick to beneficial projects for the community like Greene Street Arts or other such endeavours. Turning cash over to Middletown won’t save a dime in taxes or benefit the citizens of Middletown but will just perpetuate bloated government, wasteful spending and overpriced schools.

Paolo said...

Two cents from a Wesleyan junior:

I think that this thread shows that the relationship between wesleyan and middletown is far from hostile. It's more like clumsily benevolent. There are so many people on both sides who would love to see more of each other, but they're talking past one another. For instance, every week there is a slew of informal talks and workshops going on at houses and small venues at wesleyan that don't make it into the weekly calendar, CFA brochure, etc. The student staff who organize them usually label them "free and open to the public" -- but we don't advertise anywhere but wesleyan. Would student staff be excited to see Middletown folk at their events? YES. Could we try harder to advertise? YES.

I see a similar problem with wesleyan's campus space. Judy, I'm not surprised that you were't sure whether you could come to wes and wander around -- it's super intimidating. The west and north edged of campus all have wide lawns over which tower austere buildings, and there's no central entrance to the campus. (For a more in depth discussion of wes, middletown, and public space, check out this article: http://wesleyanargus.com/2008/05/06/time-to-rethink-video-surveillance-2/). I can't say I speak for all wesleyan students, but I love having adults, seniors, high school students, children, etc. on campus. Tons of props.

This discussion is moving beyond the "what can wesleyan do for middletown" question. Sweet. It seems like there is already a surplus of things going on in both places (which are really, we could be reminded, in the same place. Maybe someday we won't even need to create a dichotomy between wes and middletown). The problem, I think, is mainly one of communication.

What can we do? Middletown residents, I encourage you to read Wesleying, the campus blog where almost all campus events are posted(wesleying.blogspot.edu). You'll be surprised to see how much is going on that isn't in the glossy CFA brochure. The students who are hosting the events should be willing to answer any questions. Signing up for the weekly calendar, as Cathy mentioned, is also a great way to see what's going on.

To all Middletown residents: What can wesleyan students do to be more involved? Is there a good place or places (real or cyber) to find out about events? (the bulletin board at Russell Library comes to mind...) Where could we advertise our events that would attract you? And how could campus be made more welcoming?

While merely coming into each others' spaces isn't going to end all the tension between these institutions, more day-to-day interaction between us would go a long way towards easing the uncertainty between college folks and residents.

Thanks for starting this discussion, Vijay, and thanks Ed for keeping this blog that helps bring us together. (Vendetta rag, this ain't)