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.]