Connecting The College and The Community
January 13, 2014

In a luncheon speech at Granville’s Rotary Club, President Adam Weinberg talks about the state of the college and about the ways Denison—and all colleges—can be an even more useful resource for local communities.

I am so glad to be here today. People in this community have been incredibly gracious and welcoming to my family and to me. During the last few months, our children have learned the real meaning of Midwestern hospitality. Thank you.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how colleges and communities connect. Some do this really well, and Denison is a good example. But by and large, when we look at the 4,000 colleges and universities in this country, most are not being the resource they should be for their local communities. I believe a strong relationship between a college and community is an ethical matter, and it makes good business sense, so I am glad to be able to share some thoughts about it today.

First, I would like to give you a brief snapshot of Denison. Then I will talk about why Granville and Licking County are so important to Denison. Finally, I will address some of ways that I believe Denison can play a bigger role in the community.

Let me be blunt about the state of Denison—it is one of the healthiest liberal arts colleges in the country, and our core fundamentals probably put us in the top 25. I will be forever grateful to President Dale Knobel for leaving our college in such great shape. Denison is selective, productive, efficient, and it is managed with wisdom and fiscal conservatism. We have amazing students. They are smart and ambitious and kind to each other. We have a brilliant, engaged faculty. They care about our students and they care about our community. And we have a beautiful campus.

This is a tough time for higher education. And as bad as things look when you read the news, whether it is the local paper, The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, it sounds even bleaker when you talk to other college presidents behind closed doors. There are colleges that cannot fill their beds; colleges that have tens of millions dollars in deferred maintenance and no idea how to pay for it. There are colleges that did not make good decisions in the 1980s, when they failed to put money aside for deferred compensation and other personnel benefits and expenses that are starting to come due. There are colleges that have students who are there for the wrong reasons, and they have faculty who are disengaged. As I said, it is a tough time for many colleges and universities, but none of those negative conditions exists at our college, so it is a great time for Denison.

The questions I ask, then, are these: How does Denison take its position of strength and move forward? How do we do that in ways that are not only good for our students, but also beneficial for our local area, as well as for higher education across the country? How does Denison lead the way in helping us all to think about how colleges are going to re-invent themselves in the 21st century? And how are we all going to be more of a resource for our local communities?

When we think about the reasons Denison is thriving, we cannot forget that one of our greatest assets has been, and continues to be, the Village of Granville and greater Licking County. When my wife and I made the decision to come back to a liberal arts college, we took a list of the top 75 liberal arts colleges in the country. We put a line through all those colleges that were located in a community where we just were not willing to live. That took us down to a list of about 25. In other words, many colleges and universities in this country are located in struggling communities that are isolated or run down. Denison is not. Denison’s local community is actually one of its greatest assets.

Colleges like Denison thrive by attracting world-class people to their campuses, giving students a fantastic education, and keeping them connected to each other, and to their alma mater, throughout the course of their lives. This community helps to do that for Denison. The first impression of Denison for most prospective students is not up on the hill. Instead, their first impression is this community. They stay here overnight. They stop and get a meal. They ask themselves, is this where I want to live for four years? When students step on our campus, they already are impressed with the vitality and beauty of the local community.

And what happens after they have enrolled? This area is wonderful for our students in all kinds of ways: activities, restaurants, shops, and good people. To build upon a line from Hilary Clinton: It takes a village to raise a child—and it takes a whole community to fully educate a student. Many colleges do not pay enough attention to that. Our professors provide extraordinary mentorship to our students—I have never seen a faculty more engaged in the lives of its students than Denison’s—but our students also talk about the mentorship they receive from people in the community.

Denison students interact with area citizens in all sorts of ways. They tutor your children. They intern at your businesses. They come to your restaurants. In everyday activities in this community, in ways that many do not think about, our students are getting a real education in ethics and citizen engagement because of the strength of this community. You mentor them. This happens in obvious ways. Some of you provide internships in your businesses. But it is also remarkable to me the friendships our students strike up with local merchants and business owners in the course of living in the community. What I hear over and over again is how these interactions expose our students to what it means to lead a life as a business owner with an eye toward the community. You model a set of Midwestern ethics and values that are important.

And after they graduate, they love to come back. It is a fun place to visit. It is kind of like Hotel California—our students can check out, but they never leave. My first Saturday morning here, I thought I could run down to the drug store for a newspaper without shaving. But I had not walked a block before I ran into several alumni.

So that is the positive side, but as a sociologist, I am able to see the glass half full and half empty at the same time. There are three things I worry about when I think about the local community.

First, our downtown. It is beautiful, and it is a factor in students wanting to come here, but like every downtown in America, it is fragile. We need only look at some of the colleges in small towns across Ohio to see what can happen when people take their eyes off of that. How do we keep these storefronts filled with thriving businesses that are operated by merchants who feel optimistic about the future and are willing to make investments here? The future of this downtown will be determined not by its past success, but by what we do today, tomorrow, and the next day.

Second, I think about how important it is to Denison that we do all we can to help the local community be a place where our faculty and staff want to live. After all, you can get a great education at many colleges. What makes Denison unique is our spectacular education combined with the quality of mentorship our students receive from our faculty, coaches, and staff. Mentorship is maximized when faculty and staff live close by, so quality-of-life issues, like public schools, affordable housing, and job availability for partners and spouses are important to Denison.

In particular, schools matter. In my view, Granville schools are some of the best public schools, not just in Ohio, but in that top category of national public schools. We know many of our faculty and staff chose to work at Denison and live in the local community because of the schools. Yet they are fragile, like every other school in the country, and we have to keep them strong by continuing to invest in teachers, facilities and programs.

But not all of our faculty and staff are going to want to live in Granville, and given housing costs, some are not going to be able to. I think about the health of other nearby towns, like Newark and Heath. They, too, are crucial to Denison. There is a lot of energy in Newark and Heath right now about job growth and the revival of downtown Newark. Denison should play a role. We are in the early stages of talking to some folks who are spearheading projects, asking how we can play a larger role than we have played in the past.    

Third, I worry about the overall strength of the whole area. Granville is strong. Columbus is obviously vibrant. But I worry about other parts of Licking County, and I think we all need to play our part. We cannot just think in terms of Granville, because, quite frankly, from the college’s perspective, the health of Denison depends on the whole county being vibrant and healthy.

So, what role can Denison play? I am new to the community, so I am still learning, but I want to throw some ideas out there. But let me say first that it is exciting to part of a college that cares so deeply. That is not true at every college, but Denison has a long tradition of caring about the local community, and I would like to see us build on that.

I think of Denison as a convener. There are some difficult conversations that Granville and Licking County will need to have over the next 5, 10, or 15 years with regard to economic growth. They will be complicated questions, without simple answers. I am interested in whether Denison can play a larger role in bringing people together and in helping to find data, so that we, as a community, can make smart choices about the kinds of growth we need to keep our downtown strong, to keep jobs in the community, and to make sure Granville is not just an engine for itself, but for Newark and Heath and the entire county.

I also think about Denison as an economic driver. Colleges are good at pointing out what everybody else can do, but I think we need to point the finger at ourselves. We are a large business. There are lots of things we do every day; if we do them right, we can help the local community. Can we do an even better job of supporting local businesses? Our students, for example, have interesting initiatives toward sourcing more local food through our new food service provider. It is great for local agriculture and for us too, because the people involved are wonderful mentors for our students. How do we build upon Denison’s history of using many local contractors and suppliers for construction projects? How do we encourage our students to bank locally and to keep some of those accounts open over time? How can Denison operate as a business in ways that partner with other local businesses in bigger and better ways?

I think, too, about Denison as an employer. I am especially aware on the 25th of each month that the biggest impact we have in this community is paying good wages and making sure we are providing good benefits. As we watch businesses around the country that do not keep up with good wages or have cut benefits, I want Denison to become a benchmark institution and remind people of what it means for businesses to be run ethically, with a mind toward making sure their workforces are earning what they need and deserve.

And I think about ways that we can weave our students into the community to better support local businesses. We have more than 2,000 talented young people on the hill who contribute to the community in myriad ways. How can we do an even better job of harnessing the intellectual power of our students and our faculty to help local businesses?

I think about Denison as a community attractor. How can the college be a source for not only attracting great young people into this county, but also keeping them here as a work force and as future members of our community? Can Denison play a role in attracting the kind of jobs, businesses and people that we need in Licking County?

Colleges often think about themselves in terms of community service. And I love community service, but that is not good enough. I want Denison to think of itself in terms of community development. How do we partner with other entities in the county to actually grow the community in sustainable ways?

So over the last couple of months, we have had good conversations with organizations in Granville and Newark about how Denison might play a larger role. There is so much civic engagement happening in Licking County—Sparta and The Works are great examples. My hope would be that Denison could help some local initiatives lead to economic growth for Licking County.

My family and I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be here—to have our children in healthy schools, to live in a town that is civically alive, and to be in a place where our kids are learning ethics and values just by living here every day. As an educator, I love running a college in a community that is so strong. It makes our job a whole lot easier. And as a human being, I feel honored to be part of the traditions in Licking County.

And my last comment, since we are here today at the Granville Inn, is that this inn is an example of something Denison does very well. It is an important asset for the college but more importantly, it is an important asset for the community. I take no credit for this—it belongs to Seth Patton and Dale Knobel and others who were here before me. But I love the fact that when the community needed it, the college stepped up and did the right thing. And we will continue to run the Inn in ways that are right for Granville, not necessarily just right for Denison. 

Read more of Adam Weinberg's remarks and writings.