"Town-Gown" Relations Vary Through The Years

May 13, 2014

The administration at Northern Illinois University is getting pushback from DeKalb residents on the way leaders are communicating campus priorities.

Credit Jacqui Stephens / WNIJ

Soon after NIU President Doug Baker arrived on campus last year, a multi-day brainstorm session outlined short-term and long-term priorities for the university.

The former University of Idaho provost has now been to several community meetings to clarify proposals behind his "Eight Bold Ideas."

A Ten-Minute Campus

They include making changes to the sprawling university so students can get across campus within ten minutes, either by walking, biking, or taking a lightweight shuttle.

Other physical changes would include fewer "tower-style" residence halls and more shops around the core campus near the library.

Baker's "Eight Bold Ideas" plan would reduce the number of residential towers built in the late 50s and 60s. Stakeholders found students desire smaller scale housing that is closer to the core campus.

A "Cool" College Town

Baker's "Eight Bold Ideas" plan would reduce the number of residential towers built in the late 50s and 60s. Stakeholders found students desire smaller scale housing that is closer to the core campus.
Credit Jacqui Stephens / WNIJ

Another aspect of the plan is to build on the "communiversity" concept to improve the physical and ideological connections between the campus and downtown DeKalb. In other words, make DeKalb a "cool college town." President Doug Baker:

"A vibrant city will help us attract faculty, staff, and students and retain them -- and vice versa," Baker said. "A vibrant university is going to attract more people to the community and be in a positive cycle. To do that we are going to have to make some changes both on-campus and off. That interface between the two is territory where we are going to need to have a lot of open dialogue. "

Getting Feedback

In those early talks, stakeholders included representatives from the university and the city, but some residents feel the net wasn't cast widely enough. As a result, public meetings were called in an attempt to get as many people as possible to the table. County board member Misty Haji-Sheikh is also with "Preserve our Neighborhoods,"  a group of citizens who live near the campus.

"All of these meetings have been neighborhood-led, as far as the request," she said. "So I think it is the turn of NIU and the turn of the city to take it up from here and come back toward us with, 'Here's how you can help us and here's how we can each other. Here's what we want to do as we go forward.' We don't want to see concrete laid down without any input."

Planter boxes around the area reflect a "communiversity" spirit
Credit Jacqui Stephens / WNIJ

One item that concerned residents was the addition of trams to transport students through older neighborhoods, including the Ellwood area, to the downtown. Administrators say those vehicles will be tested in the fall around the core of campus, with the option to use them occasionally to connect to the downtown to get students to events like the farmer's market.

Haji-Sheikh says it's important for everyone connected to the university to stay on the same page, even if these plans are in the early stages:

"The reason I chose my house is that I wanted to be walking distance to where everything was happening. I go to the music building and hear fabulous concerts," she said. "I also wanted to live in a historic area. You have to celebrate having a historic district because you don't get a second chance at history."

President Baker says he has been a little surprised by the reaction from residents:

"Our focus originally was on the very core of campus, and the surrounding communities were an additional piece. We could have communicated more with the community at that level," Baker said.

Communication Among Leaders

The "North 40" land behind the NIU Business building and the Engineering building. Options include adding parking or new facilities, or simply maintaining the open space.
Credit Jenna Dooley / WNIJ

Still, DeKalb Mayor John Rey says it's a step in the right direction:

"I have to admit the university is much more open today and to my administration to having dialogue on those levels," he said. "Whether it's through assisting with capital investment on the city's part or in operational expenses on the city's part."

Last fall, Rey traveled with President Baker to Moscow, Idaho. He says he saw evidence of the positive relationship Baker had with city leaders and would like to see a similar relationship in DeKalb. Rey says he's glad residents are asking questions.

"Clearly, the student enrollment and the student retention issues are in front of us, and I think the university is responding. I think there is an urgency, and I don't think it's an overreaction to that urgency. I don't think we're throwing solutions on the table that we're going to regret in 3 to 5 years."    - DeKalb Mayor John Rey

Choosing Priorities

Retired NIU employee Toni Heinze attended a recent town hall meeting and says she spoke with several students who feel academics should be a part of these discussions.

"It wasn't a criticism so much as just a reminder that, with all of the effort going into these physical changes, I was hoping at least as much if not more energy and resources would go into the programs," she said.

Consultant Ron Walters says attracting students should include a balance, as he found in a recent survey of prospective students who decided against attending NIU.

"After touring the other options, including Wisconsin and Iowa, all four of them decided to go there instead of here, and their choice was on their experience walking around the campus and the town," Walters said. "They recognized that we had good programs, but so did the other schools and so the environment was simply something they were more comfortable with."

Close To Home

DeKalb resident Rich Rice says instead of touting a "communiversity," NIU and DeKalb could see the benefit of promoting its role as a "commute-iversity."

"I know idealistically it would be great if we were like Iowa City -- a flagship institution -- Madison, or Ann Arbor. Maybe it will happen," Rice said. "For the time being, the fact that NIU is in relative proximity to home communities makes it attractive to them, and that's an asset. NIU might not even have those students if they didn't have that.  It's not broke, that's my point."

As the plans develop, Misty Haji-Sheikh says neighborhoods groups will continue to press leaders to keep the discussion going.

"I think people should care, whether you live in the neighborhood or not," Haji-Sheikh said. "DeKalb is your city. NIU is an economic driver, as is the hospital. I think you should care what goes on, and I think you should be involved.

NIU President Doug Baker and DeKalb Mayor John Rey showcase a "communiversity" garden in May 2014
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

Oral History Project Reveals Past Struggles

This isn't the first time there have been growing pains between the university and the city.

Clara Sperling worked for three presidents during her time at the university President's office.

"I have been here since 1936," she said during an oral history project shortly before her death in 1981. "I would say I grew up with NIU, and it was a small family, a very closely knit faculty and staff working in one little group."

That oral history project that looked at the symbiotic relationship between the city and university from the 1950s through the 1970s. Those interviews are archived in the NIU Regional History Center.

Drawing Students Downtown

Sperling witnessed a population boom, both for the city and the university.  She talked about one aspect still echoing with the current administration: efforts to blend the campus and DeKalb's downtown.

"There needs to be, I think very badly, a hangout where you can drop in for a cup of coffee and something," Sperling said at the time. "I wouldn't mind going downtown meeting somebody, but there is no place."

In 2014, downtown DeKalb has a few trendy boutiques and restaurants but still lags behind other major college towns in the number of places for people to mingle.

But it costs money to build up the downtown and the campus connection to it.

Financial Games of Chicken

Part of the strain historically between the city and the university revolves around the issue of funding. Sperling said that included transportation between the two areas:

Sperling: "I have called this city the 'gimme city' -- they receive, but they have very seldom returned anything and they are not willing to put money into it. "
Interviewer: "You think they will wait for the university to provide these services?"
Sperling: "Yes, I'm afraid so. That is one major feeling that I don't know will ever change."

Former City Attorney Carl Swanson said that, back then, the university also struggled to front the costs of development projects because of delays in funding from the legislature.  He made his comments during a 1980 oral history interview.

"In my personal experience, from the time I was city attorney, '53 to '56, where I was intimately connected with the city government dealing with university officials," Swanson said. "And this difficulty of dealing with the university has persisted, I'm sure, from its inception because the university always has to go to the legislature to get its money. And when you're talking about a relationship between the city and the university administration, as such, you have to talk about money many, many times."

More than 30 years later, that remains the case.

In addition to these financial games of chicken, there have been other wrinkles between the two groups.

Arboretum Controversy

NIU officials dedicated an arboretum in 1957, located near the main entrance off of Lincoln Highway. Part of the original land was deeded to the university by Joseph Glidden in 1893 for the arboretum.  Building Montgomery Hall and the Psychology-Computer Science Building reduced the forest area to less than one third of  its original size. 

NIU building near at the site of the former arboretum
Credit Jenna Dooley / WNIJ

"I fought having the buildings put in there -- in the woods-- because I felt that it should be kept as our last spot of natural woods," said Jessie Glidden, a local business owner, concerned and relative of the donor.

The interviewer asked if there were opportunities to discuss their concerns with the university:

"Oh, we forced some opportunities. The first go-round we won -- they decided not to build in that area," Jessie Glidden replied. "But then it was brought up later, and that decision was reversed. There was quite a bit of feeling at that time, at least the people that I was involved with, and they felt rather bitter because we weren't given an opportunity."

As NIU looks to build up certain areas of campus, historic neighborhood groups are also fighting for chances to boost communication before anything changes their way of life.

As longtime NIU employee Clara Sperling probably would agree, such discussions aren't necessarily a bad thing.

"I have spent practically all of my life here, and I love it, and  it bothers me to see hard feelings," she said. "Maybe you need a fight to clear the air. It brings things out and you talk about it, and points come out that you never would have thought of."

Changes Affect Town-Gown Relations

In addition to physical campus changes over the years, the oral history interviews revealed the city was unprepared psychologically for an increase in the number of students in the 1960s.

Campus violence and town-gown confrontation escalated when students took to the streets to protest the 1970 shootings at Kent State.

The population stabilized after that tumultuous decade.

Former President Reflects

William Monat served as NIU's eighth President from 1978 to 1984. He and his wife Jo still live in DeKalb and he took part in the oral history project in the early 80s. He says he was very active in the community and served on several boards in DeKalb.

William Monat served as NIU President from 1978-1984. He still lives in DeKalb.
Credit NIU

During his time at the university, Monat says the renovation of the Egyptian Theater helped revitalize the downtown. He was involved with remodeling the Rice Hotel on Third and Locust.

According to university records, built in 1927, the Rice Hotel was a social attraction in downtown DeKalb. By the 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair and was condemned by the city. The university purchased the property and it's now named after William Monat, and houses the Social Science Research Unit.

Monat's wife Jo says "town-gown" relations have been favorable since she arrived in DeKalb and during her husband's time in the presidency, but she's says there's a difference.

"There was cooperation. However, now I think they are doing it and it's more intense in a more programmatic way. I think that's good," Jo Monat said.

William Monat says NIU President Doug Baker is open to learning about NIU's past.

"I didn't have to make an appointment to see him. He came to my house, we talked in my living room. I thought that was a very important gesture on his part to come and visit me in my home, and I was very impressed with that," William Monat said.

Finding the Positives

Charles Bradt was a longtime business owner in DeKalb who died in 2011, at the age of 108. He also took part in the oral history project.

He said the advantages of living in a large college town outweigh the growing pains.

"Because of the caliber of their artwork and the programs they bring in for the students," Bradt said, "it's just a tremendous increase in why we want to live in a university town."

In modern times, NIU's student population continues to decrease. University leaders want to maintain the same quality of life enjoyed by DeKalb residents for decades. But, much like in the past, they're getting plenty of feedback from people whose roots run deep in the community.