Pandemic-Related Changes to Local Town-Gown Relationship a “Really Big Deal”

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

An aerial view of Grand River Avenue with East Lansing on the left and MSU on the right.

Mayor Aaron Stephens told ELi on Friday that the new town-gown partnership that has formed in response to the pandemic is a “really big deal” that could be a “good thing to continue for years to come.”

“The sentiment has long been – you know – that above Grand River is not MSU’s problem, and that below Grand River is not the City’s problem,” said Stephens.

Stephens critiqued this view, saying that East Lansing and MSU are one community that must work together, particularly now given public health concerns.

He cited recent changes in leadership at the university and the City as playing a role in the formation of this new relationship.

Mark Largent, MSU’s Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, agrees that the City and MSU have forged a stronger working relationship during the pandemic. Largent also applauded MSU President Stanley for actively recognizing East Lansing as part of the MSU community.

Largent notes that the need for better town-gown relations comes not just from public health concerns, but from concerns about helping new MSU students survive and thrive in their academic lives. When he spoke to ELi on Thursday, Largent explained that incoming and transfer students are now facing unique challenges as they begin their studies at MSU entirely off-campus.

In the past, first-year MSU students were required to live on campus, where they had more access to academic support. But following the decision to offer almost all courses remotely, tens of thousands of students who had planned to live in the dorms picked up remaining leases and subleases in East Lansing, living in locations without the help normally obtainable on campus.

Largent and his colleagues have developed the new Circles of Success program, which aims to recreate in a virtual format the on-campus “neighborhoods” that had previously been offering in-person hubs for socialization and guidance. The new program supplements already existing resources, such as tutoring available through colleges and departments.

Students can opt into one of five groups to meet their classmates, receive peer guidance, and work with academic advisors. Since students can’t meet in person, Largent hopes these virtual communities can facilitate both formal and informal social interactions.

One idea being toyed with for the future is to provide support through specific apartment complexes and student cooperatives. While students could be engaged in parking lots or other outdoor venues during the pandemic, the approach would most likely have significant virtual components, particularly as the weather gets colder.

MSU students were asked last Monday to fill out a survey on what challenges they face and what resources they need. Students have until September 11 to respond, and Largent will have a better idea after that of how to engage off-campus students in East Lansing.

Meanwhile, Mayor Stephens told ELi that MSU has done a good job of communicating City public health measures, including the DDA District mask-wearing requirement and the restriction limiting outdoor gatherings to 25 people. The messages have gone out through various listservs and social media channels, including a new video featuring Stephens and Stanley.

Stephens, who has gone to house parties and bars to educate youth about masking and keeping safe during the pandemic, told ELi, “If you go to parties and ask how many people are allowed outside, they now the rule of 25 people because it was communicated to them.”

Largent and Stephens both discussed how the university and city are working together to address issues of public health and safety. MSU students who receive a citation from the City of East Lansing will also face campus disciplinary action.

President Stanley has said that disciplinary action can include suspension and expulsion, and Stephens believes having the university involved in this way is important. He sees ticketing as inequitable and is reluctant to have students charged by police.

Some in the community, however, do not view the new town-gown joint approach as yielding significant results.

One concerned ELi reader (who wishes to remain publicly anonymous) wrote in,“On the occasions I have driven through town, I have found [about] 10-20% compliance with the mask wearing requirement.”

“I have not seen any significant effort to change this – and in fact I believe the situation is getting worse as tolerated behavior reinforces future behavior,” the reader continued.

The reader, while encouraged by Stanley’s stance, noted, “I am not convinced that all the violators are students. I believe violators are simply people who have lost concern for their fellow EL residents.”

Largent and Stephens acknowledged to ELi that both the university and city still face serious problems even as they work together.

Said Largent, “Small but very visible members of the community — including young people who are not students — will not follow expectations of MSU and health authorities.”

Stephens said that there is definitely room for improvement.

“Being outside with under 25 people is still risky,” Stephens said, citing the need for “personal responsibility.”

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