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Forum kicks off discussion of Penn State Harrisburg-community relations

By Laura Hayes


Posted 2/14/18

About 20 community members spent their Sunday morning discussing the relationship between Middletown and Penn State Harrisburg.

This “Town and Gown Relationships” forum was the first …

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Forum kicks off discussion of Penn State Harrisburg-community relations


About 20 community members spent their Sunday morning discussing the relationship between Middletown and Penn State Harrisburg.

This “Town and Gown Relationships” forum was the first of three. The remaining two will take place at 9:15 a.m. Feb. 18 and Feb. 25 in the Presbyterian Congregation of Middletown Fellowship Hall. The second will involve members of the Middletown Borough Council and the Human Relations Commission, and the third forum will include Penn State students. All of the forums are free and open to the public.

While some of the attendees shared what they liked about having the university and its students in Middletown and expressed a desire to know more about Penn State’s events and offerings, others identified potential areas of tension.

“As a newcomer to the community, I’ve heard enough of the stories going back 50 years ago — of feelings about why is that university in our town, what do they have to do with us, some of the early stresses of those conversation. But I think it’s getting better, but I think we have a lot more we can be doing,” Bruce Humphrey, interim pastor of the Presbyterian Congregation of Middletown, said to the group.

“Some of the concerns students have is they feel that they’re not very welcome here,” said Assistant Professor of Marketing and Business Administration Ozge Aybat, who was part of a discussion about the relationship. “I think the question here is, how can we most benefit from each other?”

The forum was led by Penn State Associate Dean of Research and Outreach and Professor of Biology Susannah Gal.

“I was heartened to see a good attendance. I didn’t know who would show up,” she told the Press & Journal on Monday. She added that she was encouraged by the “productive discussion and practical and straightforward ideas.”

Gal said Humphrey raised the idea of a series of conversations regarding the “town” and “gown” several months ago. During the forum, Humphrey shared that he has served on college campuses, taught on college faculties and been a pastor at churches within college communities.

“I’ve watched over the years in the various communities the ‘town’ and ‘gown’ stresses that sometimes happen, the separation, the misunderstandings, the wanting to work together but not knowing how to do that,” he said.

Gal is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial board. She explained that being on the board has provided her with the community’s history.

“I stand in both camps, and I can see it from both perspectives,” she said.

Gal has lived in several college communities. She argued that there were several components that influenced the relationship between the school and its town, including how long the school had been in the city, the proportion of student population to the city or town’s population and where the campus is situated in the town’s footprint.

“One of my first impressions is that time seems to heal some of these issues. If you’ve been there a hundred years, that’s a different dynamic if you’ve been there 30 years,” Humphrey said.

Penn State Harrisburg dates back to 1966.

Gal said that some people are concerned that the local campus is going to become like Penn State University in State College, with frat parties, a large student population and traffic concerns.

“Practically, I don’t think that’s where we’re going,” she said.

In 2016, the Penn State Harrisburg Faculty Senate Enrollment Management and Outreach Committee conducted an online survey, and 30 faculty and staff members who lived in Middletown shared their perspective on the relationship between the university and Middletown.

Aybat was the chairwoman of the committee at the time of the survey. The university, she said, wanted to reach out to the community, particularly Middletown.

“But the main question was, well, does Middletown want to get closer to us?” Aybat asked.

When asked how Middletown residents perceived the university, the participants, according to the survey results, said some of the residents were proud to be associated with Penn State and viewed the university as an asset that boosted the economy. She added that there were negative perceptions as well such as traffic congestion and perceived careless driving by students, and partying as student housing became more integrated into residential neighborhoods.

What can we do? Aybat asked. The survey participants, she said, suggested working together, including having the students volunteer more in the community. Aybat said now when students first come on campus, they undergo an orientation that includes traffic and littering laws. Participants recommended designing programs with the community in mind, providing parking passes to the events and making the residents more aware of campus events.

Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Seth Wolpert did not attend Sunday’s forum. However, he is the new chairman of the Penn State Harrisburg Faculty Senate Enrollment Management and Outreach Committee and has been at Penn State for 20 years.

“My experience is that [the relationship] is already growing in a positive way,” he said.

Wolpert said he plans to attend future forums, but in the meantime, the committee is working on improving the relationship between Penn State and Middletown, including having a student on the Middletown Borough Council and publicizing community activities to the campus.

Community feedback

Some of the residents shared their positive experiences and relations with Penn State students and staff, while others expressed interest in being more informed of the university’s events.

Community member Ellen Willenbecher said she was “enthusiastically exuberant” about Penn State’s presence in the community. Penn State students, she said, volunteered to build a website for the Interfaith Senior Service Thrift Shop and helped out with Communities That Care.

“I know it’s Penn State Harrisburg, but for me, it’s Penn State Middletown,” Willenbecher said.

Several attendees said they didn’t know about events on campus, expressing interest in receiving some type of notification of future talks, performances and other events, and others said they wished that other community members knew more about Penn State’s offerings, such as residents being able to use the swimming pool.

Penn State professional writing tutor Dan Morra recalled a beatboxing performance on campus that his daughter went to see when she was in high school.

“There are things that happen at Penn State that many students would benefit from,” he said.

Others shared some potential challenges between the two bodies. One “glitch in the system,” Humphrey said, was students living next to senior citizens in the Village of Pineford.

“So you’re housing a young person who doesn’t go to bed until 2 a.m. next to a senior who goes to bed at 8 p.m. There’s going to be obvious differences in lifestyle,” he said.

Humphrey asked if there was a way to coach students searching for a rental properties.

Demographically, Gal said, Penn State is different from Middletown.

“If we look at the people around this table, if we were to gather the same number of students or faculty from our campus, you would see a much different diversity. That may not always be comfortable for people,” she said.

“Many people, I think, are afraid of change [and] afraid of the unknown, not just here but across society,” Morra said. “For people who have that bias towards being afraid of the unknown, there’s not a lot you can do. I think that’s the way you were raised or developed throughout your life. People feel threatened.”

Church members and educators Nancy and Gary Shank were among the attendees. Gary said he hopes someone continues to spearhead the efforts either through the university, school district or borough.

“They’re part of the community,” Nancy said.

People have to be open to something new and willing to follow up on the efforts, Morra said in an interview.

“There has to be an openness, willingness and awareness,” he said.

“We’re hoping through time and exposure to good students around, both sides will get used to each other,” Aybat said.