Brockport’s Town/Gown Committee

By on March 11, 2019

 “Preserving the vitality and quality of life in our community”

“We have a shared interest in preserving the vitality and quality of life in our community.” This is the goal of the Brockport Town/Gown Committee, expressed by its co-chairs Margay Blackman, Mayor of Brockport, and Heidi Macpherson, President of The College at Brockport.

Mayor Blackman provides some background on the committee. “Heidi Macpherson became president in 2015. Under our co-chairmanship it has grown to 46 members, equally divided between community and college. The Town/Gown (community/college) Committee has created some great partnerships among The College, Village of Brockport and Town of Sweden. It has become an important forum for information exchange among the three. Everyone on the committee sees it as an important force for collaboration and communication and for strengthening the ties between The College and the larger community.”

(Note: “Town/Gown” is catchy but unclear. “Town” means both the Village and Town of Sweden, represented by Supervisor Kevin G. Johnson. “Gown” refers to colleges and universities where traditional robes are worn in ceremonial events; here it’s The College at Brockport. More accurately, the shorthand would be “community/college” as the Mayor noted.)

The full committee is charged by the co-chairs “To develop and enhance relationships between The College and the community through actively addressing issues of common concern, including, but not limited to:

•Neighborhood quality of life,

•Landlord/tenant relations,

•Health and safety issues,

•Communication,

•Community involvement,

•Academic outreach, and

•Economic development.

The full committee is a massive size, but the work gets done with these three subcommittees to focus on details: Off-Campus Housing and Neighborhood Quality of Life; Alcohol/Drugs in a College Community; and Community/College Communications and Outreach

When the “vitality and quality of life in our community” has been threatened.

Since its origin in 1965, there have been periods in the history of the Town/Gown Committee when college student public behavior threatened the quality of life on and off campus. One period was roughly two or three years in the early 1980s. Painted in broad strokes: The annual “Spring In” was held across campus with an abundance of beer kegs, carousing and public urination. The “Rathskeller” in the basement of the Student Union provided alcohol on campus. Drinking went on in dorms. Intoxicated students wandered in village neighborhoods, sometimes damaging or stealing property. A cracked SUNY Brockport beer mug appeared on the cover of the Rochester daily newspaper’s magazine supplement containing an article on the campus problem.

These problems were eventually alleviated with official restrictions of alcohol on campus, in dorm parties, and the closing of the Rathskeller by 1985. And, the legal drinking age was raised that year. Also, academic admissions standards greatly increased under President Paul Yu between 1997 and 2004, creating a more academically “serious” student body.

Current concerns and ongoing successes of the committee

Among the “issues of common concern” to be addressed, each co-chair was asked: “Currently, what is the most critical concern needing attention, maybe a ‘Hot Button’ matter? And, what is the most important common concern that has met with success and continues unnoticed because it’s working?”

Mayor Blackman 

“I don’t think we have an urgent or hot button problem at the moment, which you could not have said a few years ago. We need to continue working on the community-college partnership, especially communicating its strengths and expanding its reach to the greater community. There’s always more we can do.

The on-going success has been good communication and a commitment to partnership.”

President Macpherson

“The biggest issue we currently have is the need to continue to find more ways to communicate what’s happening in the village, and The College, and public-school district and make sure everybody is aware of all the opportunities available to connect,” President Macpherson said.

She admitted that was not a hot button issue such as the kind of student behavior problems mentioned earlier. And, the potential for that public behavior “is an on-going issue we will never completely solve.” But she explained The College’s preventive approach attempts to influence behavior.

“We are always educating new groups of students about how to be good neighbors. Students are oriented to living in the village several ways: Discussions in residence hall programs where students are required to live their first two years. Summer weekend orientation programs for incoming freshmen who learn how to be a college student. And, ‘Saturday of Service’ which requires all freshman students to do about four hours of volunteer work in the village.”

Unique backgrounds of the distinguished leaders

The two chairs of the Brockport Town/Gown Committee both have solid backgrounds in academia. Each has applied her professional background in different ways in her current position.

Margay Blackman, Mayor, Village of Brockport

Margaret B. Blackman, Ph.D., Department of Anthropology, Professor Emerita, taught at The College at Brockport from 1977 to 2007. She has been a resident of Brockport throughout her career and into retirement. As a village resident for 42 years, an elected official for 12 of those years, and employed on campus for 30 years, she is deeply familiar with all three constituencies represented by the Town/Gown Committee.

Professor serving the village

Early on, before retirement, she was involved in town-gown activity. With extensive knowledge of trees, she served as chairperson of the village’s Tree Board from its beginning in 2005 until 2011. The Tree Board continues to host the annual Arbor Day tree planting by a team of both community and college people and to oversee the village’s municipal forest.

For the “Good Neighbor Committee” (as it was called then), in 2000 she assigned students in her Anthropology class to do a survey in the community to determine attitudes toward students and any existing problems.

Elected official using scientific skills in decision-making

She became Village Trustee in June, 2011. As a trustee and then mayor, her political activity and official actions have drawn on her scientific background that seeks factual information to guide decisions.

In the discussion about dropping the Brockport Fire Department and starting a fire district, she first favored the Fire Department. After researching facts, she found the Fire Department would not be viable in the long run. In a public forum, she admitted her reversal with no apologies for relying on facts.

In the question of establishing a Village Court, she said, “I am a social scientist and I want all the data that is out there” on the matter. She asked the question, “How well is the Sweden Town Court serving the Village of Brockport?” Researching other town and village courts, she concluded that a Village Court was advisable; it was established in 2014.

As mayor elected in 2013 and now in her second term, she is involved in the controversy of the Canal Corporation’s clear-cutting trees along the north side of the canal. She examined the engineering studies on the damage the trees could do and found the data justified the cutting which should have been done years ago, though she criticized the corporation’s initial poor communication with affected residents.

Also serving town-gown collaboration, the Mayor has arranged college internships each year for students from The College to work on a village project.

Heidi R. Macpherson, Ph.D.,

President, The College at Brockport

Practicing what is preached

Referring to her appeal to students to become “good neighbors” in the village, President Macpherson was asked about her own well-known involvement in the community. “One of the goals of the strategic plan is that the college engage with our community she said, adding that “Leaders on campus must role model that behavior. If we are hosted in a village, we have to remember that our hosts need our expertise, our time, our students; they need us to be actively engaged with the life of the village. And, I have found a great deal of personal satisfaction in giving back.”

Why The College at Brockport?

Her resumé shows an extensive academic career starting in England, affiliations with international scholarly organizations, and memberships on prestigious educational boards and councils. Prior to coming here, for three years she was the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. With such a background, she was asked why she chose The College at Brockport.

I feel strongly about public education,” she said. “I went to St. Cloud University in Minnesota, a college very similar to The College at Brockport with really good teachers focused on kids’ success. That’s what I have always looked for in colleges where I have worked. 

When I was 19 years old, I decided I wanted to be an English professor. I have never varied from that. I have been very lucky in my life to do work that actually transforms people’s lives. I started as a professor of American Literature and author. I wrote things, taught classes and truly love being in the classroom and I miss it. 

When you take on larger responsibilities, there is always a loss. I was teaching about 30 students at a time and helping them plan their lives. Now my canvas is much larger. I have an opportunity to reach more people. I think there is no higher mission than that.”

The Brockport Town/Gown Committee met on February 21 in the Sweden Town Park Lodge with these 30 members attending. Also described as the “community/college” committee, official reps in the photo are Town Supervisor Johnson and Village Mayor Blackman for the community; President Macpherson for The College. Photo by Dianne Hickerson

The Brockport Town/Gown Committee met on February 21 in the Sweden Town Park Lodge with these 30 members attending. Also described as the “community/college” committee, official reps in the photo are Town Supervisor Johnson and Village Mayor Blackman for the community; President Macpherson for The College. Photo by Dianne Hickerson

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