Over at the Middletown Eye (in my opinion, easily the best source for Middletown news & culture), a post about “Middletown and Wesleyan” sparked a considerable amount of comment discussion.
Blogger and History Prof Vijay Pinch links to Melissa Pionzio’s Courant piece, which links to John Milardo’s Dec. 22 MMPA (Middletown Managers and Professionals Association) newsletter piece, “Where is Wesleyan University?“
… Anyway, Milardo writes an interesting perspective, and the whole newsletter is pretty short, so it’s worth a read. Here are some highlights:
Over the years, I have read about the enormous amount of money the Wesleyan alumni contribute to their alma mater. How many millions of dollars the school has in investments around the world, and how financially sound they have been. Student tuition for the university is not something for the faint of heart; their admission fee is commensurate with the education you receive.
I grew up in the neighborhoods surrounding the University. My parents and their parents lived in the same neighborhood before me. I know the school grounds like the back of my hand. The only thing I don’t know about Wesleyan University is; what do they do for the City of Middletown residents?
…Wesleyan is not like any other college town I have ever visited. Other universities and students involvement with their towns is much greater and noticeable than what our city’s university is. In Middletown, it’s almost as though the student body is directed away from involvement in the community. It’s a weird sense of they being their own town within a town; separate and distinct.
…Many private colleges and universities in Connecticut and I would guess, around the United States, pay their respective municipalities, voluntary payments and fees, in lieu of taxes. Yale University pays an estimated $10 million dollars to the City of New Haven each year; they have their own Police and Fire Departments so the taxpayer does not have to cover this cost.
I know Yale is much larger than Wesleyan, but there is so much more Wesleyan could do for our community. It would be very important this year for Wesleyan to step up to the plate because of projected hard economic times. Our elected officials will have to cut programs, services, or ask employees for give backs in this year’s fiscal budget. The State of Connecticut is juggling their own budget problems this year, so for communities to rely on them for assistances is unrealistic. The business community is having a difficult time with the economy; so that is not an option.
We are talking about an educational institution with 175 years of presence in the same town. I would think with a city the size of ours, Wesleyans involvement with Middletown residents and government would be much more than it currently is?
…Legally, the school is paying what it must; morally, they could be truly making a positive impact on the entire City of Middletown and its residents. The financial problems of Middletown have a negative effect with the City’s work force, services and programs. It affects employees through layoffs, which in turn trickles down and further affects the economy, especially the local economy. It affects those elderly taxpayers who cannot afford a decrease in programs and an increase in taxes. It will affect families with young children, and those with college aged kids. In essence, it affects everyone who is not wealthy.
Wesleyan University has the opportunity to really be part of Middletown, and make the most positive impact on the community it ever has; if they want to.
However, at least note the humorous disclaimer on the newsletter… I appreciated it:
Disclaimer: This News Letter is for the viewing by union employees only! Any claims, statements, omissions, or deletions, are not intentional. The names in this story may have been changed to protect the innocent. This News Letter is not intended to be distributed to any Councilpersons of the City of Middletown, their families, friends, cousins, neighbors, butt kissers, or descendants thereof. In the event this News Letter is offered to a “Scab”, “Spy”, “Rat”, or your ordinary Narcissist, there is a good chance said individual will not be able to tolerate it because it is not about them.
Still, I think there are some major problems/assumptions in his piece. Vijay Pinch does a great job of explaining why it doesn’t make sense to compare Wesleyan to Yale considering our relative endowments (and also has other GREAT comments definitely worth reading, which I would have quoted, but this post is already way too long), but I’d like to add to that.
In addition to having a much smaller endowment, Wesleyan University must first and foremost take responsibility for its students. As Milardo himself points out, “Student tuition for the university is not something for the faint of heart.” And that’s a problem. Most families in the United States can’t afford to pay Wesleyan tuition out of pocket, especially in these economic times. Wesleyan’s primary financial concern should be to assure that need-blind admissions can continue: no one should be turned away from learning because they can’t pay the high tuition. As Milardo also points out, everyone is having hard financial times right now, and that certainly doesn’t exclude Wesleyan University. On the university administration’s “Securing the Future” webpage, President Roth wrote that “Wesleyan’s endowment continues to outperform market indexes, its value has declined by approximately 20 percent to about $511 million…” and that was only November 25th.
Wesleyan University as an institution has a commitment to do what it can for Middletown. Unfortunately, right now, it can’t. Losing the ability to pay financial aid for Wesleyan students who need it isn’t much of an option, and for that reason, Wesleyan must concentrate on keeping its own endowment strong.
As for the issue of Wesleyan not doing enough for Middletown in general – that’s another issue entirely, and a complicated one at that. Being a Wesleyan student can confuse your identity. Where is “home?” Are you a real Middletown resident? You’re there for four whole years of your life, interacting intimately with the town community – but then, you know the whole time that your stint in Middletown is probably time-limited. It doesn’t help that commenters on the Hartford Courant call all Wesleyan students “spoiled brats” or that many Middletown residents seem to assume you’re a passer-through with no regard for the town.
On the contrary, I believe that most Wesleyan students do become real Middletown residents. Whether through excitement over local politics, through interaction with local businesses, or through community service (such as tutoring at MacDonough Elementary or Traverse Square or one-on-one with high school students, or helping out at the soup kitchen, and many more ways), Wesleyan students DO care about Middletown.
So, how can we improve relations with Middletown? How do we interact more with our neighbors, our community? I don’t know. What about a potluck meet-and-greet block party somewhere on the border of campus/not-campus, on Pearl St. or on High St. past the Butterfields? What about making more of an effort to invite residents to more of our campus events? Or, hey, what about just reading the Middletown Eye and becoming more knowledgeable about the community we live in?
Let’s start with just reading the comment discussion on Pinch’s “Middletown and Wesleyan” Eye piece. At least it’s a start toward hearing what Middletown residents have to say. Hopefully it’s just a start, and not an end.
As always, this blog post is my own personal subjective opinion. I obviously do not and cannot speak for all Wesleyan students. Also, sorry for the length of this post!