Relationships between city government and the university are complex and challenging but often rewarding

Last year I wrote about the Urban Heat Island, a phenomenon that causes urban areas to be hotter than their rural counterparts. In my reporting, I spoke to Jean-Michel Guldmann, professor emeritus of city and regional planning at Ohio State University's Knowlton School.

Guldmann used satellite data and statistical models to study the effect green space has on temperatures in Columbus and where vegetation could most help in mitigating the Urban Heat Island effect. When asked whether the city took note of his research, he laughed. “The gown and town don't have good relationships,” he said. “I've never been able to attract interest from the state or the city for my research and kind of gave up quite a while ago.”

While Ohio State and the City of Columbus have teamed up from time to time (for a current example, see the involvement of OSU's College of Engineering in the Smart Columbus initiative), Trevor Brown, dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, said that Guldmann's story is not unique.

“Ohio State is such a big and complex place,” Brown said of the land-grant institution. “I've heard from people around the community that one of the great challenges of the relationship between Ohio State and communities is, there's no one front door. There's no one entry point.”

City government is similarly complex, and even though elected officials in Columbus tend to stick around for a while, leadership changes can be tricky to navigate. The city moves at a quicker pace, too. “The clock for academics is different than the clock for the city. Cities are demand driven,” Brown said. “Academics don't work like consultants. They work on things that are interesting to them that they hope will have benefit for people over time.”

According to Brown, the most important ingredient in a healthy town-gown partnership is a personal relationship. Outgoing City Auditor Hugh Dorrian, for example, was a lecturer at Ohio State's School of Public Policy and Management (a precursor to the Glenn College) for more than 20 years. “We had a very healthy relationship with the auditor's office, and many of our students went in there,” Brown said. “It was a reciprocal relationship built over a long-standing partnership.”

One of the Glenn College's roles, Brown said, is to play matchmaker between the university and city. Recently, Glenn alums in staff positions within city government and Franklin County reached out to the school regarding eviction rates in Columbus, and that series of conversations led to a city/county/OSU collaboration to study the underlying causes of eviction.

Right now, a Glenn College doctoral student is gathering data and observing eviction court, as well as interviewing landlords and residents who've been evicted. The results will be used to create policy recommendations for Columbus, which has the highest rate of evictions in the state; Franklin County files around 19,000 eviction notices annually.

“We're hoping the eviction study … becomes the basis for further arrangements like this, where we can benefit the county and the city, and by extension the citizens of Central Ohio,” Brown said.

Perhaps, if these mutually beneficial partnerships become more commonplace, the notion of town-gown collaborations won't be quite as laughable to OSU professors like Guldmann.