Town and Gown

Town and gown are two distinct communities of a university town; “town” being the non-academic population and “gown” metonymically being the university community, especially in ancient seats of learning such as Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and St Andrews, although the term is also used to describe modern university towns. The metaphor is historical in its connotation but continues to be used in the literature on urban higher education and in common parlance.

Origin of the term

During the Middle Ages, students admitted to the European universities often held minor clerical status and donned garb similar to that worn by the clergy. These vestments evolved into the academic long black gown, worn along with hood and cap. The gown proved comfortable for studying in unheated and drafty buildings and thus became a tradition in the universities. The gown also served as a social symbol, as it was impractical for physical manual work. The hood was often adorned with the colours of the colleges and designated the young scholar’s university affiliation. Thus by their distinctive clothing, the students were set apart and distinguished from the citizens of the town; hence the phrase “town and gown”.

The idea of a school of higher learning as a distinct and autonomous institution within an urban setting dates back to the Academy founded by Plato c. 387 BC. The Academy was established as a sacred sanctuary for learning outside the city walls of Athens. The Academy endured for nine centuries until it was closed, along with other pagan schools, by Emperor Justinian in 529 AD.

In the 12th century, when the early medieval universities came into existence – first in Italy and then across the European continent and the British Isles – they were founded without physical campuses. The masters simply rented lecture halls in the host cities. Early on there were few identifiable campus buildings (other than the residential colleges that were established at some universities). Most students took lodging in the university towns. The scholars often congregated in identifiable areas of cities, most famously the Left Bank (rive gauche) of the Seine in Paris – what became known as the Quartier Latin (“The Latin Quarter”). Thus, the medieval institutions were more integrated into the cities than in the case of the Academy. It is no accident that most medieval universities were founded within cities. The schools’ existence required a permanent population and an infrastructure that included a vibrant marketplace and system of governance. But their dependence on the host towns was limited. In most instances, the endowment of the medieval universities was drawn largely, if not entirely, from the revenues of the Catholic Church. Consequently, the universities were largely independent of municipal revenues and to a great extent, of civil authority.

The medieval studium remained a sanctuary in its status as beneficiary of the Catholic Church and in the scholars exemption from Civil law. Such special jurisdictions were by no means uncommon in the Middle Ages. The applicable law varied greatly by person, organization and area: the towns themselves had legal system totally different from the surrounding countryside and even inside the town, every guild usually had its own special privileges and rights. The independent jurisdiction of the universities essentially was part of this system.

Anatomy of an adversarial relationship

The initial relationship between the medieval universities and the host town was adversarial for various reasons, and over time the universities’ growing autonomy and independence from local control led to increasing tensions with host towns. Also, the steady encroachment of universities upon neighboring areas created a point of contention between town and gown (continuing to the present).

The medieval universities formed as guilds of masters (teachers) and/or students on the model established by the crafts guilds. Once the scholars were able to receive a charter, they would begin negotiations with municipal authorities to secure fair rents for lecture halls and other concessions. Because they had no investment in a physical campus, they could threaten to migrate to another town if their demands weren’t met. This wasn’t an empty threat. The scholars at the University of Lisbon in Portugal migrated to Coimbra, and then later back to Lisbon in the 14th century. Scholars would also go on strike, leave the host city, and not return for years. This happened at the University of Paris after a riot in 1229 (started by the students). The university did not return to Paris for two years.

Many university students were foreigners with exotic manners and dress who spoke and wrote Latin, the lingua franca of medieval higher education. Students often couldn’t speak the local dialect, and most uneducated townspeople spoke no Latin. The language barrier and the cultural differences did nothing to improve relations between scholars and townspeople. The tenor of town-gown relations became a matter of arrogance on the one hand and resentment on the other.

Students in the medieval universities enjoyed certain exemptions from the jurisdiction of the ordinary civil courts. These privileges were normally safeguarded by a conservator Apostolic, usually a bishop or archbishop appointed by the Pope. By the Papal bull Parens scientiarum (1231), the charter of the University of Paris, Pope Gregory IX authorized the masters in the event of an outrage committed by anyone upon a scholar and not redressed within fifteen days, to suspend their lectures. This right of cessation of lectures was frequently made use of in conflicts between town and gown. On various occasions the popes themselves intervened to protect the scholars against encroachments by the local civil authorities. Pope Nicholas IV in 1288 threatened to disrupt the studium at Padua unless the municipal authorities repealed within fifteen days ordinances they had framed against scholars. It became quite common for the university to lay its grievances against the city fathers before the Holy See, and its appeal was usually successful.

Thus, medieval students were under the legal protection of the clergy which protected them from physical harm. They could be tried for crimes only in a church court under Canon law. The protection from civil law gave students free rein in the urban environs to break secular laws with near impunity. This often led to abuses and outright criminal behavior among students who realized they enjoyed immunity from civil authorities. The anomalous jurisdictional situation only exacerbated tensions between town and gown.

Town versus gown

Conflict was inevitable in the medieval university towns where two separately governed bodies with different priorities and loyalties shared the same restricted space. Moreover, violence was commonplace in medieval life, not only between scholars and townsmen but among ordinary citizens, as well as between scholars from different regions of Europe who attended the universities.

Violent confrontations between town and gown erupted on a recurring basis. One of the most famous was the Battle of St. Scholastica Day, that occurred on February 10, 1355 at the University of Oxford. An argument in a tavern – a familiar scenario – escalated into a protracted two-day battle in which local citizens armed with bows attacked the academic village, killing and maiming scores of scholars. The rioters were severely punished, and thenceforth the Mayor and Bailiffs had to attend a Mass for the souls of the dead every St. Scholastica’s Day thereafter, and to swear an annual oath to observe the University’s privileges. For 500 years, Oxford observed a day of mourning for that tragedy.

The University of Cambridge was originally set-up after a fight between the townspeople of Oxford and scholars from the University of Oxford forced many scholars to flee to a new location. Later, the tension between the scholars at Cambridge and the towns people forced the King to grant special privileges and protection to Cambridge University, which helped enormously in the survival and future success of the University.

By the mid-15th century, kings were putting an end to student power within the universities. They ordered papal legates to reform the universities, and restricted student boycotts and strikes. From then on, whether under king or revolutionary government, dictator or Parliament, European universities customarily would be ruled by the central authority – although the degree of control varied widely over time and place.

Following the upheavals of the High Middle Ages, relations between the European universities and the host towns evolved toward a pattern of mutual support. Cities, on some occasions took over payment of salaries and provided loans, while regulating the book trade, lodgings, and the various other services students required. Eventually, cities began to take pride in their universities rather than look upon them as adversaries.

Town and gown relations in the post-medieval and modern eras

Over the centuries, the relationship between town and gown has remained ambivalent. There have been points where a university in crisis has been rescued by the urban dynamics surrounding it, while at other times urban developments have threatened to undermine the stability of the university. Conversely, there have been occasions where the university provided a focus and coherence for the cultural life of the city; though at other times, it has withdrawn into itself and undermined urban culture.

Despite generally improved relations between town and gown in the post-medieval era, disputes and conflicts were a recurring phenomenon. A brief chronicle of incidents involving Yale College students and residents of New Haven, Connecticut, illustrates the continuing strain upon town-gown relations. The nature of these disputes ranged from theological to martial.

Founded in 1701, Yale moved to New Haven in 1716. In 1753, President Thomas Clap began holding separate Sunday worship services for students in the College instead of at First Church, because he felt that the minister, Joseph Noyes was theologically suspect. (Yale was founded by Congregational ministers, but currently has no religious affiliation.) This move alienated the Connecticut clergy and marked the beginning of Yale undergraduates’ ambivalent relationship with the town of New Haven.

If there is one constant in town-gown relations over the centuries, if can be summed up with the maxim, “Students will be students”. College students, past and present, have a good deal of free time notwithstanding their obligations to study. How they use this time is often perceived as troubling or disruptive by non-students.

Over the course of a century, New Haven witnessed a series of violent confrontations between students and “townies” that recall the confrontations in the medieval university towns. In 1806, a full-scale riot – the first of many – fought with fists, clubs, and knives, broke out between off-duty sailors and Yale students. In 1841, a clash with city firefighters took place. After Yale students attacked the firehouse and destroyed equipment, a town mob threatened to burn the College. Military companies had to be called in to keep the peace. Then in 1854, bricks and bullets flew after a confrontation between students and townspeople at a New Haven theater. When the leader of the town group was stabbed, students retreated to the College. The locals actually brought in two militia cannons and aimed them at the College, but were stopped by constables before they could fire them.

Things were relatively quiet until 1919, when returning local servicemen, angry over perceived insults from Yale students, attacked the Old Campus. Finding the gates locked, they broke hundreds of windows and moved on to theaters and restaurants in the town, assaulting any students they could find. In 1959 a student snowball fight on city streets got out of hand and resulted in arrests by New Haven police. Students then pelted police officers with snowballs during the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The so-called “snowball riot” attracted national media attention – a preview of the tumultuous 1960s.

A wave of student unrest took place in North America and Europe during the 1960s, from Paris to Mexico City to California. The Free Speech Movement, centered at the University of California, Berkeley, has often been cited as the starting point of the unrest. The U.S. student movement was ostensibly about demands for more freedom and a share in decision-making on campus, but it was stoked by two broader issues – civil rights for African Americans and protest of the Vietnam War. The most violent incidents occurred when National Guard troops fired upon and killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio, and when police fired on dormitories at Jackson State University in Mississippi in Spring, 1970, killing two bystanders.

The Town and Gown divide is visible in numerous older universities globally. In the university town of Uppsala in Sweden clergy, royalty and academia historically resides on the western shore of the river Fyris, somewhat separated from the rest of the city, and the ensemble of cathedral (consecrated 1435), castle and university (founded in 1477) has remained mostly undisturbed until today. Since the Middle Ages commercial activity has been geographically centered on the eastern side of the river.

Many of the medieval traditions have carried into the modern era, and universities retain certain historical privileges. Two examples are illustrative: 1) Students in some universities were compelled to wear gowns up to the 1960s in order to make them identifiable to the university authorities. 2) Under the Russian tsars, police were forbidden to enter the universities, a tradition that was respected during the Russian repression of Prague in the summer of 1968.

Post-1960s: changing climate, changing issues

Cities and their universities evolved from the integrated residential patterns of the high Middle Ages to a more distinct partition. As colleges acquired physical facilities, visible campuses formed with a proximate student population. Residential colleges became a fixture in European universities, while American colleges (often located in small towns) sequestered students in dormitories under close supervision. The lines that defined the two communities were clearly drawn. But this distinction was becoming blurred by the 1970s.

The doctrine of in loco parentis had developed both as a legal concept and as a custom in the United States. The Latin phrase meaning “in the place of the parents”, held schools to a high standard of care for the welfare of students. However, this legal concept was eroded by the Bradshaw decision and by subsequent court rulings. The pendulum would swing back toward the medieval model where students could enjoy significant autonomy in their choice of residence and habits.

The trend of American students living off campus had emerged during the post-World War II era. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act legislation, popularly known as the “G.I. Bill”, provided large numbers of returning veterans with the financial aid to pursue college degrees. Many veterans were older than traditional-aged students, or had families to support; this further spurred the growth of off campus housing. It was estimated that by century’s end as many as 85% of American college students lived off campus (Carnegie Commission). This residential trend – and other factors – would mitigate the division between town and gown (but not necessarily the tensions). Universities increasingly integrated into cities as cities absorbed and accommodated universities. Commuter colleges like San Francisco State University now enroll large numbers of students who live at a distance, commute to campus for classes, and then leave at the end of each school day. Concurrently, American universities have opened branch campuses, and even offer classes in store-front venues.

However, the recent integration of campus and community has not been without problems. For one thing, an urban university can generate major traffic and exacerbate parking problems in adjacent neighborhoods. The quality of neighborhoods near a university may deteriorate. Certain industries requiring highly educated workers, such as biotechnology, may be drawn to college communities. The growth of these knowledge economies, and additional upwardly-mobile residents, may increase the competition for community space or drive up land costs. The expansion of campuses has led to the razing of some neighborhoods and the displacement of large numbers of city residents. These factors create continuing tensions between town and gown, but in some scenarios, the university and the local community work together in revitalization projects.

Local residents and members of the university community may clash over other political, economic, and demographic issues. Some localities in the Northeastern United States have tried to block students from registering to vote in elections as local residents; instead demanding that they vote by absentee ballot at their parents’ residence. (Manahan, 1980) Many universities in college towns are located on unincorporated land, which prevents students living in on-campus housing from voting in town elections.

As urban universities increase in size and complexity, they hire a large staff of city residents. Labor unions have formed on campuses and bargain collectively for contracts. In 1971, a 53-day strike among Yale employees was the longest in the school’s history. Union leaders stated that they considered Yale’s social commitment to New Haven to be a key issue in the job action. University workers in New Haven would strike again and again in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Municipalities and universities continue to negotiate police jurisdiction on and near campuses. Today, many universities and colleges maintain their own police forces. In cities where a significant number of students live off-campus, university police may be allowed to patrol these neighborhoods to provide an extra measure of security. Meanwhile, civil libertarians argue that school officials should only call on local law enforcement to intervene when it is necessary to protect the safety of people on campus. Such intrusion is legally mandated in some jurisdictions when school officials have reasonable suspicion to believe that a student is breaking the law. Generally, local police are reluctant to go on campus if a college maintains its own security force (the Kent State and Jackson State killings are examples of intervention turning into tragedy).

Raucous off-campus parties and the excessive noise and public drunkenness associated with them can also create town-gown animosity. The University of Colorado (Boulder, Colorado USA) and Queen’s University (Kingston, Canada) provide examples where street parties have escalated into riots. In 1995, at Wilfrid Laurier University in sedate Waterloo, Ontario, the “Ezra Street riot” occurred when 1500 revelers showed up at an end of the year student party on Ezra Street. The party-goers drank copious amounts of beer, threw bottles, and carried on in ways that resulted in 42 arrests and two serious injuries – one when a woman was hit by a chunk of concrete thrown at the party, the other when a man was run over by a jeep. The end result was the university’s adoption of a new “Code of Conduct” to govern student behaviour.

In the 1970s and 1980s, attention was often focused on off-campus fraternities and sororities, whose sometimes rowdy events were lampooned in the 1978 film Animal House. Ironically, the institution of “social responsibility” measures to restrict events at fraternity houses have exacerbated tensions, as events move to non-Greek block and house parties farther off campus. The push of social events off-campus also increases the incidents of drunk-driving as students who wish to party are pushed outside of campus.

In the US, a rash of disputes between public universities and host cities have developed in regard to the cost and benefits of the town-gown connection. Universities boast that their existence is the backbone of the town economy, while the towns counter with claims that the institution is “robbing” them of tax revenue. But as universities expand their campuses, more land property is removed from local tax rolls. Attempts are being pursued to redefine the basic financial terms and conditions upon which the relationship is based. As tax-exempt institutions, universities have had no legal obligation to contribute to the coffers of city government, but some do make payments in lieu of taxes based on negotiated agreements (as is the case in Boston).

Despite the rise in legal battles, universities and host towns have an incentive to cooperate, as the schools require city services and need city approval for long-range plans while the university towns need remuneration for public services provided. The “engaged university” is a recent term describing community partnerships and joint planning with city officials. Additionally, in some college towns local culture is constructed by students and non-students alike, such as Athens, Georgia, which was ranked as the #1 college music town by Rolling Stone Magazine. In Athens, local culture that students identify with and take part in is often supported or created by non-students, in this case, musicians. While some degree of misunderstanding or rivalry might persist between “students” and “townies”, coexistence and cooperation take place as well.

Town-gown parameters may become increasingly difficult to define in the near future. Geography is less salient as a factor in urban higher education in the Information Age. Some private institutions such as the University of Phoenix rely less on geographical presence, enrolling students in a broad range of online degree programs. Other courses may comprise part-time or night classes for working professionals, or intensive training taking place over a group of weekends or months. Many of these non-traditional students live and work full time in the surrounding community. Traditional brick and mortar universities have countered with their own distance education courses via television and the Internet. Traditional universities also recruit locally for special programs, such as executive MBA degrees.

The 12th century witnessed the birth of the first predecessors of the modern university; many educational futurists argue that the division between town and gown is rapidly fading, and that the 21st century is the cusp of another revolutionary educational paradigm. According to these forecasts, the 21st century college student may well be someone sitting at his or her personal computer miles from a college campus. Graduation may or may not include the traditional commencement ceremony. These reformers argue that for graduating students, the gown may be left hanging in the closet, with the graduate interacting more seamlessly within the global community. However, it should be noted that such views are currently dismissed to a greater or lesser extent by leading Universities, who admit the importance of technology and the diminution in town/gown rivalries, but stress the continuing value of traditional learning and teaching methods.