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Researcher Studies Impact of Colleges on Communities

January 30, 2009


Researcher Studies Impact of Colleges on Communities

Attracted by the unique opportunity to witness the emergence of a new university in the Central Valley, Joel Beutel came to UC Merced to work on his Ph.D. and continue his
researchinto the historical relationships between colleges and local communities, and to indulge his strong interest in university planning.

Beutel is investigating whether the theory that colleges and universities are a positive impact on the community is true, or if in fact, there is a “friction between town and gown” created by the growth and the introduction of college culture to an area.

Working closely with
sociologyprofessor
Simon Weffer,
anthropologyprofessor
Robin DeLuganand
economicsprofessor
Alex Whalley, Beutel hopes to ascertain under which circumstances the impact of a large campus benefits the community or creates conflict.

“I am trying to see if there is a link between more community involvement and fewer lawsuits. Is there a payoff for community relations?” said Beutel. “This is important because universities are quasi-public institutions. I am also looking at what their fiscal departments are doing to work above what is mandated by law with community related projects.”

Tracking the lawsuits between an institution and its surrounding community is a good way to get an idea of negative impacts and/or poorly managed relationships, and makes up the bulk of his research. Beutel also goes out to talk to people at different campuses for anecdotal information.

“Economic data alone doesn’t explain all the dimensions, influences and impacts,” he said.

Alongside legal history and anecdotes, Beutel analyzes news articles, city and county data sets, and census information. He also gathers data from the national center of education statistics and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and talks to people who were around before, during and after a campus came to their community for firsthand recollections.

“Anything I can get my hands on that will give me better view of big picture,” he said.

Beutel’s research deals with campuses within the UC, CSU, California Community Colleges systems, as well as California private schools.

“I’m conducting my own survey of colleges and universities, talking with whoever is in the community development or community relationship position, asking “what are you doing? What have you done to strengthen community relations?” he said.

Beutel said that taking a close look at which campuses do a better job of establishing and maintaining healthy community relations and how they do it is ultimately a proactive cost-cutting measure. “Law suits are expensive,” he said.

“There are a lot of studies about the economic impacts of campuses on the community that focus on employment, for example. But the impact on the community budgets and infrastructures is not so widely researched.”

After his data research and analysis, Beutel intends to look at UC Merced with an eye to what the university has already done and how it can continue to develop a healthy relationship with the community, avoid situations that lead to lawsuits, effect positive change, and lessen any potential negative impacts on the community.

“There is a bigger issue,” said Weffer, who serves as Beutel’s advisor. “His research could be applied to other highbred institutions in society. It could be useful when trying to analyze what the true impact of a new hospital will be in a community, for example.”