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Worse Than Duke?

Trinity College in Hartford is deemed to have the worst relationship between students and neighbors

By ADAM BULGER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

August 30, 2007

Normally, Hartford's Trinity College defeating Duke University would be a cause for celebration. When Trinity bests Duke, which is still reeling from a well-publicized alleged rape case, in the contest of how strained the relations are between the schools and their host neighborhoods, it's cause for worry.

For the second time in three years, Trinity College placed first in the category of strained town-gown relations for the Princeton Review's guidebook Best 366 Colleges.

The book measures responses of college students to a two-page survey about their college, including students at Trinity. Duke took third place.

"The students' relationship with people in the community, based on their perception, is strained. It's based on their interactions with people in the community," Rob Franek said. Franek, the book's author, compiled and interpreted the survey responses.

Trinity's relationship with the city and its south Frog Hollow neighborhood should, arguably, be glowing. Hartford's Mayor, Eddie Perez is a former Trinity employee, and in the last decade the school has spent hundreds of millions funding community outreach programs including scholarships and youth programs and constructing highly visible community projects like the magnet school and community center, the Learning Corridor. In 2004, US News and World ranked Trinity as among the best colleges in America for community outreach.

"Although there might be outreach programs in place, we're asking about student perception and whether those programs have resonated with that student population," Franek said. "I think there's an inherent difference there."

Kathleen O'Connor Boelhouwer, Trinity's Vice President of Alumni Relations and Communications, questioned the survey's ability to accurately assess the realities of campus interactions with its neighborhood.

"It's not considered to be a scientific survey. There's no methodology in terms of how the survey is distributed, communicated or managed," Boelhouwer said. "They send out an e-mail and whoever responds, responds. They don't have what's considered a proper sampling."

The strained town and gown designation is based on a single question, which asks respondents to rate how students "get along with members of the local community." The survey also asks students to include comments, and the report on Trinity quotes one student as saying "the school is located in a very dangerous part of Hartford, leaving close, walking-distance, off-campus options almost nil."

On average, about 300 students from each school respond to the survey. Trinity, whose student population is under 3,000, believes that few Trinity students responded to the survey (Princeton Review representatives didn't give me an exact figure).

"Even though there's clearly only a small percentage of students responding to the survey, the fact that there are students that feel that way is important to know, and that's something we need to address," Boelhouwer said.

A March, 2006 New York Times article about the clash between Duke University speculates that its tense relationship arose from its position as an "especially elite and privileged institution in a culturally diverse and economically struggling city." Trinity's situation mirrors that description in many ways. Its Frog Hollow neighborhood is primarily Hispanic, with a median family income under $20,000, according to the 2000 census. The perception of Trinity's students, at least as recorded in the Princeton Review, is country club elite. "Despite admissions' best efforts," one student wrote, "Trinity is still characterized by the New England boarding-school grad in polos and pink pants."

Whether that's an accurate appraisal of the student population is a matter of some debate, even among responders to the survey. The school's efforts to mix the student population are easier to assess. Elinor Jacobson, the coordinator for urban learning initiatives at Trinity College, said over 60 percent of Trinity students take part in community engagement projects that are interwoven with coursework.

"From my perspective, what we do with the community learning initiative has been so successful at getting students out into the community every semester," Jacobson said. "We're running about 40 courses a year that have a community learning component."

Trinity has also seen considerable success integrating students and community members with the Trinfo Café. Trinfo was originally intended as a computer lab that could be used for free by local residents. While it still functions as such, its purpose has grown, offering classes taught by Trinity students and a community meeting place.

"Trinfo has really been a bridge of sorts from its beginnings. And the bridge has widened and grown more sophisticated over the years. It goes beyond just the transfer of information within the technology," Carlos Espinosa, the director of Trinfo Café, said. "It's really become a causeway that affords students a way of getting into the community and people from the community to get onto the college."

Trinity gets passing, not exemplary, grades from neighborhood groups. Douglas Campbell, a member of Neighborhood Revitalization Zone community group Frog Hollow South, praised some of Trinity's efforts while noting its disconnection from its immediate environs.

"Right now, there are two places; there's Trinity's campus and the neighborhood," Campbell said. "I think they do a lot of good with the neighborhood insofar as cleaning up. Some of the development is in line with the historic character of the neighborhood."

Campbell said that his group has noticed Trinity has scaled back spending on neighborhood initiatives.

"Trinity had some funding programs and they cut back on some programs. We didn't see them as much," Campbell said.

The problems facing the neighborhood are somewhat out of Trinity's power.

"It's not Trinity's fault that there are drug dealers hanging out there, littering and attracting people that shouldn't be there," Campbell said. "It would be nice to see more students walking on Broad Street and Washington Street."

Campbell said it's somewhat understandable if students feel the neighborhood isn't inviting.

"You need to make it a little safer down there for people to walk around. There are some streets in that area you just don't want to walk on," Campbell said.

He said his group was currently working with Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (which Trinity is a part of) and the city to create more light in the neighborhood in hopes of spurring more foot traffic around the neighborhood.

Looking at Trinity's efforts in the community over a ten-year period yields impressive results. However, their efforts seemed to have eroded recently. The only major off-campus Trinity construction in the last five years was the Koeppel Community Sports Center, the New Britain Avenue ice skating rink.

Trinity has been suffering a financial crisis since 2004, and has cut back on student and community bridging efforts as a result. This year, the school ended its annual bicycle tour of Hartford for incoming freshmen, a three-year long program that introduced students to the neighborhood. A proposal to make urban engagement a requirement of graduating was narrowly voted down by faculty in an April vote. Other programs barely survived.

"The Trinfo Café was being discussed for being eliminated as well," Espinosa said. "I think we were able to demonstrate ... that we also provide reciprocal benefits for the community and the school."

Espinosa, a Trinity graduate as well as an employee, expressed optimism that the school would renew its commitment to urban engagement.

"With everything, there are ebbs and flows. When I was an undergrad, there was clearly a major flow that was based on the self interest of the college to engage the community," Espinosa said. "We added the Learning Corridor and built up other things, and then there was a financial crunch. Hopefully, this is just a temporary thing, and once things get better, the school can make stronger connections to the community."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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