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With Collaboration, College-Town Benefits

Can Surely Outweigh Challenges


On Saturday night, Sept. 13, I accompanied Sgt. Branden Collison of the Oneonta Police Department on his patrol of the city. I was with him from 10 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.

I asked to ride along because I have been paying close attention to the recent expressions of concern about the behavior of college students in the city. Knowing the many efforts we already pursue on the Hartwick campus toward alcohol education, and current on- and off-campus community standards, I was looking for inspiration on what more I could do, as Hartwick’s president, to address the apparent rising tension between the full-time citizens of our community and our community of students.

I have been trained in ethnographic research techniques. I went along as an observer. This is what I saw.
I saw competent, compassionate policing. I witnessed well-trained officers intervening in situations that went from the benign (a flat tire with no response from AAA) to the life threatening (a probable head injury as the result of an assault).

I saw them respond promptly to numerous complaints about noise, and act expertly to disperse noisy gatherings with the cooperation of those they dispersed. I saw them stand by in protection of an underage, inebriated citizen (not a student at one of our colleges) until friends came to her assistance. I saw them identify a known criminal (not a student) while driving down Main Street and arrest this person for an armed robbery for which he was sought. I saw them arrest two possible assailants. I saw them cite someone for public urination or defecation. I saw them cruise along streets known for “problems” without finding any large parties. I witnessed expertise, coordination, firmness, professionalism, compassion, and caring. Yes, I was prepared to be impressed – and I was.

I saw young people frequenting Oneonta’s city bars and eateries. I witnessed young people (some were likely college students, some were most likely not) moving down and through our city streets. They congregated outside of the many bars that were open, and queued up at counters and food stands around the back alleys and plazas between Main and Market Streets. Oneonta was open for business, and the wheels of commerce were turning.

I saw young people talking with adults who were certainly not students, adults who remained on the streets throughout the night. These young people were laughing, they were dancing, they were eating, and they were joking, slapping one another on the back. A few were arguing, a few were crying; they were talking and walking and singing with a guitarist (not a student) who regularly perches on Main Street in the wee hours of the morning. Many waved at the police (a real wave). I saw no overt signs of disrespect toward the police. I heard expressions of gratitude for assistance offered. It is important to note that I estimate that I saw only several hundred young people moving around the streets in my five hours with Sergeant Collison; just a small fraction of the over 7,500 students enrolled at Hartwick and the state university.

I saw an escalation in the seriousness of issues addressed as the night extended into the early morning. The later the night, the more the alcohol and the hour took their toll. More young people were finding their way back to where they live, sometimes (though not always) visibly hampered by their inebriation. The seriousness of interventions related to alcohol increased as the morning developed. More people expressed anger, more people were sick, more people were in the wrong place at the wrong time, more people went to the hospital to be cared for. This did not surprise me; I have seen it all before. Many times I have told students: If it is past midnight and you are standing in a room with a drink in your hand, don’t expect good things to happen.

Now, this is what I think, based upon what I saw.

I think that the young people I saw last night were like any I have seen anywhere.  I have worked and lived within higher education communities for much of my professional career. Colleges are filled with young people who have dreams and hopes for their future. They will be nurses and business professionals and scientists and musicians and historians and doctors. I see them on our playing fields and stages and award platforms. I join them for lunch and host them for dinner. They are responsible, pleasant people with whom anyone would be pleased to spend time.

I have never met a student who wanted to be arrested. Students who go to college and only “party” do not make it through Hartwick, or through any of the colleges I have been associated with. Let’s accept the truth that maturation is a process. Young people are not always mature enough or experienced enough to make the best choices – whether or not they are enrolled in college. We all know adults whose judgment and choices we question – for as truly amazing as some college students are, the likelihood that all 18-21 year olds will have impeccable judgment is zero.

I think the citizens of Oneonta have the right to expect a secure community. All people, including college students, should be held responsible when they break the law, or when they act in ways that are inconsistent with community values. I have owned a property in a college town and awoken on Sunday mornings to noise on the street and red plastic cups on my front yard. I have been frustrated and sometimes disgusted and angered by the behavior of drunken people (behavior not restricted to college students). I don’t condone any of these actions. Many Hartwick employees live within the community close to the College campus. We share the desire to live in a secure and pleasant environment.

Our students don’t get a “pass” on their responsibilities to be good citizens just because they are inebriated or immature. Those who act irresponsibly must be held accountable for their actions – that is what communities must do to preserve their character and quality. That is how people learn about the contours of community values.
I think recent statements that lay the blame for our disappointments only at the feet of college students, or on the doorstep of the colleges themselves, have missed their target by a wide margin. The suggestion that the colleges may not be taking the issue of community and personal safety “seriously” is incomprehensible. I think that the basic question is this: Can we have it both ways? Can we have bars and eateries downtown that prosper from the economic stimulus our students provide until 2 or 3 a.m., and maintain a secure community? Can we welcome college students who support our way of life (by providing a reason for many of us to be here at all) and help them to become the citizens who might one day choose to live in the house next door, assuring the true security of our community by contributing to it?
I think that the answer is yes, we can have it both ways, if we choose to. However, having it both ways will take a more collaborative effort than we have seen to date. And it will also require that we abandon the idea that the solution is simple, or that it belongs to only one segment of our community. If we want it both ways, every segment of our community will have to share in the responsibility and help to create the solution.

I have supported, and will continue to support, all of our many efforts on the Hartwick campus to educate students about responsible behavior. All of our students are required to participate in the AlcoholEdu education program and we provide state-of-the-art education programs around the effects of alcohol. We provide social programming on campus as an alternative to migration downtown. We provide counseling, and, as necessary, sanction those students who break the law or violate campus policies and community expectations. Hartwick does as much or more than most of the campuses I have worked on to educate its students about the negative effects of drugs and alcohol, and their responsibility to the greater community. My colleagues and I do all that we can to assure that Hartwick students understand and respect the idea that a community, by its very nature, requires responsible action on everyone’s part. Hartwick will continue to be a good partner in holding its students accountable for their actions on our campus and within the City of Oneonta. We will do what we must do to protect the welfare of our students, to the fullest extent of our abilities and resources.

What role will the business owners, city government, and citizens of the city take in this collaboration? Each sector of our community will have to answer in its own way – I am in no better position to dictate their contributions than they are to dictate those of the College. I believe that if we work together in a productive and respectful manner we can make Oneonta a model college community where we can all enjoy the benefits that come with having young, bright, and hopeful people among us.


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