The problem with St. Peter’s University

A few days ago, an account belonging to a site dedicated to local news tweeted the following:

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I went through the roof.

Prince of Pizza, Wonder Bagel, Our Hero, and Panda House are all fine McGinley Square establishments. But they’re grab-and-go, or at least grab-and-quickly-eat. They’re not really what I’d consider to be a restaurant. Want a slice of pizza? Prince of Pizza is great; I also hear the tuna subs at Our Hero are first rate. Want to go on a date? I hope you know better than to take her to Wonder Bagel (although their bagels are excellent, it’s not exactly what I’d consider fine dining. And they close at 4pm).

What’s especially annoying about this is that there are several establishments just a block or two away – still very much in McGinley Square – that are way more “sit and linger” places. Some have full table services, others have really nice ambience that encourages you to hang out a bit longer than just the time it takes you to quickly scarf your food. I’m thinking of Carvao (full restaurant with a bar), Harry Street Coffee (independently-owned coffee shop that does open-mic nights and other events), Honey Bakery (Korean-Ukrainian food!) are all within one to two blocks of Wonder Bagels. El Cocotero (a highly-anticipated branch of their NYC restaurant) opened a day after this poll went up, and is even closer.

This would seem like a silly – if incredibly misguided – tweet, the sort of thing that PR people with no real stake in a particular area make all the time. Except that as I scrolled through their timeline trying to figure out who was behind the account, I discovered that the company puts various St. Peter’s University interns in charge of it. This week, the account was being managed by a SPU senior. And so I went from thinking that the tweet came from some person in an office somewhere who had never ventured to McGinley Square, to realizing that the news was far worse: it was written by someone who had been coming to our community for the last four years… and somehow never ventured more than a block or two off campus.

While deeply troubling, this isn’t surprising. It’s rare to see SPU students at community events or encounter them living off campus. When the McGinley Square Pub opened across the street from the school, I feared it would be overrun with college students trying to sneak in with fake IDs. Winds up I had nothing to worry about – not only has this not been an issue, even their professors and administrators don’t see to frequent the place to unwind after a long day. And while SPU hosts a variety of speakers and performances, I’ve never seen an invitation to the non-SPU community, encouraging us to come. I often walk by and gaze longingly at SPU’s immaculate gym facilities (usually empty) and wonder if they offer memberships to people in the neighborhood – as I head to my gym in NYC.

Schools maneuver their relationship to their local community (sometimes referred to as “town and gown”) in different ways. I happened to be getting my graduate degree at Yale at a time when the school had hired a new-ish President, who was making integrating the campus into the fabric of New Haven a top priority. Now, I understand – Yale has a budget and resources that SPU does not, but let’s look at a few things that they’ve started during my twenty years since getting my Master’s:

  1. They have an Office of New Haven and State Affairs:

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This is an office in the university set up specifically to encourage engagement with the local community. It’s impractical to think that SPU could dedicate an entire office to this function, but what about starting with one administrator tasked with connecting the university better?

2. They encourage employees to buy homes in the area:

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Ok, probably a lot to expect from a smaller school like SPU, so how about just encouraging students to live off campus after their freshman year? Or at least encouraging students to consider it? Even something as small as having a bulletin board with rental housing available would be a good start.

3. They encourage local businesses by promoting them on their website, including a calendar of nearby community events:

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Well, this one is just a no-brainer. SPU should do this immediately. (Currently, there is no information about local businesses on the SPU site, other than a short list of hotels in the Newport/downtown area. Not a single McGinley Square, JSQ, or West Side business or attraction is mentioned as far as I can tell.)

4. And they prominently display which events and centers are open to the public in an open and inviting way:

If this info is anywhere on the SPU website, I can’t find it.

Comparing SPU to Yale too much of a stretch for you? What about Rutgers vs SPU? Rutgers encourages its students to buy a meal plan debit card which can be used both on- and off-campus at over 100 local restaurants. This is standard procedure at most schools at this point, often called something like “Flexbucks.” It gives the students a budget to follow and then “use it or lose it” money to spend in the community. So if a student is given a budget every week, chances are he or she will spend most of that on campus because it’s the easiest for them to walk to, but they can also take their debit card into town and spend it at select local businesses. Many schools do this. (SPU offers “Munch Money” but it is to be exclusively spent at SPU-owned dining facilities.)

Let’s just do some quick math to show how important all this can be: SPU reports having a Fall 2015 student body of 3,406. Say we could convince half of those students – just half – to spend $5 at local businesses every week for a year. That would bring in $442,780 into the economy of McGinley Square every year. That’s money that would go a long way in terms of encouraging healthy economic growth and the betterment of the neighborhood overall, which would in turn make SPU a more competitive school that even more students would want to go to.

And what if people living on the West Side felt comfortable and welcome at SPU events? Suddenly our neighborhood would have access to great theater, lectures, concerts and other events that we never had before. Not everything would have to be free – many colleges offer gym memberships or season theater tickets to people in their town for a low fee, but a fee all the same. This could offer a new revenue stream for SPU. Why constantly fundraise only to your alumni when you could branch out and ingratiate yourself to a much larger audience?

St. Peter’s University only stands to gain by becoming a greater part of the fabric of our community. A vital, thriving community makes for an even more impressive and competitive school. They need to do their part to step up and join us. It really is a great place to be.

(Please note: if anyone at SPU would like to reach out to discuss these ideas further, I encourage them to do so via my contact page.)