Our Town

By President Steven Poskanzer

Outreach to the community is one of the most enduring ways that Carleton earns its stripes as a good neighbor.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York where my father was both the mayor and a college professor, and I’ve lived in college towns most of my life. So I’m no stranger to the importance of town-gown relationships. Every town in America should want to be home to a college or university. Higher education institutions are great economic anchors and spark plugs: they are deeply invested in their locations. They create good, stable jobs. They act as magnets for an influx of new people, including young and energetic students who add vibrancy. And they create cultural and social capital for the community through the ideas generated by faculty members and students, as well as through visiting speakers, athletic events, and artistic performances and exhibitions.

In fact, that’s why as 19th-century settlers moved west, they founded colleges in towns all across America. Northfield is fortunate to call itself home to two of the country’s best liberal arts colleges. But colleges only flourish when college towns are healthy, and thus we have an important responsibility in tending to the health and success of our community.

Carleton isn’t like a business that can pack up and relocate; Northfield will always be our home, and we need—and want—to be a great neighbor. We encourage faculty and staff members to live here, in part because we’re a residential campus where learning also takes place outside the classroom. Because we benefit from a commercially vibrant community, we support the local economy. Our campus opens seamlessly into a lovely residential neighborhood where many of our employees and alumni have chosen to live, and we have a community relations advisory group to help preserve this special connection. Many Carleton employees are also engaged in the life of the town; some hold elective office or are the driving force behind local charities. They serve in these ways, not because Carleton asks them to, but because they are civic-minded.

Currently, we’re reaching out to the community in two relatively new ways:

The newly opened Weitz Center for Creativity is more than a hub for creative and visual thinking on our campus. It is also intended to be part of our community outreach. The historic building has an emotional resonance for Northfield; thousands of residents went to school there. While the title to the land now belongs to Carleton, the building belongs to the town in a sentimental way. We want our neighbors to come to exhibitions and performances there. To this end, almost all campus events—including convocations, sporting events, musical performances, and speakers—are free and open to the public.

We’re also exploring ways to learn from and benefit Northfield and Rice County through our academic work. Acting in the Community Together (ACT) traditionally has been about volunteerism—students teach in the schools, work with food banks, and help build houses, among many other activities. Now ACT has joined with our Academic Civic Engagement program to deepen and expand those volunteer activities, linking them to course work that bears on pressing community issues.

As an example, biology professor Debby Walser-Kuntz’s class on immunology is examining the incidence of asthma in the town’s mobile home communities, where mold and other asthma triggers have been observed. Working with the community partner, students conduct research, talk to school nurses, and educate families about how to reduce the likelihood of asthma. In the long run, this type of collaboration will be one of the most enduring ways that Carleton continues to earn its stripes as a good neighbor.

Generating jobs, reinvesting dollars back into the economy, and contributing culturally are all great things that the College brings to Northfield. And we achieve an even higher level of symbiosis when our academic work also benefits the community in which we live and work. We are fortunate that Carleton’s founders were so prescient in their selection of this location, and we appreciate the College’s ongoing role in preserving and promoting the community.

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