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No university is an island: How to foster town-gown partnerships for impactful outcomes

13 avril 2023

Par Gary S. May, PhD

"The days of ivory towers must end. Town-gown collaborations are more crucial than ever if we are to solve society's greatest challenges" (Prof Gary S May, PhD)

Universities must collaborate with businesses, communities and government to tackle society’s grand challenges locally and beyond

The days of ivory towers must end, particularly within research universities. Town-gown collaborations are more crucial than ever if we are to solve society’s greatest challenges.

When we consider how to prevent or mitigate future pandemics, address climate change or find sustainable ways to feed a growing planet, universities face complex challenges that require collaboration on a global scale. We recognize that solutions require engagement with many stakeholders and coordinated responses with local, national and international entities. In our local communities as well, we’ve seen government, universities, businesses and communities increasingly joining forces to tackle these grand challenges at the local scale. These practices further reveal that universities have an opportunity to lead these collaborations through good relationships, transparency and open communication.

Universities are pivotal to connecting to local communities as both reliable partners and good neighbors. Relationships like these contribute to improving access to public health benefits, economic development and quality of life. However, it takes focused cooperation and strategic intention for the town-gown relationship to have a positive impact.

This post is from the Not Alone newsletter, a monthly publication that showcases new perspectives on global issues directly from research and academic leaders.

In the city of Davis, home to the University of California, DavisS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre, we’ve been intentional in solidifying our town-gown partnership. This has been years in the making, as issues of enrollment growth and student housing had been sticking points between the city, Yolo County and UC Davis. A former Davis mayor once compared our shared relationship to a sliding door with a wheel that’s fallen off track. Yes, the door works, but it needs extra nudging to make it open properly.

We wanted to change that experience. In 2018, leaders agreed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between UC Davis, the city of Davis and Yolo County. It proved to be a moment that propelled all three entities to move forward and not get stuck in the hiccups of the past. It was a chance to align our shared vision for shared problem solving.

The MOU identified common ground to address demands for student housing, bike and pedestrian safety, and other transportation improvements. We formed a “2 x 2 x 2” committee comprised of two representatives each from UC Davis, Yolo County and the city of Davis to meet regularly to make progress on matters of mutual importance. We agreed to hold an annual public meeting together to share our progress.

Little did we know how crucial this collaboration would soon become. When the COVID-19 pandemic transformed our world in early 2020, the UC Davis Genome CenterS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre proposed an idea about how to help prevent the spread of the virus in our region. That idea led to university and community leaders joining forces, and local and campus communities committing to participate in that effort.

The result was Healthy Davis TogetherS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre, a joint initiative between UC Davis, the city of Davis and Yolo County. The goal was to harness our collective strengths and keep our community safe through widespread COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, public health messaging and vaccine clinics.

At the heart of the program was a rapid saliva-based testing developed by UC Davis plant sciences professor Richard MichelmoreS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre and his team at the UC Davis Genome Center. With public and private funding, these tests were administered for free throughout Davis and Yolo County, with results usually available within 24 hours.

The university, city and county formed a working group co-chaired by leadership of UC Davis and the city of Davis and comprised of faculty, staff students, and business, education and interfaith communities to discuss progress and determine how to proceed. Healthy Davis Together enabled county-wide education and outreach on how to prevent the spread of the virus.

Through these combined efforts, we not only prevented the spread of COVID-19 — we saved lives. Over the course of the program, more than 850,000 COVID-19 tests were conducted through the UC Davis Genome Center. Healthy Davis Together supported more than 50 K-12 schools in Yolo County with testing and education materials. More than 16,000 COVID-19 vaccines were administered as well. The support of UC Davis students was a key to its success by building trust and supporting their peers. More than 200 of them stepped up to be Aggie Public Health Ambassadors, who helped run testing sites and modeled safe public behaviors.

An independent study from MathematicaS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre concluded that Healthy Davis Together reduced COVID-19 case counts by 60% in the city and avoided 4,144 cases of COVID-19 and 275 COVID-19 related hospitalizations. The study also estimated the program averted 35 COVID-19 related deaths during a 16-month period from October 2020 through January 2022.

We discovered fairly quickly that our ability to prevent the spread of the virus was strong because of our collective, sustained and collaborative effort. We learned how much more we could do when we joined forces. We respected the perspectives that were brought into our decision-making discussions. We appreciated the value and meaning of a public university focused on public service.

Now we’re working together again, this time to combat the virus of hate. UC Davis, the city of Davis and Yolo County have formed an initiative called Hate-Free TogetherS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre to take action against the rise of local hate incidents.

Hate-Free Together comprises three key actions. We start by condemning hate and all forms of bigotry. Together we create safety among our diverse community and cultivate change so we can break the cycle of hate.

The initial plans include a series of community workshops for Davis residents of all types, including students, seniors and families, along with local businesses and public agencies. More resources and action plans are under development as Hate-Free Together continues to take shape.

Another example of our collaborative approach is on our Sacramento campus. There, UC Davis and the city of Sacramento have partnered on Aggie SquareS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre, an innovation district located on 25 acres of our Health campus. Aggie Square will build bridges between our research enterprise and entrepreneurship, propel economic development and build more resilient communities.

A critical component of Aggie Square is a Community Benefits Partnership Agreement. It’s a roadmap for ensuring that local residents are included in the success story of Aggie Square, based on three years of input from neighbors.

The agreement was signed in 2021 between UC Davis, the city of Sacramento and Wexford Science and Technology, Aggie Square’s project developer. It directs $50 million toward affordable housing in the neighborhood near Aggie Square, thousands of jobs in construction and in the completed project, improvements to nearby streets and annual funding for community projects.

A 2020 report conducted by Economic & Planning Systems predicted that Aggie Square will add nearly $5 billion to the Sacramento region’s economy each year and support 25,000 ongoing jobs. We’ve also set a goal that 20 percent of new jobs at Aggie Square will be for local residents.

Aggie Square is expected to generate nearly $5.1 million annually in new revenues for the city of Sacramento during its first two phases of construction and nearly $3.1 million in new county revenues.

When universities partner with the private sector, more equitable development is possible, as compared to development performed solely by the private sector. Increasingly, such organizations as the National Science Foundation and Brookings Institute are championing cross-sector collaboration in the name of nurturing community health and economic growth.

It's clear that our collective efforts to be good neighbors and true community partners have far greater impact than when universities operate as an island unto themselves. This brings to mind a line from one of my favorite superhero movies. As T’Challa in The Black PantherS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre says:

In times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.


Professor Gary S May


Gary S. May, PhD


University of California, Davis