Town and gown

This Ripon Commonwealth Press photo of the singing of Ripon's Alma Mater proves that (1) I was at Founders Day and (2) I don't sing in public.

I spent Tuesday morning at Ripon College’s Founders Day.

Our family is associated with two of the oldest institutions in Ripon. Jannan is a graduate and former employee of Ripon College, for which I announce football and basketball. (Including Friday night’s men’s basketball game against 113-point-per-game Grinnell at 7 Central time; click here to be highly entertained.) One of the founders of both Ripon and Ripon College, Alvan Bovay, also was a founder of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. (Bovay also was a founder of the Republican Party, as a reader reminded me, in a building here in Ripon, but this post is not about partisan politics.)

It’s rather ironic that we live here. I think I was the first to visit Ripon, having spent a week at the college in June 1982 for Badger Boys State. I don’t think Jannan planned to come back to Ripon other than for reunions once she graduated in 1987 and headed off to the Peace Corps. But 11 years after her graduation, Jannan started working at her alma mater, and a year later we moved here from Appleton. Neither of us expected to raise not only “townies,” but cradle Episcopalians. (As with many small towns, no one who moves here really is a Riponite, supposedly.)

For a college whose enrollment has never exceeded 1,000 or so, Ripon College has some famous alumni, including actors Harrison Ford, Spencer Tracy and Frances Lee McCain (Marty McFly’s mother), singer Al Jarreau, and recently deceased CBS-TV reporter Richard Threlkeld. An early scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” makes a reference to a “Dr. Tyree,” the same last name as a longtime Ripon philosophy professor. Jarreau’s Wisconsin concerts have featured him singing Ripon’s Alma Mater. (Which has the same melody as Kellerman’s resort.) I have Threlkeld’s book, Dispatches from the Former Evil Empire, which he signed “From one ink-stained wretch to another.”

I find living in a small college town full of appeal. I walked to the college for Founders Day. Were it not for all the stuff I have to bring along (headsets, spotter board, clipboards,  etc.), I could walk to Ingalls Field (where football has been played since the 1880s) to announce Red Hawk and Tiger games. Before our three townies arrived, one summer a professor hosted an independent film series that included some great movies, including the original “Insomnia,” “The Opposite of Sex” (featuring this quote that must be seen, not merely read, to be appreciated) and “Kissed.” The college brings in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra every year. Being a college town, Ripon also features businesses that would not be seen in towns of the same size without a college. (Unfortunately, that does not yet include a microbrewery.)

People associated with the college participate in all sorts of ways in community life. One professor is on the Ripon Board of Education. Another professor is our Fond du Lac County supervisor. (Which reminds me: About that county sales tax, Marty …) An assistant dean (who appears to have approximately 387 titles at Ripon) serves on the board of Ripon Medical Center. The former president of the college served with me on our sons’ charter school board. Professors and college employees do a lot elsewhere throughout Ripon.

Even though there are 13 UW four-year universities and 20 private colleges in this state, Ripon is arguably one of the few real college towns in this state. Fond du Lac has not only Marian University but UW–Fond du Lac and Moraine Park Technical College, yet no one thinks of Fond du Lac as a college town. UW–Oshkosh is the third largest campus in the UW System, but no one thinks of Oshkosh as a college town either. La Crosse has both UW–La Crosse and Viterbo University, but is not a college town. Neither Appleton, home of Lawrence University, nor De Pere, home of St. Norbert College, nor Beloit, home of Beloit College, feel like college towns either. Platteville and Whitewater are college towns.

The definition of “college town” is not merely a town with a college in it, but a town whose college is most, not just some, of the town’s identity. (So is Madison a college town? That depends on what you think is most dominant about Madison, state government or the UW. Milwaukee, despite having what should be called the University of Milwaukee, Marquette University, Alverno College, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, Milwaukee School of Engineering and Mount Mary College, is definitely not a college town.) One could, I suppose, divide the college’s enrollment by its total population to determine the college’s effect on where it’s located. I prefer to use the test Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to define obscenity — you know it when you see it.

The relationship between a college and the community it’s located in is described as “town–gown relations.” Founders Day is the college’s way of honoring Ripon-area institutions or individuals — this year, Ripon Medical Center. (Which is kind of amusing given that RMC now is part of Agnesian Health Care, which is sponsored by the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes, which also sponsors … Marian University.)

Town–gown relations are never perfect. Anytime Ripon College wants to do something development-wise, it must get the approval of the city’s Plan Commission, on which I served for four years. Two controversial issues I voted for were the college’s request to close two city streets going through campus, in order to make that part of campus more pedestrian-friendly, and the construction of a new dorm. The first proposal was opposed by one longtime city resident who asserted that once a street goes on the official city map, it can, or should, never be taken off. (You may not know that there is a bypass of Ripon, which exists only on the official city map.)

As for the second issue, I don’t live close enough to campus to notice, but neighbors probably would tell you that college students don’t always act in a respectful manner toward their neighbors who are not part of the campus. That, however, is part of living across the street from an institution that has been there since 1851, an institution whose presence should be obvious to would-be property owners across the street. (Moreover, upon complaints of students speeding down one street, the Ripon police observed the street long enough to discover that the speeders were not students, but residents.) That’s also part of being between 18 and 22 years old, a period sometimes noted for poor personal judgment, as those who survived that age sometimes don’t want to admit.

The residents of a college town take particular interest in the college. That can sometimes be a challenge for college administration. I wonder, for instance, why the college doesn’t promote itself more actively nationally, or for that matter even in Ripon. I notice that since the college started charging admission for football and basketball games, attendance has dropped at football and basketball games. I suspect the college has even more events beyond sports that many Riponites don’t even know are taking place at the college. (On the other hand, I speak from experience that it’s difficult to communicate with those who don’t want to be communicated with.)

Ripon College is a residential undergraduate-only liberal arts college. It has few commuter students, almost no adult students, and no advanced-degree students. Looking at trends in higher education, one has to wonder how long places like Ripon College will remain viable given increasing complaints about higher education costs, not to mention the increasing belief that the purpose of a college education (or equivalent) is getting the first post-college job. (And let’s face it, one motivation of the conservative critique of higher education is the conservative belief that higher education isn’t friendly to conservatives or conservative ideas — a belief created by personal experience in many cases.)

Indeed, the concept of the liberal arts, which I’ve heard described as “learning how to learn,” seems not very popular these days, which is too bad. Degrees do not equal wisdom or common sense. But we need a more, not less, educated citizenry, and educated in areas beyond their vocation. (What purpose is a college education in a vocation if people are going to change their careers several times in their lifetimes?)

After Founders Day, I ate (and ate and ate and ate) lunch with Ripon’s mayor and city administrator and an alderman, where some of what’s in this blog came up. My hope is that Ripon College can serve to attract Ripon College students to stay in Ripon beyond their graduation — to, as we ended up doing, come to Ripon more often than for class reunions. Ripon needs more “townies” who realize how important Ripon College is to Ripon.

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