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What is a Town and Gown Rivalry?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 05 December 2016
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A town and gown rivalry is a situation in which an academic institution has an acrimonious relationship with the town which surrounds it. Town and gown rivalries have existed ever since formal institutions of higher education were formed, and they continue to be a very serious issue in some communities. Many universities and college towns have recognized that relations between academics and ordinary citizens are sometimes strained, and have worked together to reduce the amount of town and gown rivalry in their communities.

The term “town and gown” dates to the 1800s. In England and many parts of Europe, college students wore distinctive gowns during their periods of study by tradition, making them very visible figures in the towns they lived in. People began to use “gown” as shorthand to refer to college students and academia by extension, and “town and gown” was not far behind. The gown itself was often a source of bitterness, since academic gowns were clearly impractical for manual labor, and many people in the lower classes viewed them as elitist symbols.

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Academic institutions and towns often have very different priorities and goals, although they may be mutually beneficial. Individual citizens may resent the presence of a college or university, dismissing students as elitist, and disliking the amount of power the institution holds in town. For example, many universities are very aggressive about expanding their campuses and housing facilities, and this sometimes sparks conflict when the university takes over a beloved area of town or develops without considering the input of citizens. Residents may also come to resent the congestion in town during the school year, and the inability to find local restaurants, stores, and pubs which haven't been overrun by college students.

Universities sometimes feel very frustrated with the local government and citizens in the towns and cities they are installed in. College towns often develop a very high cost of living, and some towns attempt to combat this by mandating affordable housing and taking other steps to ensure that citizens can continue to live in town. Things like growth restrictions and living wage mandates may be a source of resentment for a university.

One of the most infamous instances of a town and gown rivalry erupted around the University of Oxford in 1355, when a tavern argument on St. Scholastica's Day turned into a two-day riot. Although tensions between students and “townies,” as residents of college towns are sometimes called, rarely turn this acrimonious in the modern era, town and gown rivalries can still be problematic. Some colleges have attempted to combat this by encouraging students to get involved with local causes and organizations, and by actively soliciting public opinion about proposed expansions.

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