Wednesday, July 05, 2006

On Being a University Town, Part 1

Rational Technology for July 12, 2006

Before the story becomes lost in the mists of legend, the local historians ought to document the beginnings of the application of the term "university town" to Dumaguete. It's still a fairly recent usage, one I first heard around the same time I started writing for the Metro Post some four years ago. I'm curious as to its definitive provenance, and I'm sure a number of people are, too.

Regardless of its origins, "university town" is a monicker that has stuck with some ease to Dumaguete, largely in recognition of the seven universities and colleges that drive the city's economy. People wear it like a badge of pride, and "The Philippines' only university town" is as much a nickname for Dumaguete as "The City of Gentle People."

And yet, lest we get too complacent, we have to ask ourselves: is Dumaguete deserving of this distinction?

This is essentially the question that Razcel Jan Luiz Salvarita asks in his letter to the Metro Post entitled "A Pseudo-University Town" some two weeks ago. Salvarita's starting point is an observation by a foreign visitor who calls Dumaguete a "sleeping University Town." It's a comment worthy of some consideration because within the answer lies the kernel of truth as to who and what we are.

First, what makes a university town? It's a community, as small as a neighborhood or as large as a mid-sized city, which is dominated by its university population and where the educational institutions pervade economic and social life.

In a paper published in 2004 by the University of New Hampshire, Professor Blake Gumprecht established the parameters for his study: Are the educational institutions the largest employers in the town? What is the enorollment of the schools compared with the population of the city? What percentage of the labor force works in educational occupations? Of the US cities that Blake studied, college students made up at least 20% of the town's population. By this basic metric alone, Dumaguete clearly qualifies as a university town.

But wait! Gumprecht makes the distinction between a university town and a town that is merely home to a university. While he admits that the difference between the two is fuzzy, it was real enough for him to list down some distinguishing features of real university towns. Gumprecht makes further observations in his definition.

University towns shape the urban personality of the communities around them. They are youthful places, with average population age being at least ten years younger than industrial cities. They are also transient places as both professors and students tend to stay only a few years. By these factors, Dumaguete meets the standards of being a university town.

On the other hand, some other demographics bear further consideration. Gumprecht notes that university town populations are highly educated, with adult residents are twice as likely to possess a college degree in comparison to similar-sized cities, and seven times more likely to hold a doctorate. University town residents are also more likely to work in education than in other industries.

By far the most marked difference between Gumbrecht's definitions and the reality of Dumaguete is the effect of the universities in the personality of the community. University towns are unconventional places, known for their slightly eccentric atmosphere, liberal politics, passion for sports, and environmental stance. On the whole, university towns are comparatively cosmopolitan.

One may argue that these also characterize Dumaguete. Here I beg to differ. To be certain, we may have some vocal groups who campaign for causes, but for the most part, these seem to be isolated and cyclic concerns. Apparently, I am not the only one who feels that way as Salvarita's foreign visitor, too, comments that "there were no intellectually-stimulating and creative activities, no art performances, no [open] museums, no old-school, Parisian coffee shops where artists abound, no murals on the so-many blank walls, no green projects."

For the moment, never mind the bohemian slant apparent in Salvarita's lament. It's his vision and his prerogative to seek such an artistic eden. The question is why, given the academic population that is supposed to inhabit Dumaguete, such enclaves and endeavors hardly register a blip in the city's life.

This is where Dumaguete's shortcoming as a university town is most apparent. There's a dichotomy to Dumaguete: on the one hand, you have the universities and the colleges. On the other, you have the city itself which, despite the stellar history of education in its confines, seems to have been largely insulated from the intellectual, philosophical, and even emotional effects of the universities and colleges. Instead, the impact is largely isolated to the economic contributions of the academe. Why is that?

Salvarita ventures some answers: the local government is not responsive to the needs of the studentry, and neither, it seems, do the local businesses. These accusations have some truth in them, but they are not the complete picture, either. All well and good to blame government. Anyone can do that.

A harder question to ask is: aside from the economic contribution, what have the universities and colleges of Dumaguete done to positively influence the community around them?