I still remember my freshman Wilson Day ? first week of college, hours in the sun running the wet sponge toss at the Hillside Family Center carnival. I made friends and lasting memories ? an exhausting but richly rewarding experience out in the Rochester community.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been back to Hillside, and chances are most of my Wilson Day classmates haven’t either. For many of us, Wilson Day was the zenith of our community service in Rochester. When I look back on my five years here, that’s my greatest regret. At UR, it’s a challenge to meet people in the wider Rochester community, to avoid slipping into a routine of classes and exams, with meals at the dining center, TV with hallmates and Friday nights in front of a computer. Too many of us don’t know much about the city and never bother to learn.

I’ve often wondered exactly why that is. Part of the reason is undoubtedly due to the UR campus’ physical and social isolation, which means that students here don’t usually have to pay attention to what’s happening downtown or across the Genesee. All the same, lots of UR students do regularly get off campus. Many of us live in nearby neighborhoods, shop at the local Wegmans, pick up subs at Pellegrino’s or hit the bars on Alexander Street. And it’s not just for entertainment ? a large number of campus groups are involved in community service, from the local Habitat for Humanity chapter to Greek-led charity fundraisers. Many students also take classes that focus on some aspect of Rochester’s history and cultural heritage. Despite the isolation of campus, UR students do contribute to the larger Rochester community.

It’s at the highest levels of the university that the lack of discussion about the city is most glaring. In my five years here, the university’s relations with the region haven’t changed much ? lots of symbolism, little substance. The UR leadership seems content to go about its daily business ? announcing a new donor here, constructing a new building there and remaining blissfully indifferent about what’s going on outside the edges of campus.

Oh, there’s Wilson Day, or a United Way fundraiser, or an occasional official dinner with residents of nearby neighborhoods. But with regard to the major challenges facing the Rochester area today, the university mouthpieces are conspicuously silent. Rochester city schools are facing a dire funding crisis, but you wouldn’t know it on campus. Community efforts to revitalize the neighborhood across the river from campus have remained stalled for years, a casualty of university complacency. And compelling questions about the location of a new performing arts center and a regional bus station ? issues that potentially could affect many university members ? have merited nary a peep.

In short, university leadership rarely adds its voice to debates about Rochester’s future, as if UR were somehow immune to whatever fate befalls the city. While president Thomas Jackson and other university bigwigs schmooze with alumni across the country in a never-ending quest for donations, local dialogue with the mayor or other community leaders seems neglected.

Likewise, new campus initiatives, from the Renaissance Plan to freshman housing to Meliora Weekend, seem designed only to strengthen UR’s position as an elitist citadel, increasing campus selectivity and cohesiveness but never addressing the university’s isolation from the city.

The general indifference toward the greater Rochester community is not without consequences. Poll a few students, and you’re likely to get very mixed reactions about living here ? for many of us, it doesn’t quite measure up to what we imagined college to be. Campus social life seems eternally threatened by apathy and negativity. It’s a puzzling result when one considers the strengths of the university ? a small but talented student body, quality facilities, world-class faculty in a wide range of fields, innovative undergraduate programs. It is a school at which we should be proud to be.

Yet, for most of the students most of the time, Rochester is a place to get a nice degree and move on to bigger and better things ? a place to leave behind. And that has repercussions for the university ? it is not a coincidence that alumni donations remain embarrassingly low, far below rates of comparable institutions like the University of Chicago or Washington University in St. Louis. The fates of the city and the university are inexorably intertwined ? neglecting the greater Rochester community ultimately harms the university itself.

In August, another class of freshmen will roll into campus, books and computers and TVs in tow. They’ll get down and dirty on Wilson Day. And once it’s over, perhaps they’ll understand what university leadership does not ? there’s more to UR than just a university. There’s also Rochester.

Templeman can be reached at ktempleman@campustimes.org.



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