Staff Editorial: New university presidents should follow leading example in forging community relations

Georgetown University is located on the western edge of the historic neighborhood. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2015)

When students return to two Northwest universities this fall, they’ll be greeted by new presidents. Former Obama cabinet secretary Sylvia Burwell took over at American University this month, and University of Miami official Thomas LeBlanc will step in at George Washington University in August.

We’d like to take this opportunity to welcome both presidents to the community — and to acknowledge the history they’re about to wade into. Both universities have had contentious relationships with key community groups surrounding their campuses, marked by hard-fought battles over ambitious development projects. And while both George Washington and American have shown progress at working with community leaders, there clearly remains room for improvement.

We’d encourage Ms. Burwell and Mr. LeBlanc to look to Georgetown University as the leading local example of exemplary community relations. Georgetown used to have arguably the worst neighborhood relations of any local university, with complaints arising at seemingly every community meeting. Recently, however, university officials have developed their plans in close collaboration with residents — instead of making decisions internally and then trying to persuade other stakeholders to go along with it. This approach has resulted in better plans and speedy approvals of Georgetown’s zoning applications.

We’ve seen increasing evidence that the advisory neighborhood commissions bordering George Washington and American universities are interested in similar partnerships. Though we understand that the new university presidents will have a lot on their plates, they shouldn’t overlook the importance of community relations.