Monday, March 23, 2009

Millcreek's Fading Civility

I'm going to break from my customary style and comment on something not directly related to higher education or learning (although I do think those of us in that field can learn something from the situation I will describe here).

I grew up in East Millcreek, a small township southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.  Millcreek was settled by Mormon pioneers who were drawn to the area by the resources of the creek that flows from the nearby Canyon (now known as Millcreek Canyon).  The area gained its name because of the variety of mills that sprang up along the creek.  It was these mills and the local orchards that supported the families that settled in Millcreek.  These were hard-working, blue-collar families that relied upon the creek and each other to survive.  In talking to long-time residents of the community (many who remember the days of operating mills and large orchards) there is very real sense that early Millcreek residents understood what it meant to be a neighbor.  They believed very strongly that how they lived their invidual lives and the decisions they made, had an impact upon the family down the road and the community as a whole.  

Millcreek has changed quite drastically in the last 10 years.  Because of good schools, quiet streets, and beautiful views of the foothills (among many other things) more and more people are "discovering" the area and purchasing homes.  This is a good thing.  Communities need new members and the ideas, young energy, and vibrancy they bring with them.  However, when an individual or family relocates to a new city or neighborhood, they are not just purchasing a new home, but becoming part of a new community.  With this comes a responsibility to seek to understand the history, traditions, and culture of that community.  That isn't to say that new members of a group should blindly accept all practices of that community (otherwise, how would meaningful change ever occur?), but there is value in "fitting in" without losing ones own unique identity or sacrificing all of one's own interests.  At the same time, existing members have a responsibility to be open to the new ideas, interests, and needs of its new members.

So, what does this all mean for East Millcreek?  I won't take the time to outline the current dispute among Millcreek residents (for more information see this Salt Lake Tribune Article for January 26, 2009).  In a nutshell, residents are divided over the issue of whether or not homeowners should be restricted in the size of homes that they build.  One group believes that home owners should have ultimate freedom to do what they want with their land, another wants to place restrictions on the size of homes that can be built in the township. 

 As I have observed all of this play out in the newspapers and among neighbors in my old neighborhood it has been a sad commentary on how we view community.  Essentially, we have become incredibly selfish.  In terms of the current issue in Millcreek, that selfishness is seen on both sides--it's just manifested in different ways.  Whether it is a new move-in acting in complete disregard to their neighbors and building an over-sized home that blocks sight lines and becomes an eyesore, or a long-time resident that refuses to acknowledge that a home built in 1945 may not meet the needs of a young family of 2009, the malady is the same--complete disregard for others.

For the record, I'm in favor of some sort of restriction and have a hard time swallowing the argument that the size of some homes in Millcreek prevent families from growing or expanding (I'm not a demographer, but my sense is that family size has decreased in the last 40-50 years so a need for larger homes seems illogical).  But, my own personal biases aside, I hope that Millcreek's citizens will step back and remember what it used to mean to be part of a neighborhood or community--dialogue, sharing, and compromise.

In terms of higher education, I think we see this same sort of demise on our campuses.  Generally, we have become very fragmented and siloed academic cities of sorts.   We make decisions unilaterally, have given up on building relationships across departments/colleges, and mostly think of our own well-being.    For recent examples of this sort of thing see the two Inside Higher Ed articles below:

I don't have any real good solutions, but a start would be exploring the work of Bob Putnam in Better Together.  Putnam outlines a handful of successful communities and there are valuable lessons to be learned from these case studies.  Additionally, if any readers have made it to the end of this much longer than intended post and have examples of successfully functioning communities, I would love to hear about them.  Like Putnam, I still have hope that we can build and sustain effective communities, but recognize that they are becoming increasingly harder to find.  

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