Boston — On a recent Saturday morning, Northeastern University in Boston's Fenway gave away 4,000 flowering plants at an annual neighborhood beautification drive. ''It's a symbolic gesture,'' says Northeastern's president, Kenneth Ryder. ''It says, 'Let's work together to improve our environment.' ''
The Fenway Flower Box Project may seem like a little thing in the full scheme of courses, research, and activities undertaken by a large urban university. Yet it is indeed symbolic of growing efforts by colleges to plant seeds of goodwill in their communities.
For decades, even centuries, the town-gown relationship was seen more in terms of conflict and mutual suspicion than as a symbiosis - an interdependency nurturing both parties. But that term was used repeatedly by five Boston area college presidents to describe today's pairing of college and city.
The five men - heads of Northeastern University, Boston College, Tufts University, Boston University, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston - are among the scores of individuals in the Boston area whose gaze from the top of academia's ivory tower is turning ever more frequently to the city around them.
Boston is an education-intensive city in an education-intensive region. A quarter of a million full- and part-time students attend the Greater Boston area's 65 institutions of higher education - a higher concentration than anywhere else in the world. In that same area, education is the second largest employer after high technology.
In recent interviews, all five men said colleges are undertaking an ever wider range of services as their part of the town-gown interdependency. No longer satisfied with the community relations spokesman as mere trouble-shooter, many colleges now have staff members spending much of their time coordinating everything from community day care to neighborhood housing assistance and education programs in the city's schools. Most give preferential consideration to applicants from the local area, and many provide millions of dollars annually in scholarships to students from the Boston area.
In the eyes of Mr. Ryder, Northeastern's sense of service has its roots in the founding of the university by the Boston YMCA in 1898 as a night law school for young workers hoping to improve themselves. ''I'd say this school has been very much service-oriented since then,'' says Ryder, adding, ''we're constantly asking ourselves, 'What does this community of ours need?' ''
According to its president, Northeastern ''does what it can to give some social mobility to youngsters who, because of their poverty, feel trapped and without much hope.'' In addition to providing three first-year scholarships to each of Boston's public high schools, and 100 full scholarships to residents of Boston public housing beginning this fall, NU holds a summer ''academy'' for underachieving junior high school students. ''It's a subtle way of introducing these kids to college as something not beyond reality,'' says Ryder.
Much of the increased emphasis on service can be traced to the 1960s, according to Ryder, when an ''awakening social conscience'' led to better relationships between cities and colleges. In Boston, he says, the ''ugliness'' of the initial desegregation years taught colleges that they had a vested interest in working to solve the city's problems.
Striking a similar chord is the Rev. J. Donald Monan, president of Boston College in Chestnut Hill, a suburb of Boston. ''Before the '60s, most colleges thought of themselves as existing principally for the dissemination and discovery of knowledge. You didn't find many references to service to the larger community.''
But Fr. Monan, who has been in Jesuit college administration for 17 years, adds, ''I now doubt you could find a college or university that in its description doesn't include a sense of service to the surrounding world.'' Founded 120 years ago to educate the sons of Irish-Catholic immigrants, Boston College now has a student body that is about 75 percent Roman Catholic.
Much like the students of the '60s, colleges in that period struggled with the dichotomy of academic work and direct social intervention, says Fr. Monan. ''And the colleges resolved it much the way the students did - they found you could do both.''
The turmoil of that era taught colleges, he adds, that, while they could assist in many areas, they would be most helpful ''concentrating on our expertise, which is education.''
Like other colleges in the Boston area, Boston College is paired with one of Boston's eight neighborhood school districts as part of the 1975 desegregation order. ''And that's a mutual good,'' says Fr. Monan. ''The schools benefit from our presence, and we benefit from the experience our people gain from working with the schools.''
For Jean Mayer, president of Tufts University in nearby Medford, good town-gown relations are ''not something that happens naturally. You have to work constantly to maintain them, because there is an element of adversity built into the relationship.'' Universities, he says, are seen as ''big and rich'' at a time when cities are struggling to provide services. But he notes that Tufts provides its own garbage collection and security. ''We even bought a fire vehicle and donated it to the city,'' he adds.
One reason city-college relations may be better today is that schools have generally stopped - and in some cases retreated from - the rapid expansion of their campuses in the '60s and '70s when enrollments were climbing. Mr. Mayer, whose school has expanded beyond the original campus founded in 1854 to a medical center in downtown Boston, a veterinary clinic in rural Grafton, and a European center in Talloires, France, says encroachment into bordering neighborhoods has been a major source of friction.
''There is an idea that we keep expanding (the medical center) in Chinatown, '' says Mayer, ''but in fact we have given up some of the area the city approved in 1969 for our needs.'' He says the school continues to work with the Chinese community on housing and medical services.
On campus, Tufts is concentrating its efforts on ''summer institutes'' designed to help high school teachers improve and renew their methods, primarily in the teaching of liberal arts.
Seated in the elegant Dunn House overlooking the Charles River, Boston University president John Silber says he has no doubt that the Boston schools have improved since they were paired with area colleges. A controversial figure who offered in 1981 to run the schools for the city, Mr. Silber rapidly ticks off other benefits Boston derives from his school: cleaner neighborhoods where its housing and other buildings are located, a drug use treatment center, and millions of dollars in scholarships to Boston residents.
BU draws thousands of students from all over the country and the world, and for many of them the city is a major draw. ''We're attracting youngsters who like the idea of spending four years in Boston,'' Silber adds. Stating that the city-college tie ''has the permanency of the parent-child relationship,'' he adds, ''We owe each other a great deal.''
Mr. Silber eagerly offers an inch-thick report detailing BU's contributions to the city, the centerpiece of which is the cooperation agreement signed with the city in 1980. In it, BU pledges that, among other things, it will take no tax-producing property off the tax rolls unless it adds an equivalent new taxable property.
The University of Massachusetts at Boston is the youngest of the five institutions surveyed. As its chancellor, Robert Corrigan, says, ''We're just now celebrating our 20th anniversary, in a city that celebrates by centuries.''
But its young age, coupled with the fact that it is a public university located adjacent to some of Boston's poorest neighborhoods, appears to have heightened the school's determination to serve its community.
Chancellor Corrigan says he takes the land-grant colleges of the Midwest as his model. Those public universities, he says, ''were developed not only to serve educational needs, but they made their research and services available to the surrounding agrarian communities. I see us as a kind of urban land-grant college.''
He notes that the school's graduate program in environmental science carries out substantial research on Boston Harbor, and that the school's Institute for Learning and Teaching is working closely with city schools to improve teaching and curriculum.
The school has helped develop an adult literacy program, and projects in the public schools that work to motivate underachievers and potential engineering students.
But according to the chancellor, the school's most important contribution may be in helping to ease tensions in the racially polarized neighborhooods that skirt the Columbia Point campus.
''The average household income for our students is less than for the city of Boston,'' says Corrigan. ''I think we are seen by blacks and whites as an important institution for serving that sector. We play a role in bringing together the people of those neighborhoods.''
On one point all five presidents were adamant: Boston's colleges are not an economic drain on the city they inhabit. They noted that while much attention is given to the fact that more than 40 percent of Boston property is tax exempt, few people realize that college real estate makes up only about 3 percent of that total.