International town-gown conference focused on strengthening communities

Penn State President Eric Barron welcomed participants to the 2019 International Town & Gown Association’s City and University Relations Conference at Penn State's HUB-Robeson Center on the morning of May 20. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — More than 350 higher education and municipal government professionals from around the world convened at University Park and in downtown State College from May 19 to 22 for the 2019 International Town & Gown Association’s City and University Relations Conference. Featuring keynote speakers, educational sessions, and professional development certification classes, the annual event promoted collaborative discussion on strengthening town-gown partnerships and communities.

The International Town & Gown Association (ITGA) is a nonprofit group that connects and helps municipal and university leaders address opportunities and challenges between higher education institutions and the communities in which they reside.

“It was rewarding to co-host the ITGA conference along with our good colleagues in the State College borough,” said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs. “The conference allowed those attending to learn from one another, reinforce partnerships, and commiserate in ways that will positively affect the quality of life in their communities and on their campuses. Every attendee left armed with new strategies for addressing the challenges and opportunities before them, and it was a wonderful chance to display the unusually successful relationship enjoyed by State College and Penn State.”

The theme for this year's conference — “Collaborate/Adapt/Change: Evolving Together to Grow a Thriving Community” — addressed a range of topics and invited stakeholders from colleges and universities, government entities, and community partners to share promising town-gown practices.

Sessions centered around fraternity and sorority life, the challenges of drugs and alcohol, social justice, crisis management, lessons learned, and sustainable planning.

Over four days, presenters from more than 50 organizations — including private and public universities, local governments and agencies, and nonprofits — shared insights on their experiences ranging from promoting civil dialogue, to reducing misuse of drugs and alcohol, to deploying new sustainable modes of public transportation, to boosting economic and entrepreneurial innovation, and more.

During a keynote address, Penn State President Eric Barron discussed efforts to foster economic development within the local community and across the state. As conference hosts, Penn State and State College have grown side-by-side since the University’s founding in 1855 and have continued to collaborate on a range of projects, including local entrepreneurial efforts and job creation initiatives. Since 2016, more than 1,700 entrepreneurs have been assisted, 150 startups formed and 107 jobs created with the help of Invent Penn State, a Commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student career success.  

Nina Jenkins, left, a senior research associate in entomology at Penn State, fields a question at a session during day-one at the 2019 International Town & Gown Association’s (ITGA) City and University Relations Conference. Jenkins was joined on stage by Toddy Erdley, CEO of Videon, and Penn State President Eric Barron. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

“At our core, we want our students and faculty to succeed,” Barron said. “As a land-grant institution, Penn State has a long history of agricultural extension, but our entrepreneurial and economic initiatives also are examples of how we can continue to partner locally to invest in our students and faculty, and ultimately serve our community.”

Barron also led a panel conversation with three Penn Staters — Hunter Swisher, alumnus and CEO of Phosphosolutions; Nina Jenkins, research associate professor of entomology; and Todd Erdley, alumnus and founder and CEO of Videon — to discuss their personal experiences as entrepreneurs using town-gown resources such as Happy Valley LaunchBox in State College and the Penn State Small Business Development Center. Through Invent Penn State, the University has created 21 hubs for innovation that are spread across Pennsylvania.

To address topics of civil discourse and social justice impacting university communities nationwide, Leon Andrews, director of the Race, Equity, and Leadership Program at the National League of Cities, delivered a keynote on building more equitable communities where people from all racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds can thrive. In addition, John Hechinger, senior editor at Bloomberg News and author of “True Gentleman, The Broken Pledge of American Fraternities,” participated in a panel conversation on fraternity and sorority life.

During the conference, representatives from Penn State and State College presented on a range of topics, including:

  • Sustainable, affordable housing solutions through community-university-industry collaborations, such as GreenBuild and the Energy+ Program.
  • Integrating Penn State students into the State College community.
  • Addressing the serious impacts of State Patty’s Day.
  • Happy Valley LaunchBox and collaborative economic development in central Pennsylvania.
  • Trends in fraternity and sorority life and the impact of reform measures.
  • Best practices for implementing town-gown initiatives in large- and small-scale communities.
  • The impact of immigration policy on town and gown.
  • Applying university expertise to local challenges and priorities through the Sustainable Communities Collaborative.
  • Promoting healthy communities through programs like Centred Outdoors.

“The ITGA conference has proven to be a valuable springboard for sharing insight and learning from our peer institutions,” said Barry Bram, senior director for student engagement programs in Student Affairs. “I hope these valuable conversations and the relationships we’ve built this week can continue to serve as catalysts for strengthening and meeting the evolving needs of our universities and local communities.”

Local conference partners — including more than 80 campus and community member volunteers — included Penn State, the Borough of State College, Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the State College Downtown Improvement District.

Next year’s conference will take place in Boulder, Colorado, home to the University of Colorado. For more information about ITGA, visit

Last Updated May 23, 2019