Reviving America, One College Town at a Time with James Fallows


I recently sat down with James Fallows to discuss his Washington Monthly article about how the symbiotic relationship between colleges and their communities has reaped rewards in Erie, Pennsylvania, Waterville, Maine, Muncie, Indiana, and all over the United States. James is a longtime correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and is the author of numerous books including “Our Towns” (2018), which was also made into an HBO documentary. Previous to that, James was the editor of U.S. News & World Report, and he served as President Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter for two years.


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Summary of the Conversation

Higher education makes a big difference in how the surrounding area prospers or doesn't. From Muncie, Indiana to Erie, Pennsylvania there have been various ways that universities have taken ownership of the success of the towns they're located in. Gannon University in Erie integrated almost all of its training programs and practical business partnerships into the town of Erie. Colby College in Waterville, Maine recognized that a century ago, Colby had been saved by the city of Waterville. So one hundred years later, Colby paid back that favor by investing heavily in the city itself.

The breadth of factors that allow smaller US communities or de-industrialized communities to recover is quite broad. It ranges from things like physical location, to whether climate changes are going to help or hurt a community. But there's also a way in which communities can work with educational institutions to improve their situation. Colleges and universities are often tied to their communities in ways that can either help or hurt one another.

In the town of Muncie, Indiana, an incoming president of Ball State University decided that if he was going to come to Ball State, what he cared about was having the community and the university rise or fall together. A university or a college can't thrive in the long run, separated from its community. One of the ways that the University of Redlands persuades people to go there is by emphasizing that, unlike some other colleges, in Redlands you're connected to the community itself. The University does sustainability projects with its students and they have a very inventive public service project that involves teaching in the schools.

Many colleges and universities need to make sure they have an adequate flow of people coming in, and having community and a real culture makes an institution feel whole, and not just a place where people live. It makes all the difference in the world to have people not just there during working hours and then driving away, but who are actually living there. Students and teachers and business people in the community want something that they are a part of.


Full Transcript

Ian Evenstar: Let's get started with just a little bit of context. What was the impetus for writing about the potential of college towns in America's revival?

James Fallows: So I think the long version background was that over the last 10 years, my wife and Deb and I had been traveling around the country in our little propeller plane looking at smaller towns and or smaller towns or left behind, quote unquote towns, saying what were the traits that distinguished the ones that were making it from, the ones that were not. And there are a lot of things that have nothing to do with higher ed that was involved in that. But there were a couple of things that did specifically involve higher ed, and one of them was the way in which. Colleges and universities of different kinds, either big research universities with all they bring to a town, or liberal arts colleges or even two-year colleges, the way in which they've become this era's version of a port or a river confluence or something.
That was a huge natural advantage for towns to use and how the symbiosis between colleges and universities and communities, how that was evolving.


IE: Did that insight stem from the work that you were doing on the "Our Towns" book and documentary?

JF: Yes, so it was the breadth of factors that allow smaller US communities or de-industrialized communities to recover is quite broad. And it ranges from things like physical location and whether climate changes are going to. Help or herd a community and whether the agricultural base is rising or falling or whatever. But also there's the intentional way in which communities can work with educational institutions to draw students to a town, to draw faculty members to a town, and to increase and maximize the existing traits of the town. Just to give one example, We spent a lot of time in Fresno, California, and those of your listeners who are from California, like me, will recognize that Fresno is part of the interior. It's one of the less Malibu-like parts of the California landscape. But Fresno State, which is there, and some other institutions, have been working with the agricultural establishment all around Fresno to say, "What is high-tech ag? What are ways in which we can have people whose parents might have been field workers become entrepreneurs or tech people?" So yes, seeing that in our towns work extended to saying more generally, how are the fates of colleges and universities tied to their communities and the ways they can either help or hurt one.


IE: I know in the article you talk pretty specifically about how the last five decades where you see many blue-collar industrial towns like Erie, Pennsylvania shrink in population because manufacturing or other businesses have left and yet, these same towns, some of which have seen a revitalization over the past decade because in part of these local colleges. So you speak a bit about the intentional ways that the institution can be part of this. Revitalization. Can you walk us through some of those intentional ways?

JF: Yes. And can I take a detour to Muncie, Indiana? So the way in which I think this issue became into sharp focus for Deb and me was about a year ago when we were in Muncie, Indiana, which as many of your listeners know, is the home of Ball State University and Muncie. The town of Muncie is famous in sociology as the site of the Middletown studies, and a century ago it was famous in manufacturing. Anybody who's ever used one of the Ball Brothers glass jars for canning or beer cans these days knows about Muncie and the home of Ball State University. And over the last couple of decades, Muncie had been a sort of industrial town, Midwestern classic decline that many older industrial communities had been through and over the last, now less than a decade, last say six or eight years. A new president of Ball State University, Geoffrey Mearns, and his wife decided that if they were to come to Ball State, what they cared about was having the community and the university rise or fall together, that if Ball State were to succeed, Muncie itself had to become a more vibrant and attractive place for students, for faculty members, for administrators. And so Ball State launched something that is still to the best of my knowledge, unique in modern U.S. history, which is a public university taking responsibility for a public K-12 elementary school system in the city of Muncie. Boston University and the Chelsea schools, as many people know, did that before, but that was a private university. And so that got her attention on how a college or university can try to sort of make its own luck for the people around it. And that led us after a number of months to Erie, Pennsylvania, where we'd been many times. And Erie is a place that has tried many ways to get ahead, including welcoming refugees, but one very important part of its formula has been Gannon University, a private Catholic university, which also declared that its future was Erie's future and vice versa. That if Erie didn't prosper, then Gannon could not as well. And under its president, Keith Taylor over the last number of years is really thrown itself into the community with benefits for both of them.


IE: So from Muncie to Erie, you've seen a couple of very specific ways that the university has taken ownership of the success of these small towns, and I like that idea that we rise and fall together.
And we're mutual partners in this endeavor. In the case of Gannon University, did they also take interest in the public K through 12 system in Erie?

JF: They didn't have the same kind of formal takeover that Ball State did in Muncie, and again, I don't know of any other case in the US right now of a public university taking over the public schools.
And it was a whole kind of dance of legislation process they did in Indiana to get community involvement to state the state government's involvement, the Ball State involvement. With Erie and with Gannon it was more of an organic and less structurally formal connection. Where Gannon University, for example, decided that its new dormitories and classroom buildings would be downtown. Erie, like so many places in the US, had all this development on the fringe, and the old historic good bones downtown was being increasingly hollowed out. And so Gannon, which was downtown, decided we will put our money where our heart is, and our money will be in building new buildings downtown. Gannon has sponsored a big project making itself a research center on the role of the Great Lakes in America's climate-changed future. There's a whole separate analysis about whether America's next coast will be the Great Lakes coast. Whether Toledo and Sandusky and Erie and Buffalo, and places like this, we'll be favored by climate, as opposed to disfavored by climate, as they have been for so long a time. Gannon integrated almost all of its training programs and practical business partnerships with the town of Erie and ways in which there could be apprenticeships in a non-exploitative way, business partnerships, and all the rest to make to have students learn about business innovation and to have them learn it in Erie and with Erie business people. And the idea was Gannon's strategic problem like many smaller colleges and universities would be if its surrounding town continued to deteriorate, people wouldn't come there. Not administrators, not faculty members, not students. So if they could make Erie a more happening place for all of those people, and place for research, a place for culture, a place for a sense of the future. Then again, you have the rising tide, you have the virtuous circle as opposed to the vicious circle that some places.


IE: In addition to these two examples, have you looked at other towns where you've seen a success model such as these?

JF: Yes. And I'll mention another that I also discussed in the Washington Monthly. That's Waterville, Maine, and Colby College. And Colby, of course, is a well-known private college. I'll say that I had known of Waterville in the long run for extremely oddball reasons. When my wife was in high school at a small high school in Ohio, she decided that she was too big for this little town, and she wanted to go off to boarding school. And there was one of those boarding schools, then in Waterville, Maine, in this gigantic sort of decaying Charles Adams-style Mansion in Waterville, so she was there for a year. Waterville has had its ups and downs and it has been like, again, many northern manufacturing towns had seen the business base of its employment go away, the mills go away. Colby College recognized that a century ago, Colby itself had been saved by the city of Waterville. Colby had a sort of constrained location between the railroad tracks where it couldn't grow. It was thinking of moving to Augusta and the citizens of Waterville, these working-class people from a mill raised money to buy Colby the location it still has up on a higher elevation, a very attractive place. And so Colby thought, this is our karmic duty, that Waterville when we needed them a century ago, helped us. Colby will help the town now. Among other reasons for the self-interest of making Waterville a place that people who might otherwise go to name two dozen other fancy private colleges. Instead of going to those places, going to Amherst, let's say, or going to Whitman College, or any of the other places would think, "Yes, Waterville is where we want to go." So they invested and raised money for downtown improvement, for dorms downtown, and for a cultural center downtown. So I think that Waterville, Maine, and Colby College are places to go to see what this symbiosis can look like.


IE: Those are excellent, really nice examples there. You mentioned that oftentimes this is more of an organic relationship or development versus a structural or focused strategic plan. Given the nature of it being somewhat organic, is there actually a specific recommendation that you would provide to say a president or a provost who is looking or considering making an investment in the town.

JF: That's a great question. Thank you. And I've been thinking about this in background processing, for years, and for the last while knowing I was gonna talk with you. And I think it involves I think a three-tier connected, instead of approaches by higher ed leaders. One is simply the mindset of recognizing that where you are for better and worse becomes who you are. A university or a college can't thrive in the long run, if separated from, walled off against its community. We can all think of higher education institutions that have tried to do that, I could name you ten right now, but I'm not going to, of places that decide, "Come to us despite our being in place X." And so the change of mindset is to realize that it needs to be, "Come to us because we're in place X, and place X is where you wanna be, where you wanna spend your career, the next four years, the next two years," etc. "Place X is where you'll expand all of your opportunities. You'll make connections. You'll see the world." So first is that mindset of thinking that we don't happen to be here, we are here. We are of here, that this is us, and the place is not just in our name, the place is our identity and our future. And that we're going to be really rowing against the current in the long run if the current is moving against our place, as opposed to our finding ways to reverse the current, if you will. A strained metaphor but you can at least stop a negative current. A second consequence of that is simply a rhetorical one of having the presentations within the institution to the community and to the larger world be "institution and place", as opposed to those being two really separate things. So that the institution is of the place, people coming to the institution are going to that place. The institution wants them to feel as if they're in that community. Its welfare matters to them. It matters to everybody. So first there is the thought. Second, there is the word. Then third, there is the deed of having ways to connect classes, faculty members, students, and applicants to the surrounding environment. I'll give an example from my own hometown of Redlands, California, which is in inland Southern California near San Bernardino. Most people know it as they're driving on the way to Palm Springs from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. They'll go through Redlands, but if you're in Redlands, rather than going through Redlands, you'll see that the University of Redlands has been trying increasingly to have people think the reason to come here, not Whittier College, not Occidental, not Claremont, not Pepperdine in Southern California, is because we're connected to this community. We're doing sustainability projects with our students. We have a very inventive public service project to do in the schools, which are very ethnically distinct schools. It's a mixed Anglo, Latino other community and the university is playing a part in that. So I think thought of recognizing the university's fate in the community. Word, in saying that. And deed, in doing it with students, with faculty, with programs with cultural institutions, with anything that can make the institution and the place whole rather than separate, that is my hope.


IE: You outlay a very nice three-step plan, and I love the idea of thought, word, and action being those three pillars of what goes into that plan. I also love this beautiful quote that you left us with, which is where you are, becomes who you are and you are of here. And just having that recognition I think is very poignant. So let's assume, I'm gonna take your counsel here and put thought word, and action into play. Why would I do that? What lay out some of the rewards that the institution would then receive in return?

JF: I think it's, again, that's an excellent question and it involves, as with so many other things, the tiers and the unequal structures and incentives of American higher education as American life, etc. There is a tier of institutions that are so rich and have brand-name, and established pedigree, they could argue they don't have to care about place-based issues. I think that's shortsighted for any of them. And I'll give an example. My wife and I have lived many years of our life outside the US. We lived in China for about four years, lived in Japan for many years, and aspirational students who are ambitious in those countries, of course, go through the dreaded US News ranking list, side note, I was once the editor of US News. So they look through all these lists of name-brand American universities and it does matter in their decisions where they are. That, is it a place where there are parents who hear about the US as a place of violence and threat and carnage and all the rest, is it someplace where their students want wanna be? So even the richest and most favored institutions even they are affected by their locations. But if you exempt about, 8 or 10 really rich institutions from the thousands of US higher institutions, basically, all of the rest. Number one, a part of who wants to come there involves where they are. Where will students be living? What will students be exposed to? What else will they learn when they're not studying? So for students, how will their parents feel? Will their parents feel? Children going there, coming back for events, et cetera, et cetera. So one is simply remaining attractive for the great majority of American colleges and universities that are not the subject of this crazy admissions pressure but need to make sure they have an adequate flow of people coming in. Second, crucially, is for faculty members. And it's not simply whether faculty members will take jobs there. It's whether they will live. And it makes all the difference in the world as your audience knows, to have people who are not just there during working hours and then driving away, but who are there and you see 'em in the restaurant and you see 'em in the grocery store and you see them on the street and they feel as this is their community.

And that was something that, that David Green, the president of Colby, was telling me that made all the difference in building up the sense of Waterville as a town, that faculty members wanted to be there. They weren't commuting from Portland, they weren't commuting from even suburban Boston if they were doing it for a couple days a week, but they thought they were of there. So having the kind of community and culture that makes an institution, especially small liberal arts colleges, really any of them feel whole and not just a place where people work, but that they are a part of, that's why "place" matters. And then I think there's also the sort of the more dollars and cents issue. Higher ed of all kinds: research institutions, community colleges, liberal arts, you know what, whatever part of the spectrum you're on, they make a big difference in how the surrounding area prospers or doesn't. There are spinoff businesses, there is training for students, and working in local enterprises. There is an attraction for people to come there because they have a certain kind of workforce. There just is a synergy that comes with students and teachers and business people in the community being able to do something. So I think in terms of attracting students, attracting faculty who want to be there as opposed to working there and being part of a growing rather than declining a region. Those are all ways in which it's in the direct self-interest of the people who lead higher education to care about where they are in the broad sense, as opposed to where they are in the moat-like sense.


IE: Yeah, that's a very thoughtful and thorough answer, thank you. It made me think of, so my alma mater is USC and it made me think of a few key decisions that I observed while I was considering going to USC, one of which is that they owned the beautiful, pristine Malibu property where Pepperdine is, and they made a strategic decision to leave Malibu, the beautiful heaven-like place in California and go to downtown Los Angeles, which at the time was less than desirable. And then even once they moved the campus, they made a strategic decision not to advance or develop any of their residential college west of a street called Hoover, which gets into West LA and some of the more affluent parts of Los Angeles. And they made a concerted decision of, we're actually gonna develop north of toward Figueroa toward downtown and then east of Figueroa into again, parts of the less than desirable places of LA, and that was a huge commitment and maybe at the time was seen as an unwise decision when you're looking at the asset of the land in Malibu or the asset of building into a more affluent part of Los Angeles. And I'm sure that at a certain point in that trajectory and that development and that strategic plan, places to live and how they were developing was less than attractive to faculty or students or parents. My question gets to this idea of, in that transition, how do you make it attractive for faculty and staff and parents to buy in or live residential in that?

JF: So Ian, that is a fascinating example, and let me ask you just to follow up, who was, what was the leadership? Who was the leadership of USC at that time?


IE: During the time when they decided to advance east of Figueroa Boulevard and North toward downtown, that was President Steven Sample. And then prior to that tenure, I'm not sure who made the decision about Malibu, but I do know that Moving East was part of the development, economic development council's kind of collaboration that they did with USC.

JF: I grew up in Southern California but in a different part, away from Los Angeles. I grew up 70 miles east and in San Bernardino County. And so I always had the kind of rubes sense of Los Angeles and I'd go in to watch USC versus UCLA games at the Rose Bowl, etc. But I looked with some trepidation at both of the institutions, but I think that was a really, my guess, is that historically that will be seen as a wise and foresighted move for USC. Difficult as it might have been at the time, because as you think of similar examples in New Haven with Yale and in Greater Cambridge and Somerville and Alston with Harvard and for the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, ways in which universities that have a lot of assets decide that they're going to take onto their shoulders some of the responsibility for the larger metropolis. I think universities that have tried to do that as opposed to walling themselves off, and I have two big examples in mind that I'm not going to use, but one of them is in the Midwest. I'll just leave it at that one of them is in the south.

History will recognize leaders and their trustees and the other people who worked with them as having done the right thing for their institutions, for their communities, for the country, for their student body, of recognizing that you can't exist as a little globule in a surrounded troubled area. Your responsibility and part of the challenge for your students and part of your opportunity in education in all of its senses is to make the communities welfare a part of your welfare too. So I really admire the big institutions that have taken on responsibility for surrounding, often troubled communities.


IE: Agreed. And maybe in your answer there, what I inferred is that it requires vision and so maybe, and a bit of trust. And so maybe just communicating that vision to those key stakeholders, to your, that desired faculty or research faculty member that you're trying to recruit. Getting them to see part of that vision and be willing to make the sacrifice alongside you.

JF: Yes. I think that part of the Mission of university leadership is again, the sort of thought, word, deed sequence of having the words that let people understand their institution's best future. And, I think that in the three examples we've been talking about before Colby College and its leadership in Waterville, Gannon University units leadership in Erie, and Ball State and its leadership in Muncie, Indiana, each of those leaders has gone out of his way to speak within the institution, to big gatherings of higher ed within the community, to state legislatures, to the national media saying, "Here is why we're taking this difficult, and expensive and potentially risky step." Anything that matters in life is potentially risky. If it weren't, everybody would do it. And it's so making the case, giving people an idea of why. Both what the vision and possibility are of how a community could be better if the university does its job. What the practical steps are of what we're gonna do next year and 10 years from now, and here's where your money is going to go. And also then what the consequences are of how things can be, would be different for the university in the future if it goes in the broader way, rather than the narrower way. And I'll just mention each of the cases because it's interesting in how you present the information. Again, in Colby's case the president, David Greene could say, "It was a century ago that Waterville saved us. Now we are going to help Waterville." There was that historical continuity. In the case of Gannon with Keith Taylor, he could say, "When this institution was founded and named for Archbishop Gannon", I believe it was a major Catholic figure in Erie, its role was to provide opportunities for working people in this part of the world, and now we're going to find ways to do that. In the case of Ball State and Geoffrey Mearns as president, he was saying, when the Ball brothers donated this land to form a university, roughly a century ago, they had an idea of their duty to this area, now we are returning that that obligation, not that favor, but that responsibility. And so I think that arguing "Why this is necessary, what the plan is, and what it can lead to." Those are things where university leaders have a responsibility and an opportunity.


IE: So you covered responsibility and risk, but then also the reward of making both the town and the gown a priority and some of the factors on how to convey that message. I love that. Is there anything else you would like to add or share in terms of guidance to those listening?

JF: I have been to college, but I'm not of the academy. I went to graduate school for a couple of years. I've taught a number of times at universities for one semester or one year-long writing courses, which I've enjoyed, but I'm a guy outside the culture that you are in the center of here. So as an outsider, but as a citizen, I will say that what I hope university leaders, and by "university" I mean all institutions of higher ed research, other four years, two years, private, liberal arts, whatever, people who have standing as leading the training for America's future. I would hope these people would recognize the combination of opportunity and responsibility. Opportunity in that, this is a time where, as some people might have noticed, authority is under challenge and doubt and what is actually true and etc. There is still a better standing that university leaders have than most people to make a case. They're not immediately dismissed as partisan. They're thought to have some credentials behind them, etc. So there's the opportunity to be people who speak for the larger interest of the country and the community. And there's the responsibility that somebody has to do this, somebody has to speak for your town and your state and for your institution and so I would hope that. There are phases in American life where university leaders are more outward-looking, talking about the fate of the community, and more inward-looking because the house is burning down, you need to do something about it. And I know that there are still fires to be put out all over academia from enrollment changes to whatever else, and I admire people who are doing that firefighting drill. But while they're dealing with the fire, I hope they also would recognize that they have really unusual opportunity and responsibility to talk about these larger interests of education and civic life. Education and economic opportunity, education and inclusion, education, and all these different things. There are not a lot of groups in American life about whom I say this, but, I would like to hear more from university leaders rather than less.


IE: What's next for you? Are you going to continue this line of research and expose or do you have other plans in mind?

JF: One of the things that's good about the writing life, which I've pursued since I was in college and long after that is you get to your business is learning about the next thing. There's been a sequence of things I have learned about from our time in China and Japan and elsewhere when I worked in the technology world that I retain an interest in and keep writing about. Then there are new things I wanna keep learning about. I retain a long-term interest in talking about what are the ingredients in local-level American possibility, inclusion, and wholeness. In journalism, you're in the business of learning about new things but continue to pay attention to the old ones. So I still pay attention to China where I lived, and Japan and the technology world, and Deb and I are going to continue to pay attention to the elements of local-level renewal versus decay because it is crucial to American politics and American economic opportunity and dealing with China and everything else. I'll say that in the 10 years that Deb and I have been doing this, it's interesting that what we've written about places like Erie or Fresno has gone from being in the views of New York and DC, it used to be, "Oh, isn't that cute? And isn't that like the world's biggest cow made out of butter at the Wisconsin State Fair?" Or something like that; to recognizing that this is the key to American growth and resilience. So we have a little foundation called the Our Towns Foundation where we continue to write about these issues and have other people write too. Also, there are continuing things that I'm writing about. The future of local journalism is something that is much on my mind right now and seeing, and finding ways to deal with that. And the next stage in US and China dealings. So local renewal, local journalism, and US and China are the three next things that are on my mind.


IE: You likened this quote, this sentiment to the life of a writer, but I'm gonna quote you because I think that for the student, the higher ed professional, and the academic, Business is learning about the next thing. Your business is about learning the next thing. And I think that's a call to action and also a clear sentiment for all of our passions and endeavors in this life. Thank you again for this time, James. This has been a lot of fun for me. I've learned a lot. What's the best way for someone to connect with you or continue to follow you?

JF: So thanks so much, Ian, for the opportunity and for letting me be in touch with your audience, your diaspora. I have my main blog on You'll find my thoughts and everything from aviation safety to technology for transcribing interviews. The foundation site Deb and I have is called


IE: Excellent. Thank you again, James. It's been amazing to sit down. Always a pleasure to learn from great minds and a true pleasure to have this time with you today.

JF: My pleasure.


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