Waterville revitalization highlights Colby/Thomas relations

Written by Kiernan Somers and Peg Schreiner

On October 8, Laurie Lachance, President of Thomas College, and David A. Greene, President of Colby College, spoke together at a Business Breakfast Series event hosted by the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce. At the event, the two discussed both colleges’ plans for investing in downtown Waterville and how each school would continue to build upon and strengthen the Colby-Thomas relationship. Recently, with Greene at the helm, Colby has invested heavily in Waterville, purchasing four properties near Main Street and spending well over $750,000 in the area.

WEBgreenandthomas

Photo Courtesy of The Morning Sentinel (Photo by Michael G. Seamans)

Currently, Thomas is partnering with local businesses and the prominent Harold Alfond Foundation to examine how Thomas can best complement  and aid Colby’s work on Main Street. Lachance commented that Thomas has been conducting market research concerning workforce issues and small as well as family-owned businesses with the goal of supporting entrepreneurship.

The scope of each college’s investment in the downtown area is just one lens through which many of the drastic cultural, economic, and social differences of Thomas and Colby are highlighted. As the colleges continue to work together on an administrative level, they are attempting to bridge the gap between the two institutions.

The colleges have worked together in the past; however, not on a scale comparable to that seen in the revitalization effort of Waterville. Last year, Colby announced a partnership with local civic, cultural, and business leaders, to support the revitalization of Waterville. According to the Downtown partnership website, the steering committee will receive “leadership and support from Colby College…undertaking a planning effort aimed at building on existing efforts to further establish downtown Waterville as a vibrant, dynamic destination for residents, visitors, and businesses.” This partnership has been heavily influenced by the Colby administration, with five Colby executives serving on the 23 person steering committee. Multiple articles have been written on the topic in both The Colby Echo and The Morning Sentinel, however, Thomas College is rarely mentioned and their contributions are often overshadowed by Colby’s commitments to the downtown area.

The current relationship between Colby and Thomas is multi-faceted. Although  the administrations of each college continue to collaborate on large-scale projects, interaction between students is rare. On October 7, Colby and Thomas jointly organized a conversation surrounding racial identity in Central Maine. The initiative was led by faculty and students at both colleges and was a unique opportunity for students from each community to meet and interact in an official setting. An anonymous and random survey conducted by the Echo found that multiple students felt that the discussion was one of the first positive interactions they have had with Thomas students. When asked, Thomas students also viewed the discussion positively. peopleattables

The event was the second in a series of community conversations that have been organized by each college’s administrations with the goal of increasing collaboration between students. A press release from Colby stated that a third event is in the planning phase and will be held in February in downtown Waterville.

Despite the productivity seen in some of the organized interactions between students from Colby and Thomas this semester, there remains a certain tension regarding some of the more informal social interactions between the two schools. In an interview, Colby’s Senior Associate Dean of Students Jed Wartman reiterated a notion that has been voiced by many students of the College when he said that he hasn’t “thought about the relationship between the schools as being negative until this fall,” when the administration had been made increasingly aware of incidents at the Alfond Senior Apartments. Wartman detailed that his sense of the situation was that “early in the year, there were a couple of incidents in Alfond with people who were not guests of anybody—or did not seem to be—and an association was eventually made with Thomas.”

Director of Security Peter Chenevert confirmed that Thomas students have been negatively implicated in events on the Hill: “Our office has gotten calls that [Thomas students] have been harassing students, but by the time the officer gets there they have already left. There was one incident with [Thomas] students in Roberts lot, in which an officer approached them and they refused to give any information, so the officer called the police.” However, the students fled the scene before the police arrived.

Chenevert also noted that Security is “familiar with incidents of Thomas students picking fights with Colby students at the Alfond Apartments.”

Chenevert said that after any problems occur on campus, he contacts Thomas’s Chief of Public Safety Jason LaVerdiere, who has been “extremely receptive and responsive.” Security can also take an additional safety precaution of issue a “trespassing warning” to a person if they seem to pose a significant threat to the campus community. This process begins with a written warning, either issued by the College or Waterville police, that says the individual has caused issues on Colby’s campus.

According to Chenevert, if the trespassed person comes back on College property during their warning period, which is usually in effect for a year, they get arrested. Trespass statistics given to the Echo state that three people have been trespassed so far this semester, which is on par with past years’ averages. Additionally, Chenevert said that there are usually more complaints, and ultimately trespassers, made about suspect adults rather than students from other colleges.

Despite Thomas students creating fewer issues on campus, statistically, compared to other outsiders, many Colby students seem to believe that their presence is threatening to both the College’s safety and social scene. Chenevert said that he has heard some students generalize Thomas students as being troublesome, but “it is just one or two students who spoil it for everyone and cause trouble,” thus creating negative stereotypes.

When a random sample of anonymous Colby students were surveyed by the Echo about stereotypes that either they or their peers hold of Thomas students, the responses were extremely varied. While some students said they “have never met a Thomas student,” others said that they frequently see “a bunch of them on Saturdays” at the Apartments. Of the responders who claimed to have a familiarity with the presence of Thomas students on the Hill, many described the other students as being “rough” and “aggressive,” but also acknowledged that “no one [at Colby] makes an effort to become friends with them,” and instead act generally “unwelcoming.” Another resounding notion from Colby students was that “we don’t go there, they come here.”

Terhune commented that he finds it “unfortunate that the trespassing issue and Thomas stereotypes get muddled.” Chenevert agreed that student views are often unwarranted, and said, “there have even been issues blamed on Thomas kids where they, in reality, had nothing to do with it.”

Negative stereotypes, that may suggest the efforts on an administrative level to connect the two colleges have not gone deep enough, also exist from a Thomas perspective. When asked about their perception of Colby students, an anonymous random sample of Thomas students gave responses that highlight socioeconomic differences between students at the schools. Respondents regarded Colby students as being “rich and snobby,” “preppy with nice cars,” and recipients of a better education.

In regards to the presence of Thomas students in the Colby social scene, one student said “not very many people go to party there,” whereas another said they want to go every weekend. Another student admitted that he does not “know a damn thing about Colby, it’s so close, but so far.”

Terhune said that while he has not heard much of any negative relations between students from Colby and Thomas, he thinks that overlap should be welcomed to the extent that Colby students feel safe and comfortable with it. “We are not inclined to post trespassing signs, though that is different from having an expectation that [outsiders] can freely come to your hall or party,” Terhune said.

In response to where the College should draw the line between allowing public access to events and keeping non-community members out of private social events, Chenevert said: “we are working on our relationship with [Thomas], but we draw the line when individuals come up here to cause trouble. If they are up here and invited and being respectable, that’s great. We get concerned about the ones who aren’t invited and create conflict.”

Tensions between the two schools have also spilled over, and affected planning, for official events. In the past, Colby has traditionally initiated conversations surrounding collaboration between the schools however, Wartman commented that “three or four times throughout my career here there has been bubbling up of this topic, it has never really come to fruition…receptivity [sic] to it has always been positive, but we wonder if there is actually enough interest.” When interviewed by the Echo, many Thomas students reacted positively to the prospect of increased collaboration between the two schools. The opportunity exists for the schools to collaborate in areas not centered around diversity, yet little action has been taken. “The colleges should be in communication with each other about opportunities, but there are probably places within each college where energy and resources are better spent,” Wartman said. He continued, “I would rather be doing things in service of Colby students, but it is important to have awareness where there are opportunities.” Wartman went on to highlight the fall concert as an easy way to be inclusive.

Across the country, other college clusters have been developed in areas where there are a number of higher education institutions. Oftentimes these consortiums allow students to participate and engage with each college academically, where classes at each college are open to students from each school, or extracurricularly, where students participate in multi-college athletic teams or college clubs. Some of the most well-known consortiums include The Claremont Colleges in California, the Five College Consortium in Massachusetts, and the Tri-College Consortium in Pennsylvania.

The greater Waterville area is home to four colleges including Colby, Thomas, Kennebec Valley Community College, and Unity College, in addition to some of the top high schools in the state. There is obvious potential to form a multi-institution consortium in order to increase collaboration between the colleges. With renewed efforts to create a downtown space that will benefit both schools, the time has come for a collaboration between Colby and Thomas to be taken seriously. However, any efforts on the administrative level will be futile unless students dismiss their stereotypes and approach each other with open minds.