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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, May 24, 2024

Tufts and its host communities: Won’t you be my neighbor?

Community members enjoy Community Day, an event sponsored by the Tufts Office of Community Relations and the cities of Somerville and Medford, on the Academic Quad in 2014.

Walking across campus, it is easy to forget that Tufts occupies an integral space within two communities, Medford and Somerville. The campus passes seamlessly over the dividing line between these two cities, making for a campus that feels completely removed from the surrounding community.

In reality, through legal affiliations as well as neighborly connections, Tufts is complexly intertwined with its host communities and has been for decades.

Jon Witten, a distinguished senior lecturer in the urban and environmental policy and planning department, spoke of the relationship between Tufts and the communities it occupies. 

“If you think about Tufts relative to Medford or Somerville … the footprint of the university holdings is so extensive, that it has a dramatic impact in the influx of undergraduate and graduate students [and] the influx of faculty and staff,” Witten said. “So, it’s a symbiotic relationship that is a very delicate balance. Because both the city and the university, they need each other.”

Relationships between local communities and universities can take on many forms. While both parties seek to work together, occasional butting of heads is inevitable.

“From the city’s perspective, the university creates impacts and from the university’s perspective, the university brings in thousands of students and generates a whole host of revenue activities,” Witten said. “So it’s this delicate balance between the kind of town-gown approach and that’s been historic [and it’s] not easily reconciled.”

One major factor in the relationship between Tufts and its host communities is taxation. Local governments rely heavily on tax revenue to function. According to Witten, property tax revenue accounts for almost three quarters of most municipal budgets. Nonetheless, Tufts pays little to no property tax on its expansive campus because it is legally classified as a charitable nonprofit. 

“In Massachusetts, there is a general property tax exemption for charitable institutions like religious institutions, educational institutions and several other nonprofit institutions … but universities almost exclusively in Massachusetts are tax exempt property,” Witten said.

Zac Bears, vice president of Medford City Council, explained the large effect this has on small governments like Medford. 

“Private colleges and private hospitals don’t pay property taxes … really the issue here in Medford, and especially across the state, are large colleges and universities and large hospital systems … [which are] billion-dollar institutions that have high demands on a community while giving back to the community as well,” Bears said. 

Bears explained that he believes the balancing of demands and contributions of large universities on small governments needs to shift. 

“If Tufts was taxed on its nontaxable property … it would pay $8 million to the city every year. We have a $200 million budget. That’s almost 5% of the budget, right? That’s not nothing,” Bears said. 

Tufts does, however, make an effort to give back monetarily to Medford and its other host communities in the form of Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT. 

“Many nonprofits that are tax exempt will negotiate with the municipality to make a payment in lieu of taxes, and it’s a good faith action. They are not required to do it. But as a general rule every year those PILOT payments are typically negotiated,” Witten said. 

Rocco DiRico, executive director of government and community relations for Tufts, explained how Tufts carries out its payments. 

“Tufts University does pay property taxes on several properties in Medford and Somerville. Each year, the university contributes more than $2,600,000 in property taxes and voluntary payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to our host communities,” DiRico wrote. 

Bears conveyed the burden of Medford’s lowered tax revenue and a sense of urgency to pass legislation to get universities and hospitals to pay a bigger share. 

“We [Medford City Council] are working on state legislation … pushing big university systems and hospital systems to pay some share between zero and 100% of their property tax burden, ideally around 25%. And that would really help a lot of communities. Still [tax exempt entities would] get a huge discount than what they would get if they were a business or a homeowner. But it could help out with police and fire services, health services, people who need assistance from our housing folks at City Hall.”

However, the relationship between Tufts and its host communities is more than just money. Tufts provides open recreational space as well as educational resources to the surrounding communities. These benefits of Tufts’ presence are not as tangible as money, but they are important to the relation between the university and its host communities.

“The municipality wants more money; the university isn’t going to pay … that additional money. So what is the university offering in exchange? Well, you know, it’s this beautiful campus that’s available to the public,” Witten said. “It’s a very informal, but really important, mutually beneficial relationship.”

DiRico expanded on the community benefits that Tufts has to offer.

 “Tufts University also provides financial support to more than 50 Medford/Somerville nonprofits through our sponsorship and Tufts Community Grants programs,” DiRico wrote. “Tufts also makes its athletic facilities open to local youth sports organizations including Somerville Youth Soccer and Medford/Somerville high school sports teams. Each year, we host Tufts Community Day, an event which attracts more than 3,000 neighbors for a day of music, arts, STEM education, and free food. We also invite our neighbors to attend concerts, movies, lectures, and other programs on campus.”

When it comes to supporting Medford, Bears expressed appreciation for the community benefits that Tufts offers, and how these benefits could be accounted for in Tufts’ monetary contributions to Medford.

“[We could] potentially set up a system so that 25% of what [Tufts] would pay could be split half as community benefits [and] half as money,” Bears said.

At the end of the day, Tufts and its host communities have to work together despite their differing agendas because they are dependent on one another. 

“I think it’s just about how we create systems and change behaviors so that you can build trust and build community together,” Bears said. 

Togetherness in this relationship extends beyond Tufts’ institutional interactions with its host communities; it often relies on student interactions with Somerville and Medford. While students generally only live in Medford and Somerville for a short period of time, Bears expressed that they possess power in how the community interacts with Tufts.

“Sometimes you get residents … who say, ‘Well, the students are transients, and they’re not going to be here very long. What engagement and license do they have in the community?’ I don’t care if you live here for five weeks or 50 years, it’s a place that you live,” Bears said. 

One way students get involved is by registering to vote in Medford or Somerville, which is possible even without being a permanent resident. Bears emphasized the importance of active voter participation.  

Bears suggested “being engaged with the issues and voting in the local elections, registering to vote … or advocating for the vision of what the Tufts and community relationship could look like and how that helps students.”

DiRico referenced ways in which Tufts supports and encourages students to get involved within their local communities. 

“The office of Government and Community Relations at Tufts University is eager to engage with students. We regularly meet with the Leonard Carmichael Society, the FOCUS program, and Tisch College students that want to volunteer in our host communities,” DiRico wrote. “Each year, more than 1,000 students volunteer at local nonprofit organizations.”

Above all else, Bears drove home the importance of student involvement, agency and action on and off Tufts’ campus, as well as working together to support the local Medford/Somerville community.

“I always think student activism and organizing is really important. … We try to show solidarity for those fights as elected officials who care about what’s going on at Tufts,” Bears said. “The place where we really could go next is for student organizations on campus to think about taking positions on issues affecting the community and saying … how they’d like to see Tufts act as a member of the larger communities that it’s a part of.”