United We Stand: Town-Gown Relations In One Of The South's 'Best College Towns'

Danville's recent ranking in Southern Living magazine as No. 6 on a list of "21 Best Southern College Towns" may have caught some by surprise. For me, it's a well-deserved honor that's been a long time coming.

Having served as the president of Centre College in Kentucky since 1998, my perspective is tempered not just by 18 years in this warm, welcoming community but also by comparison with the 17 prior years my family and I spent in another great Southern city: Richmond, Virginia.

Danville may not have all the offerings of the other towns listed -- recognizable places such as Knoxville, Savannah and Williamsburg. However, the folks at Southern Living made clear that they weren't just looking for brand names. Instead, they preferred towns they deemed "hidden gems" that are home to "schools exploring truly exciting academics and research that promise to reach the wider world."

Do Danville and Centre meet these criteria?

I'd offer a resounding "yes." But don't take my word for it.

This is what we heard from the more than 3,200 media personnel from 1,500 news organizations in 40 countries who were here for the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11, 2012, when Centre and Danville were at the center of the political universe for the second time, after a successful debate in 2000.

Praise for Danville's charm and hospitality was also offered in 2010 when patrons of the World Equestrian Games made the drive from Lexington to Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts to hear the world-renowned Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, an event made possible by sponsor Alltech. The performance caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times, but not because they found it such an anomaly for a famous orchestra to be in Danville. Instead, they claimed it was "just one more in a long line of successes for a college that consistently punches above its weight."

Such positive sentiments are also echoed by the families of our students, who hail from 45 states across this great nation and such diverse countries as Burma, China, Germany, Japan, Northern Ireland and Vietnam.

In fact, the growth of our international student population the last several years has provided new opportunities for what is often called "town-gown relations." Some 8 percent of our 1,400 students are now from other countries.

Our Center for Global Citizenship has already distinguished itself for reaching "the wider world" through one of the nation's top study abroad programs, sending an average 85 percent of Centre students on educational adventures across the world that solidify their credentials as global citizens upon graduation.

A more recent effort involves working with local Danville families who open their homes and their hearts to more than a hundred often homesick international students who welcome a home-cooked meal, a place to stay during holidays or the opportunity to be adopted as an honorary son or daughter, brother or sister.

Imagine the international goodwill created when families half a world away learn about American holiday traditions like Thanksgiving because their sons and daughters had their first meal of turkey, dressing, and mashed potatoes and gravy with a gracious Danville family.

And this typifies the strength of our town-gown bond. We all work together for a common good.

Intentional or not, I'd like to think that Centre and Danville do so guided by Kentucky's motto, which is literally part of our local DNA. "United we stand, divided we fall" claimed the brave pioneers who founded our commonwealth on June 1, 1792, in the spot now memorialized as Constitution Square. Nearly a quarter century later, in 1819, Presbyterian leaders founded Centre, with Kentucky Gov. Isaac Shelby serving as first chair of our Board of Trustees.

While the capitol has since moved to Frankfort, Centre's roots in the community have only grown deeper.

But like this great nation, which constantly strives to become a more perfect union, Centre and Danville must never rest on their laurels.

America's best college towns will continue to thrive only to the degree that campus and city stand united for a common good that benefits the local and the global. I'm confident that together our best days are yet to come.