There are excellent philosophical arguments about why universities are expressions of the public good. They are accurate, time-honored and true. But the best demonstration -- and the most closely watched -- is how a university responds to its environment.
Before local budgets tightened in the 1990s, there was something sacrosanct about town/gown relations. Colleges were occasionally involved in partnership with local officials, especially if higher education leadership determined that a robust and appealing environment was in the best interest of the institution. Faculty, staff and students interested in community, social justice programs, or acting individually as good citizens contributed to the college's presence in the region.
The institution typically prepared an economic impact survey, often designed to answer questions about and provide justification for the continued tax-exempt status of the institution. But most colleges and universities behaved and represented themselves as isolated, magnificent "cities upon the hill" sitting in splendid isolation and quite apart from the communities in which they were located.