In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, by Davarian L. Baldwin (Bold Type Books, 272 pp., $28)
In this thought-provoking account of contemporary town-gown tensions, Davarian L. Baldwin writes: “when most of the United States had abandoned cities in the mid-twentieth century, higher education was one of the only institutions that remained.” These universities—either built on the urban-fortress model, like Chicago, or with buildings that jostle among others, like NYU—became ever more important to urban economies.
Meantime, as state funding for higher ed trended down, universities turned to real estate as a source of income, often snapping up properties near campus with an eye either to future expansion or asset appreciation. As commercial landlords, universities enjoy a competitive advantage in the property market, thanks to their nonprofit tax status. Acquiring properties also gives them considerable control of neighborhoods that aren’t even “part of” the university. Baldwin has a term for zones where, for better or worse, the university has become the dominant employer and property owner: UniverCities.
Baldwin points out some of the downsides for cities that find themselves in thrall to Corporate U. Colleges can present themselves to city residents as an amenity as much as a business: after all, it’s education. But for all their talk of community partnership and cultural sensitivity, they can operate from the same playbook as any shiny-suited developer—even up to demolishing historic elements they promised to retain. (Knocking something down overnight and blaming the contractors is an evergreen tactic). And their public expressions of sensitivity to social justice seem to evaporate when it comes to the hourly wages of campus catering staff.
Universities owning property isn’t new: through early investment and bequests over centuries, Oxford and Cambridge colleges own land throughout England. Similarly, town-and-gown conflicts go back to the first universities in medieval Europe.
There is something new, however, about the situation of universities in America’s postindustrial cities. In the later twentieth century, as cities grappled with a cratering economic base, urban campuses often found themselves surrounded by increasingly poor and minority neighborhoods and were forced to contend with the crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s. Colleges responded by beefing up campus security and putting emergency call boxes around campus, especially after the Clery Act forced them to make campus crime rates public. But these protective measures created friction with locals—not least in the implication that the “locals” were a threat from which students needed protection. The jurisdictions of campus police forces often extend into neighboring areas, so residents who never even set foot on campus can be subjected to searches and harassment by college cops.
Disparities of race and wealth continue to mark the relationship between colleges and their neighbors. Universities market themselves as oases where students paying $70,000 per year will be kept safe, but the “city on the doorstep” is a great draw for enrollment, too, and college catalogs and websites highlight their “diverse” or “urban” settings. That pitch sounds exciting to prospective freshmen, but it also whispers to suburban moms: lock the doors.
Universities also found themselves in prime position to take advantage of urban-renewal programs—thanks to which, for example, the University of Chicago demolished whole blocks in its environs. More recently, some colleges have secured eligibility for Opportunity Zone investments for their areas by counting their large numbers of “unemployed” students as low-income residents.
As major employers, universities can be a magnet for an educated workforce, providing an economic boost to any city. It’s not surprising that some cities practically begged the schools to extend their campuses and effectively help shoulder the burden of running troubled neighborhoods. And at first glance, university expansion seems like a better deal for a city than other urban-renewal boondoggles like convention centers or sports stadiums.
But Baldwin’s book is full of eye-opening accounts of behavior from university higher-ups, ranging from tone-deaf to outrageous, that might give readers second thoughts. The case studies range from wealthy global players like Columbia to Trinity College in Hartford, where Baldwin is a professor and runs the Smart Cities Lab, tasked with devising strategies for better urban relationships.
Among Baldwin’s suggestions is that universities, with their nonprofit status, ought to kick in something extra for the civic provisions they receive (trash pickup, emergency services, and public schools). On the face of it, this seems reasonable. He points to Boston and New Haven as cities where colleges make PILOT (Payment in Lieu Of Taxes) contributions but also notes that these payments amount to less than the property taxes commercial owners would pay.
Still, the assumption behind such schemes is that universities have cities over a barrel. They are both cultural attraction and major employer, so they must be appeased—but is that really true? Cities may have a better hand to play than they realize. Most colleges see their locations as an important part of their identity and vital to their ability to connect with alumni donors. Sure, the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles—but is Yale really going to move the franchise to Florida?