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What effect do colleges and universities have on their neighbors, and how do these collisions reflect larger political, economic, and racial dynamics? Recently, Public Seminar’s co-executive editor Claire Potter sat down with urbanist Davarian L. Baldwin to discuss his new bookIn the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities (Bold Type Books, 2021), to hash out what these relationships do to reshape our cities.


Claire Potter [CP]: What brought you to this topic in the first place?

Davarian L. Baldwin [DB]: I was born and raised in a small factory town, Beloit, Wisconsin. But Beloit is also home to Beloit College. That transition from an industrial to a service or knowledge economy? I lived it before it had a name. Then, as the introduction to the book lays out, I was at the University of Chicago conducting research when history hit me smack dab in the face. I was confronted with a protest on the part of residents of a historically Black community. I found out that the university had not only targeted, but purchased, lifted, and moved the historic Checkerboard Lounge blues club from the Bronzeville neighborhood to their own Hyde Park neighborhood.

Being a scholar, what did I do? I started asking questions.

I found that this one 2003 purchase and relocation was only an indication of the degree to which the University of Chicago controlled significant portions of the South Side. In many ways, it was the prototypical example of what I later called “the univercity:” an educational institution that was one of the largest employers, landholders, policers, and healthcare providers in the area.

These institutions engage in our cities and towns in ways that we are not examining. Having a background in American studies and focusing on the kind of relationship between culture, political economy, and race, I thought: “How could I be trained the way that I am and not turn my attention to these critical issues?” This was an opportunity to deploy that training in a way that mattered.

CP: So, when do urban universities decide that, instead of trying to confine students to campus, they’re going to colonize the area around them and habituate that area to university life?

DB: This happens around the 1990s when we see the “back to the city” movement. You have empty nesters, young professionals, and retirees taking a different stance after decades of urban divestment by white people. At the same time, you have municipal leaders like Rudy Giuliani and others launching “quality of life” campaigns. This includes draconian policing, underwriting the transformation of warehouses into loft housing, kicking people with mental health issues out of sanitariums, and turning those buildings into high-income housing. Municipal leaders capitalize on the back-to-the-city movement, and cities compete for this potential tax base.

Simultaneously, universities, especially in cities, face a rapid decline in state expenditures for higher education. You get public money no matter what kind of school you are in, public or private. And so, we’re finding shrinking budgets and shrinking earmarks for higher education.

So, you have cities that want to capture these returnees and young professionals to stay. And what’s their idea of a city? Fully wired, walkable, lectures, waterfront developments: basically, a campus. Schools are also trying to devise new revenue streams. So, you have this moment of interest convergence between city leaders and university administrators.

CP: And places like NYU and Yale and Harvard are also flush with cash, right?

DB: Some schools are flush with cash, but cities also underwrite development. We’re seeing a transfer of public dollars to private development, but now that entity is a university. In the middle of this is the rise of the knowledge economy. After the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, schools could use federal money to turn their research and development into intellectual property, with royalties returning to the school. Private investors in areas like pharmaceuticals, biotech, and military defense weaponry also want to partner with urban universities because of their access to trade, transport, and labor.

The former president of NYU, John Sexton, called it a transition from fire to ice: the economic system of finance, insurance, and real estate, FIRE, became ICE—information, culture, and education. ICE became the new face of real estate, finance, and other existing endeavors. Universities became the facilitators of capital because of the presumption that they offered a public good and could engage in private, for-profit practices with minimal public scrutiny.

These workshops for research and development are also producing millions of dollars in royalties that go back to the school. And yet, the buildings where they’re performing this work are tax-exempt, even though tax dollars from these enterprises should go to surrounding neighborhoods to pay for things like secondary education, snow and trash removal, and infrastructure development. So, there’s a direct relationship between the very prosperity these institutions celebrate and sell to their investors and their cities and the poverty or impoverishment surrounding these campuses.

CP: But as you show, there is very little public good because the people who live in those neighborhoods, most frequently poor people of color, are forced to move.

DB: Right. Univercities also bring in a particular lifestyle that caters to the needs and interests of investors in knowledge industries, not the people who already live there. It often pushes out lower-wage university workers—food staff, groundskeepers, low-wage staff workers—and faculty. Because they are now the largest employers, univercities can also lower-wage ceilings and suppress collective bargaining.

Furthermore, these land domains are now covered by campus police forces. Policing is a perfect demonstration of the public good paradox. If it’s a private school, the campus police also inherit the private entity exclusion from Freedom of Information Act laws. They are, in many cases, armed. They have jurisdiction far beyond the campus because of memorandums of understanding with city hall. They have arrest powers.

CP: And of course, one of the paradoxes of this is that—and I’m thinking of the young, white woman who was murdered up at Columbia—a tragedy like that is framed as a failure of campus security, rather than a failure of community investment.

DB: And what is the primary function of campus security? To police the campus. What are the most frequent crimes on campus? Sexual assault, theft, and substance abuse. Campus security does a horrible job of that because what school, urban or otherwise, wants to advertise that they have a campus full of white criminals? So, what do they do? They over-police the surrounding neighborhoods to signify to potential investors, parents, and consumers that the area is safe.

In 2019, I spoke to Senator Mary Washington, a State Senator in Baltimore, Maryland, and part of her jurisdiction is Johns Hopkins University. At the time, the former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a Johns Hopkins alum, was donating millions of dollars to push for a private security force to police West Baltimore. And Washington was saying, “Wait a minute. You have a world-renowned health complex, and your response is to create an armed private security force? So, why wouldn’t you engage in trauma and healthcare?”

Campus security is not about safety. It’s about brand management. For example, when I talked to students at the University of Chicago, they said, “Right now, there is a two-tier policing system whereby, if a campus student and a community member commit the same infraction, the student would see the Dean of Students and the resident would go through the criminal justice system.”

CP: There’s a modern Jim Crow aspect to it as well: these campuses, built-in communities of color, have beautiful lawns, libraries, and skating rinks that the community gets to look at but not use or touch.

DB: That’s right. I’m reluctant to use historical narratives broadly, but in this case, it’s apt. In 1968, Columbia attempted to build a gymnasium in the middle of the public Morningside Park. Harlem residents and students saw that it was built on a hill. At the top would be an entrance for mostly white Columbia students. At the bottom would be an entrance for largely Black and brown Harlem residents who would have minimal use of that gym. So they called it “Gym” Crow.

CP: Columbia has recently tried to do this again, this time empowered to take land by expanded eminent domain laws that address “blight.”

DB: Eminent domain originally signaled the legal right of a government agency to compensate an owner after seizing private property for public use, such as roads or utilities. However, a property or neighborhood must be deemed “blighted” before eminent domain can be invoked.

The term blight has its origins in the study of plant disease, but by the mid-twentieth century started being used to describe any perceived decay that might turn healthy neighborhoods into slums. But the perception of decay, as urban historians have shown, is often tied to an area’s racial or ethnic composition, not necessarily the area’s quality. As a result, African American neighborhoods have often been targeted.

In 2004, just before Columbia dived headfirst into West Harlem, the law changed. In Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court ruled that private property could be seized for a private entity if the project produces public benefits, including jobs, tax revenues, or neighborhood revitalization. Private developments that might or might not directly help or be accessible to local residents were now deemed a public service.

Columbia also colluded with a state agency, Empire State Development Corporation, to help fund a “neighborhood conditions” study that labeled the neighborhood as blighted. When the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, justices referenced the Kelo definition of public benefit to justify a ruling in favor of Columbia.

CP: What did your colleagues at Trinity College think about you analyzing their impact on the community?

DB: Trinity has a storied history of urban engagement on the teaching and development sides.

The closer and closer I get to the present, the more uneasy people are because I argue that an under-endowed institution like Trinity can use the language of urban engagement to stretch into the surrounding neighborhoods, meeting its interests at the cost of the community’s interests.

At the same time, what came out of these initiatives is an advocacy and policy-making initiative that I’ve created called the Smart Cities Lab. We’re helping communities all over the country engage with their campus neighbors, and Trinity’s president supports that. So, I think they know it’s been an uneven history. They know that we must do better. But I also believe that maybe we can get out in front of this and perhaps be a leader in engaging in transformative, equitable, university-based urban development.

But the story that I tell in the book is that the piece of what colleges do is shrinking compared to non-educational interests, and faculty are implicated in that. As my colleague Craig Wilder said after reading this book, he realized that teaching classes have become primarily a side hustle for colleges and universities. And because educational oversight mainly engages curriculum, all these other things that schools do—land management, healthcare, and policing—are not part of that, which they should be, because these public-private investments leverage the university brand.

Therefore, we must have a set of mission principles, and I’m working on this right now. Housing units must be affordable. There must be a community benefits agreement. We must, to the best possible degree, develop without displacement. Wages must be humane. There must be health benefits tied to these wages.

There’s also got to be a capacity to assess these partnerships, and that hasn’t been going on, even with my own school.

CP: So, universities must learn to share; if they’re going to get from the community, they need to learn to give to the community in genuine, not just cosmetic, ways. But what about government regulation?

DB: I’m trying to hammer out what this would look like. The Philadelphia Federal Reserve, which is engaging in an anchor institution initiative, has reached out to me. We’re at the beginning stages of thinking about how to lean in to the Carnegie evaluation structure. Carnegie used to evaluate and rank schools: so how can we work with them to create metrics whereby you rank schools not simply by endowment and educational quality but by the wellbeing of the neighborhoods in which they sit?

Second, to what degree are the laborers in campus buildings there for educational or for-profit purposes? Right now, I’m working with payment in lieu of taxes groups in Eastern Massachusetts and other parts of the country to push county assessors to evaluate that. We can push for community-benefit agreements that must be tied to profitable campus expansion, such as campus access for residents, free classes, and access to buildings. And some of this is going on at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.

We can put together community-planning boards: as campuses develop and grow into neighborhoods, they should come before a planning or zoning board to get approval before they can even break ground. And these boards can’t be advisory. They should have legislative teeth and enforcement power.

I believe there should also be, at the state and the federal level, agencies that monitor the activities of non-profit institutions. For example, if a state university purchases property in California, its authority usurps the local municipality. Berkeley is well-known for its strong rent-control protections. But when UC-Berkeley bought a rent-controlled, historically preserved building, their authority nullified Berkeley’s laws.

And so, when the residents were asking, “To whom do we appeal for this corruption?” they realized there’s no one. So now, that affordable, rent-controlled building is being converted into high-end housing for who? For international students who are full payers.

Arizona State University, when they saw the state education budget shrinking, realized that they were on tax-exempt land. So, they began leasing it to private entities like State Farm Insurance. Right now, the biggest private development in Arizona sits on university land. They’re able to do whatever they want to with that money, like build a football stadium, hire a former NFL coach, and pay him a competitive NFL-level wage.

CP: And, of course, the state legislature is happy because they can cut funding again and go to the taxpayers and say, “Look at what we’ve done.” What is one other thing that you would say the government could do to interrupt a dynamic moving under its own power right now?

DB: Number one, cancel student debt. Number two, it could fund free community colleges. Student loan reform would begin to balance out economic inequalities and put the brakes on universities competing.

Federal policy funds schools instead of funding individual consumers. What we call the amenities arms race, rock climbing walls, wading pools, is fueled not just by the competition for consumers but primarily out-of-state consumers and international consumers because they pay more. Schools are going into debt to create these amenities-rich campus environments to the detriment of the communities that surround their campuses.


Read an excerpt from In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, courtesy of Davarian L. Baldwin and Bold Type Books.


Davarian L. Baldwin is a historian, cultural critic, and social theorist of urban America at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). An earlier version of this interview first appeared on Claire Potter’s Substack, Political Junkie, on February 11, 2022.

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