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Universities Are Plundering Cities. How Can This Relationship Change?

Scholar Davarian L. Baldwin discusses how “UniverCities” occupy — and reshape — local spaces and local economies.

"Although non-white people have been central to campus wealth, they remain largely marginalized from ... educational access, neighborhood governance or resource sharing," Baldwin writes.

Part of the Series

How do universities relate to the cities in which they are located? How does the expanding corporatization of higher education fit into the conversation about how universities occupy — and reshape — local spaces and local economies?

Davarian L. Baldwin, the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College, is the author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities (Bold Type Books). This very well-written and provocative book discusses what Baldwin refers to as the rise of UniverCities, a phrase which signals the complicated relationship between higher education and urban life and reflects how universities are shaping today’s cities in grossly inequitable ways, with class, racial and deep financial implications. Baldwin’s timely book adds to the growing body of scholarship examining the corporate refashioning of colleges and universities. In this interview, Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt and Bertin M. Louis Jr., co-editors of Truthout’s Challenging the Corporate University series, speak to Baldwin about his work, diving into the concept of UniverCities and exploring what an equitable relationship might look like between a university and the town it occupies.

Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt and Bertin M. Louis Jr.: Are UniverCities essentially modeled after the logic of for-profit corporations?

Davarian L. Baldwin: My notion of UniverCities includes a discussion of what we call the “corporatization” of higher education but also exceeds the normal framing of that discussion. On one side, yes, the ramped-up retreat from the public funding of both public and private higher education forced schools to look for new revenue streams. Many became, in their own words, more “entrepreneurial,” marked by soaring tuition costs, corporate-funded research, the early push for cost-effective online learning, and the growth of a contingent faculty labor force. But on the other side, this narrative suggests that a sort of pristine higher education was corrupted by economic concerns instead of the new face of late capitalism. We must understand the degree to which colleges, universities and affiliated hospitals drive today’s dominant knowledge economy by bringing their research to the private market and, by extension, as the largest employers in cities and regions across the country.

Greater focus on the knowledge economy frame helps us understand my notion of UniverCities, which marks higher education’s growing control over urban development and political governance in, specifically, urban America. In this context, the campus as an urban form becomes the central vehicle for wealth capture, not just for schools but for financial institutions and the state. The campus exempts real estate expansion and private corporate partnerships from taxation. The campus converts the profitable labor of students into work study or apprenticeship status which, until recently, made this work exempt from collective bargaining. The notion of campus safety further protects the above wealth extraction by deputizing private police forces with public authority and uneven public accountability.

In short, my UniverCities concept is best framed by the knowledge economy instead of corporatization. Because here, the campus has not been corrupted, but in fact, the campus form is the clearest vehicle for value capture as city blocks are converted into what one developer calls “knowledge communities.”

In your introduction you state, “There is no question that higher education institutions can deliver positive community outcomes for their cities. But the central question remains: What are the costs when colleges and universities exercise significant power over a city’s financial resources, policing priorities, labor relations and land values?”

It is obvious from your analysis that the “growth” that universities claim comes at the cost of adversely and disproportionately impacting communities of color (particularly Black and Latinx communities). How should our neoliberal universities address this imbalance, both for low-income minoritized citizens living in these cities and for students who face financial hardships? Furthermore, what are the racial implications of UniverCities?

So first, we must dismantle the presumption that there is a stable divide between the so-called town and gown. As I try to lay out in my book, the very prosperity that we see on campuses ensconced in ivy, glass and steel is directly extracted from the public wealth, knowledge and labor power of the many times impoverished host communities. At a basic level, these imbalances are rooted in wealth extraction, so they can be remedied through reparations. Reparations include scholarships for the descendants of the enslaved and Indigenous whose labor and land made these institutions possible. Reparations means addressing the collusion between universities and both private real estate developers and state agents in the 20th century segregation, demolition, and displacement of communities through a redistribution of university land and its resources. Reparations can also mean pro-rating endowment and property tax exemption based on university commitments to community-driven engagement and investment. These are just a few examples, but the bottom line here is whether its wealth, land, curricula or historical markers, we are talking about a new vision of “shared governance” where aggrieved communities (which goes beyond simply blood-verifiable descendants) must have a binding say in the university prosperity they help generate. The racial implications for this are direct and profound because while non-white people have been central to campus wealth, they remain largely marginalized from campus possibility whether that be educational access, neighborhood governance or resource sharing.

In your book, you write: “Despite the clear racial disparities of a two-tiered system, schools all across the country looked to [University of Chicago] as a model for policing urban campuses.”

Post-George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and calls for creating anti-racist universities and large student protests about the outcomes of campus policing, what has changed? How have private universities responded to these protests while also garnering support from politicians and political forces for increasing police presence (sometimes an armed police force, as endorsed by Michael Bloomberg)? Are there ways in which minoritized students, faculty and staff have been retaliated against due to protesting racist police and policing policies on university campuses?

One of the most powerful results of the Black Spring protests of 2020 was that the broader movement for police abolition turned its attention to higher education, which brought greater light to existing campaigns like Cops Off Campus. Many universities continue to increase their police forces in the name of servicing surrounding Black and Brown communities or deputize health workers and instructors in the name of abolition. But it’s organizations like the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and others, that call out these tactics and demand a real framework of divestment from militarized policing and investment in trauma care, living-wage jobs, and housing and food security as real public safety, to start.

Private schools like Amherst College and Tufts, or public schools like San Francisco State have been pushed to form task forces or even mandates towards some form of abolition. But we will see. After massive movement work, Johns Hopkins was forced to put a hold on their massive private police department. But during the current backlash to Summer 2020, they are seizing on resentments to restart the policing process and they are not alone. Black and Brown residents pay the biggest price. Community members of color are racially profiled and stopped by campus police at rates that far exceed their population. At the same time, all across the country, students and staff of color have told me stories of being overpoliced because they look like “locals.” They are also attacked and profiled for protesting general campus policing practices or the very notion that the presence of local (non-white) residents on campus should justify heightened policing. Meanwhile, women of all backgrounds pay the price from over-policing the perimeter and under-policing the campus because addressing largely white-on-white crimes like sexual violence and assault would tarnish the brand of the institution. The only solution is divest/invest.

A significant focus of your book is on urban universities and the ways in which urban universities exploit their cities while claiming urban revitalization and growth. What about universities and college campuses located in rural spaces? Are they plundering the rural communities in a similar manner?

As an urbanist, my primary focus remains cities and their neighborhoods. But there is no question that the issues I explore apply to both college towns and rural communities. This plundering includes the expansion of campus police jurisdiction over entire counties or states. We see the encroachment on rural lands, which includes Indigenous reservation areas. There is also the appropriation of local farming techniques and seed cultivation into intellectual property by agricultural schools for the bioscience market. But the rural story is one that is ripe for further study and political coalition building.

Have universities fundamentally shifted their mission from serving the common good to serving the neoliberal and corporate interests creating “unjust” universities?

I think universities have ramped up a focus on their profiteering interests, whether that be to counter the state divestment in education, to gain great power and profits with private partners, or both. But, as historian Craig Wilder has pointed out, this contestation between the profit university and the people’s university goes back to the U.S. colonial period and its slave economy. At the same time, the pushback against this unjust university is also hardly new. In periods like the revolutionary 1960s, there were visions of a broader campus community that included police abolition, affordable community housing on campus, free education, and other elements that go beyond some of today’s seemingly radical platforms. But one thing that is vital about previous blueprints is that most never advocated tearing everything down but instead advocated for a reconstruction and redistribution of knowledge and resources driven by a common vision of higher education, an abolition of current conditions.

Many universities and colleges opened during the COVID pandemic, forcing faculty, staff and students to return to campus to serve corporate interests (housing, food services, etc.). How have these UniverCities capitalized on the COVID pandemic?”

Yes, I lived this! But my privileged capacity to self-protect in this pandemic has far exceeded the capacity of the so-called “essential campus workers,” a status which perfectly aligned with the conditions of low-wage and contingent campus workers who are most vulnerable and easy to exploit. COVID-19 simply amplified an already existing exploitative relationship that has now been brought into the stark relief of life and death. Campuses placed service workers on furlough, many times with limited benefits. They are pushing fiscal austerity measures while simultaneously stuffing CARES Act money into record high endowments. Schools capitalized on social distancing to shift curricula towards more labor-suppressive (and hence cost-reductive) online learning. In expensive cities, where graduate students depend on university-owned housing, administrators refused to freeze or reduce rates. Elder and immunocompromised faculty have been refused online teaching options and forced into retirement while replaced with more precarious labor.

But the travails of COVID-19 extend beyond campus work. Residents in West Philadelphia made clear to me the health risks that come with introducing thousands of students, with various health care practices, into an already vulnerable Black community so schools can capitalize on tuition, residential life and retail revenues.

How have Trinity College, where you work, and other institutions reacted to your work? What reactions were you expecting?

I think surprising to me, Trinity has actually been quite supportive, providing the seed money for my now very busy Smart Cities Research lab. The broader university reaction to the work reveals the stratified nature of campus communities that defies the caricature of “radical snowflakes.” Administrators have largely tried to ignore the work or counter with their “good” projects because they can’t contest the research. Many tenured faculty resent that I am broadening the battle beyond faculty concerns with academic freedom, shared governance or simply faculty housing. Junior and contingent faculty and graduate student workers are energized and mobilized as the book came during a vibrant strike wave across campuses. Except for places with unions, campus service workers remain silent in fear of reprisal or find ways to give me the head nod of approval. And most powerfully, community groups have pushed me to convert this research into advocacy because while they live the stories that I tell they say the book confirms their experiences and makes them feel seen and part of a story that is bigger than anecdotes and single campaigns.

So now, through my lab, I am all over the country organizing with groups drafting state policy for property taxation, fighting for affordable housing and just campus labor conditions, working with medical professionals to ensure that university hospitals honor their indigent care mandates, advocating equitable occupancy and use of campus buildings, writing campus histories to push for reparations, drafting new “urban citizenship” curricula, designing social footprint mapping techniques to assess university wealth and reach. This blending of academic and activist labors has been just as transformative for me as for anyone else and now I see this as the core of my vocation, in the highest sense.

If universities were to take your argument about inequality and exploitations seriously, what are steps that UniverCities can take to address the issues of inequity raised in your book?

Hmmm, I think I have covered much of this in previous questions. But I will give an example that I discuss in the work as an additional example. I was blessed to spend time at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. And there, administrators created a vision of sustainability that included not just the environment but also social, economic and cultural matters for a campus situated in an Indigenous and multi-racial, immigrant community. So, this meant building housing that was not only LEED-certified but also available to both students and community residents with price points ranging from premium rate to rent-geared-to-income without a reduction in quality. Sustainability meant placing the new recreational center under a community charter that guarantees community use of the facilities during peak hours. Sustainability also meant getting rid of one of the food service multinationals, like Aramark or Sodexo, and creating the independent Diversity Foods where 65 percent of workers come from “marginalized” communities with the push for profit-sharing and 70 percent of supplies come from small family operations within a 100-kilometer radius. Now to be clear, even this model has its limitations as many residents from surrounding neighborhoods still find it hard to gain full access to these resources. In fact, University of Winnipeg professor Jim Silver realized that most Indigenous residents would never come to the main campus. He raised independent money to convert a dangerous boarding house into a learning annex with affordable housing right at the heart of the Indigenous North End community. The point here is that there are no guarantees in any of these projects, but the capacity to organize around a different set of values and the resolve to have those values reflected through the infrastructure of another university… it is possible.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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