The Rise of the UniverCity

Davarian L. Baldwin

As they come to resemble corporations, universities increasingly wield the kind of power and influence that were hallmarks of ruthless employers in isolated company towns. Historian Davarian Baldwin calls this ominous trend the “rise of the UniverCity.”

The 1.25-million-square-foot USC Village residential complex in Los Angeles.

Interview by
Meagan Day

From New York’s Upper West Side to the South Side of Chicago, and from downtown Phoenix to the entirety of New Haven, universities are remaking American cities in their image.

In his new book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Cities, Davarian L. Baldwin examines how urban universities are straying from their purported mission of educating students and fostering innovation for the common good. Instead, their activities are increasingly oriented toward capital extraction and accumulation — at the ultimate expense of working-class urban residents.

Davarian Baldwin is an urbanist, historian, and cultural critic. He is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies and founding director of the Smart Cities Lab at Trinity College. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Baldwin about the enormous and unequal impact universities have in the realms of employment, real estate, policing, and health care.

Meagan Day

In your book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, you compare university towns to company towns. You looked at New Haven, Hartford, New York City, Chicago, and Phoenix for examples of this dynamic, though it’s hardly restricted to those places. How big of a footprint do schools have in these and other university cities?

Davarian L. Baldwin

Columbia and New York University (NYU) are two of the biggest landholders on the island of Manhattan — so large that, at one point, they were actually only surpassed by the Catholic Church. University of Southern California (USC) is the largest private employer in Los Angeles County. The University of Chicago fields one of the largest private security forces in the world, with jurisdiction over fifty thousand nonstudent residents on the city’s south side. Yale University and its hospital make up one of New Haven’s largest landholders, and Yale deploys a private armed security force with policing jurisdiction over the entire city.

So the physical and economic footprint can’t be overstated. But I also think about footprint in terms of influence. The political authority of Columbia in West Harlem, NYU in Greenwich Village, Washington University in St. Louis, and Arizona State University (ASU) in downtown Phoenix are astounding. They have the ability to either flout or rewrite zoning laws and to shelter millions of public dollars on campus acres. Ultimately, we are witnessing higher education’s gaining control over not just economic development but also urban governance, a process I call the rise of “UniverCities.”

Meagan Day

The trade-off for that kind of influence is supposedly that universities make cities vibrant places to live. What kinds of changes come with university expansion? Who enjoys them, and who misses out?

Davarian L. Baldwin

University development often involves commercial corridors like University of Chicago’s Harper Court, or USC Village, or the Shops at Yale. We can expect new construction and facilities like the gleaming towers of St. Louis’s Cortex development, or Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, or the glittering glass and steel that we see in the proposed partnership between Virginia Tech and Amazon in Northern Virginia.

Some of the change is undeniably worth celebrating, such as when the long-standing Pittsburgh Technology Center actually cleaned up a brownfield that had been polluted by a former steel company. And there’s no question that universities bring people and ideas together and promote innovation.

But there’s also a cost for those living in the shadows of these ivory tower developments. These expansions raise housing costs and displace residents in neighborhoods that are largely filled with working-class people of color. Campus police forces surveil and profile those same residents and are rarely held to public account. Higher education also has broad control over a city’s labor force, which it uses to lower wage ceilings and suppress collective bargaining efforts of low-wage support staff.

“Economic impact” is a phrase that universities love to use in their press releases. They talk about increasing prosperity by boosting local economies, raising housing values, and creating secondary enterprises. But we must ask: prosperity for whom? The retail price points are targeted toward the demographic that boosters hope will be drawn to these areas, not the existing residents. The job creation is often overstated, flying above the capacity of existing residents. And housing quickly becomes unaffordable for people who already live in the area.

For example, in the 2000s, Johns Hopkins University displaced 742 black families to make way for its mixed-use biotech park. The school now brags about the $36,000 housing subsidies they offer that will allow their workers to come back and purchase housing on the site, calling this “community engagement.” But the housing subsidy is precisely how gentrification is packaged at Johns Hopkins, because it underwrites inflated housing costs, which are unaffordable to previous residents who don’t happen to be employed by the university.

The subsidy is also not available to the lowest-wage workers, who are subcontracted and hence not direct employees. In this case and others, “community engagement” or “community development” is a misnomer, because the area is often never returned to the “community” that lived there before the campus development washed over the area.

Meagan Day

You observe that universities have, in many cities, “become the dominant employers, real estate holders, health-care providers, and even policing agents in major cities across the country.” Can you give us a brief overview of the problems with the way universities operate in each of these four capacities?

Davarian L. Baldwin

When it comes to land, higher education’s physical footprint is primarily tax-exempt. Meanwhile, more of the work done on campuses, in terms of research and development and even property management, is becoming for-profit. Revenue from research for private companies and the potential royalties that go back to the schools from IP (intellectual property) discoveries are all covered by tax abatement, because the work is done on campus. So, campuses have become wealthy knowledge factories, and a portion of that wealth comes from the tax-exempt status of land.

Private enterprises know this. Eli Lilly at Princeton, State Farm Insurance at ASU — they do their business on campuses because it provides them a tax abatement and gives them a financial edge in their competitive markets. The real issue here is that the prosperity tied to universities is directly extracted from the taxes that would normally go to public services for cities, like secondary schools and public works. And then the residents eat the financial burden through inflated property taxes and increased rental costs.

University of Pennsylvania is a perfect example of this. It has a $15 billion endowment that’s tax-exempt, and it has property that is tax-exempt. Meanwhile, in the Philadelphia public schools, the walls are filled with asbestos. There’s a direct correlation between the maintenance upkeep that the public schools can do and the property taxes that do not come from the university. And then the university brags about its economic impact, bringing prosperity to the community.

As for labor, we need to talk about both graduate labor and low-wage labor. On the graduate side, you have these public-private contracts with companies like General Motors or Bombardier or Google or Western Digital. The company donates money, which underwrites cheap research and development for them by the brightest minds in the world. Companies would have to pay more for it if they directly employed the researchers, but as it stands, the labor gets written off as an educational cost. Meanwhile, if the research produces a lucrative discovery, schools keep 50 or sometimes 60 percent of royalties just because the work was performed on campus.

Low-wage labor is the primary form of employment at universities. We’re talking about groundskeepers, food service, support staff. In many cases, they don’t receive a living wage and are employed on a nine-month cycle, which also leaves their families without year-round health benefits. Increasingly, these workers are starting to unionize, and they’re winning contracts that are much better than what nonunion workers get. But over time, universities are shifting their employment strategies away from directly employing workers to hiring subcontractors, where workers don’t benefit from those union contracts. Subcontracting is a powerful way to sidestep negotiated benefits and wages.

Now, let’s talk about health care. University hospitals are tax-exempt, largely in exchange for offering indigent care. But in real time, these universities are closing down community clinics and ramping up boutique high-profile units specializing in cancer research and plastic surgery. Meanwhile, the hospitals make it hard to find out about the indigent care subsidies and services they do have, since it’s not profitable.

In 2006, in Chicago, Damian Turner suffered from a gunshot wound just blocks away from the extremely prosperous U Chicago hospital. But they didn’t have Level 1 trauma services. So he had to be transferred eight miles away to another hospital, and on the way, he died. Residents, community activists, and students protested for years, and now there is a Level 1 trauma center at the U Chicago hospital. But that was only because of protests, direct action, and campaigning, and because the optics were just so bad.

Low-wage workers in these neighborhoods often find that they can’t access the care they need. Or they discover that they can’t afford it, even in cases where they work for the school and get their health care from the school. So they go into debt, and then the institution will garnish checks and even pursue liens on homes. And again, the hospitals are being underwritten by subsidies contingent on providing public services for the community, which they are not upholding.

University of Chicago police officers on campus. (Chicago Maroon via Twitter)

Finally, there’s policing. A full 75 percent of schools have campus police. Nearly all carry guns. Nine out of ten have arrest and patrol jurisdiction off the main campus. The claim is that this is a display of their public service, their willingness to pitch in for public safety. But let’s look at the reality of campus policing. The biggest problems on campuses are sexual violence and substance abuse, and campus police are utter failures in policing those crimes. What school wants to publicize that they have a campus full of white criminals? Instead, they police the perimeter neighborhoods around the campus to assuage parental and investor anxiety about being in these urban locales.

In reality, increasing public safety in surrounding neighborhoods would mean food security, housing security, trauma care, and other things that universities are actually disrupting rather than ensuring. Campus police do not meet the safety needs of neighboring communities, because that’s not their goal. Their goal is to protect the school brand by keeping silent about campus crime and ensuring that residents will behave in accordance with the university’s interests. These practices often set the table for expansion that will ultimately result in displacement of those same residents.

You basically have private police forces with no public accountability. The result is a two-tier policing system whereby a student and a resident can commit the same infraction, but the student goes to see the dean and the resident goes through the criminal justice system.

Meagan Day

You write that, “In times of meager state funding, colleges and universities have had to find new ways to shore up their fiscal stability. Urban development is higher education’s latest economic growth strategy.” Your book emphasizes that there is no ideal past when the university was a purely benevolent presence. Still, something happened to send the modern university careening in this direction. What developments led us here?

Davarian L. Baldwin

In many ways, what we call the corporatization of the university, or the neoliberal turn, was a response to powerful social movements from the liberation era of the 1960s, where students and communities came together to reimagine the university as a community institution. Across the country, students and residents fought for tuition-free college, against gentrification and displacement, and for curriculum that would be of political and practical use to working-class people of color. These social movements were trying to make both public and private higher education beholden to the communities in which they were embedded.

The backlash saw the shift of public dollars to private service providers. This includes the funding of individual students as consumers in the Higher Education Act of 1965, which created the private loan market instead of directly funding schools and led to a spiral of individual debt. It also caused schools to compete with one another over students by presenting campuses as amenities packages, as well as ramping up out-of-state and international student targets at a higher tuition price point.

Additionally, for the last three decades, and especially after the Great Recession, we have seen education subject to state austerity measures. So state expenditures have plummeted from covering about 60 or 70 percent of a school’s annual budget to now about 20 or 30 percent. And, let’s be clear, both public and private schools receive public money, so both saw no choice but to raise tuition and diversify their revenue streams — or, as they say, become “entrepreneurial.”

Another aspect of these developments is the interest convergence in the 1990s, when the children of suburban sprawl, young professionals, and empty nesters began to seek out a more urban experience. City leaders started competing with one another to attract the tax base and consumer dollars of this new urban demographic.

These new residents wanted a particular urban experience: coffee shops; museums; fully wired, urban density. They associated an urban experience with university life. But schools had become bunkered in educational fortresses, creating an economic boundary between themselves and what was at that time called the “urban crisis.” They were islands of prosperity in seas of poverty. And so a lot of schools actually lacked the amenities that were being associated with this desirable urban environment.

The interests of university and city leaders converged, and the college was reimagined as a palatable and profitable version of a safe urban experience. From there, they began to turn the city into a campus.

Meagan Day

Universities are broadly understood to exist for the purpose of education. Your book questions that premise. To what extent has education been supplanted as the primary mission of the modern university, and what has replaced it?

Davarian L. Baldwin

One of the key reasons people have a hard time seeing the realities of higher education is the myth of the schoolhouse. We still hold on to the idea that campuses are purely sites of learning, just classrooms and educational laboratories. Now, to be sure, teaching and learning still happen, and schools still get a lot of revenue from the tuition transaction. But tuition, at this point, is not a simple payment-for-service model. Instead, it’s a $1.5 trillion debt market, which enslaves not just current and former students but also a larger swath of the public due to inflated credentialization and the collapse of a healthy job market with living wages and benefits.

On top of that, tuition is increasingly becoming just one part of the financial apparatus. We have to look at ballooning administrative costs, which have nothing to do with teaching and are focused much more on capital extraction. We’re talking about the real estate, the university foundation, the development office, the office of technology transfer, the sports division, the police department — all of these noneducational divisions that are premised largely on labor and land control.

There are companies that solely focus on university-industry development. They make all their money on what they call “mixed-use innovation districts” and “knowledge communities.” It’s under that banner that urban neighborhoods are transformed to optimize value capture. Local governments, developers, and universities all reap rewards by turning campuses and their surroundings into a mix of luxury housing, storefronts, classrooms, and laboratories, all patrolled and regulated by private security with public authority, and covered by tax shelters of educational purpose.

The purpose of this activity is not education, it’s capital extraction. And meanwhile, long-term residents have their noses pressed up to the glass, gazing in awe at these cathedrals of prosperity, only let on to the campuses to serve the food and clean the floors. But another university is possible!