Building a New Framework of Values for the University

Emerging from the ivory tower’s shadow.
An interview with Davarian L. Baldwin by Jennifer Mittelstadt

buildings painted on brick

Jennifer Mittelstadt: Your book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower makes the argument that urban universities play an outsized role in America’s cities, not only in research, teaching, and innovation but also in enriching their endowments, gentrification, property development, suppressing wages, and policing. Colleges and universities become primary employers and landlords, venture capitalists, displacers, and police in local Black and brown communities. In tracing these developments across the country and over time, in private and public institutions, you ask faculty members, university leadership, and everyday residents to wake up to the reality of higher education today. You also offer an alternative vision for universities and cities, one rooted in equity, shared governance, and creating genuine public good.

You’ve spent your adult life in American universities. Was there anything about your specific experiences as a student or faculty member that affected your decision to research the university’s changing role in campus and urban communities?

Davarian L. Baldwin: Reflecting back on my life, as somebody who was academically oriented before I even knew I wanted to be a faculty member, I can now say that the story I tell in my book was always hiding in plain sight. When I went to Marquette University for my undergraduate education, the issues crystalized for me. I was a student organizer and activist—this was the 1990s—around the culture wars, regarding Western civilization, diversity, multicultural curriculum, things like that. But during my last year, I ended up as an activist fighting the university’s plan to close off Wisconsin Avenue, to make it an enclosed campus and have buses and everything route around it. It’s the main thoroughfare that cuts through the entire city of Milwaukee, a lifeline for business and community in the largely Black and brown community surrounding Marquette. We won the fight against this closure, because of a lucky coincidence associated with the unexpected decision of an alumnus. That catalyzed for me, in a very powerful way, the misguided interests of universities in shaping communities, but I still wasn’t quite there yet, in terms of getting the whole picture.

Then when I was a faculty member, researching at the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago—I tell this story in the beginning of the book—I came out of the library one afternoon, and the story of university pillage hit me in the face. There were students and residents protesting about the university’s purchase and relocation of the historic Checkerboard Lounge, a blues club, from the historical Black neighborhood of Bronzeville to the university commercial corridor of Harper Court. The residents were charging piracy and cultural theft, and that became the instigation, the most direct instigation, for the project I began. As I shared this story with colleagues, mentors, and friends, they said, wait a minute—if you are thinking about U Chicago . . . What about NYU and Columbia? What about Washington University in St. Louis? What about USC in Los Angeles? What about Emory in Atlanta? What about Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, UPenn in Philadelphia? And the list just went on and on.

Mittelstadt: Once you started, you go into the archives and conduct interviews with local community members, and you document the amassing of land, wealth, and influence by urban universities, even as you describe how the local communities, surrounding the colleges and universities, are stripped of housing, cultural heritage, diverse jobs, and services. What policies allowed for some universities to grow so wealthy without contributing to the communities in which they are situated?

Baldwin: As I delved into the policies, I realized it was both an elite private school and also a public land-grant phenomenon. If we go back into deep history, we know that the policies and practices of enslavement built colleges and universities around the country. We know the Morrill Land Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 seized Indigenous people’s lands to underwrite the endowments of land-grant institutions and upheld Jim Crow educational policies. Then there came the federal Housing Act of 1959, which provided extra funding to cities that linked urban renewal projects to universities. Universities helped demolish the largely Black and brown neighborhoods that surrounded their campuses and cities received extra federal funds for doing so.

When we move forward in time, we see universities also capitalizing on their 501(c)(3) status as nonprofit institutions. Universities and colleges have had nonprofit status for quite some time, but in the late twentieth century, universities began using their land, which is property-tax-exempt, as a financial shelter for the university’s partnerships with private investors in med-tech, bioscience, software design, military defense weaponry, and so on. This accumulation of wealth from private partnerships increased, after the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which allows universities to profit from publicly funded research that’s converted into intellectual property. The patents created from this research generate wealth for the university in the form of royalties, when the intellectual property is sold to a private investor like Google, Eli Lilly, or Western Digital.

And then finally there was the 2005 case of Kelo v. the City of New London, which expanded higher education’s power to deploy eminent domain for campus expansion. How? Because it changed the requirement of eminent domain from “public use” to “public benefit.” Universities were easily able to claim that their growth—through not just their research but even their campus expansions—offered a broad “public benefit” of scientific discoveries, job creation, or even claims of neighborhood revitalization. So, a wealthy and exclusive private institution like Columbia or Washington University can now use the power of eminent domain to seize private properties in the name of serving “public benefit,” with no requirement that the local community be able to use whatever new facilities the university creates on that land.

Mittelstadt: This history sounds like universities using public policy in new ways to build economic and political power. But at the same time, from the 1980s onward, states and the federal government have decreased public higher education funding. How do these cuts relate to the histories you tell? 

Baldwin: The defunding of public education has accelerated all the public universities’ forays into the realm of what they call “becoming entrepreneurial,” which I described above—land grabs, leveraging tax-free real estate, public-private partnerships, capturing intellectual property, and more. This story has to begin with the Higher Education Act of 1965. That legislation failed to directly fund higher education and instead offered indirect funding in the form of “student assistance” for tuition—a few grants but mostly loans, most of them private. Only through tuition, paid by most students through loans and debt, could institutions receive federal funds. This prompted a drive toward skyrocketing tuitions, the competition for higher-paying out-of-state and international students, and the debt financing of amenities to draw those students, which has created the massive national student-debt crisis. But even more, this strategy of raising tuition, funded through debt, wasn’t enough to offset decreases in public spending. So, at the same time, colleges and universities ramped up their participation in revenue-generating, community-destroying practices.

Mittelstadt:  What does a present-day example of a public-institution response look like?

Baldwin:  Take the case of Arizona State University. As the state contributed less and less to ASU, the upper administration began to transform the university into a profit-generating factory. Its leader, Michael Crow, realized ASU sat on large parcels of tax-exempt property, and they began to lease out their land to private companies like State Farm Insurance. So right now, the biggest private development in the state, the State Farm Insurance regional headquarters, sits on tax-exempt Arizona State University land. ASU transfers the tax exemption from their campus land to private developers and investors, and in exchange these private investors provide universities a slightly lower fee than they would pay in taxes. Then the university is able to use that money to build out other amenities without the oversight of legislators. The heartbreaking part is that the property taxes exempted from these corporate-style deals would normally fund public K–12 schools or public services like fire safety and the maintenance of public infrastructure. And this model is spreading all over. The University of Michigan has been buying up depressed properties across Detroit, especially during the recession and Detroit’s receivership, and holding that land so that they can land-bank it until it can be sold to private developers. Corporations also build out their own laboratories on “nonprofit” campus-owned land—what the private developer Wexford Science + Technology calls its “knowledge communities”—with no property taxes, right in the middle of depressed, historically divested Black and brown neighborhoods.

Mittelstadt: You’ve spent the last year or so since your book came out Zooming into dozens of meetings and traveling to talk about your research and your conclusions. I’m curious about the reactions from audiences. Are they surprised to learn about these relationships that you document between higher ed, government, finance, development, and local communities? Do they have an inkling about what’s going on, but they don’t know the full extent? Or did most people know a lot about it but didn’t understand it was a national pattern? I’m curious about the feedback you’re getting.

Baldwin: I share my work with academics but also with a general audience. And my institution helped me develop my Smart Cities Research Lab to sustain the work and public conversations, and I can tell you the most powerful feedback is this: phone calls from community members saying, “Your information sharing is not good enough. We need your advocacy. We need you to hit these streets and support us.” So, when the book came out, and I started visiting these communities—not just for talks but also to help advocate with community organizers in New Haven, Philadelphia, Berkeley, Miami, and so on—audiences appreciated that the book placed their conditions in a national context, and they realized that they weren’t alone. It’s been transformative for me as a scholar and as an activist. Communities knew better than I did the struggles they face with their local universities, but they said this scholarly work gave them a different language, a new framework for understanding their daily lives. And so, the communities that I work with, they appreciate that I’m speaking with them and I’m not talking only to other academics. People told me that they finally feel seen, and that has been the most powerful thing for me.

Mittelstadt: This raises a question for me. How can college and university staff, faculty, and students respond? 

Baldwin: They can start with a social footprint mapping of their universities. As part of my lab, I developed this framework—how to look for the finances, the real estate, the technology-transfer systems, and how to look for the development office, the foundation. How do you map this stuff out so people can visualize the tentacles of what I call the UniverCity in ways that offer aid to collective action? The social footprint mapping is an important vehicle for making the abstract financial moves tangible, to help confirm what people are already experiencing .

But I’d also say, listen to your local communities. There are groups out there doing the work of resisting harmful university policies, reimagining new ways that universities can work. Cops Off Campus, for instance, is offering workshops on how to research policing in campus communities. The Debt Collective conducts workshops on the financial impact of debt financing for student loans and the amenities that we talked about earlier. Higher education unions of all kinds are starting to talk about a broader coalition of bargaining without regard to rank or work status. People and groups who are out front on this realize we need to organize what I call the “broader shop floor,” that we must organize from wall to wall across campuses and the community. Faculty and staff have the bread-and-butter concerns of work conditions, academic freedom, and governance, yes, but they must firmly situate these concerns in the context of broader university-related struggles around housing displacement, student debt, policing, contingent labor, reparations, food insecurity, payments in lieu of taxes, equitable STEM research, endowment equity, donor allocations. All these things have to be talked about within a larger framework of higher education’s political economy because universities exert their powers in so many ways.

The university system I describe thrives on our isolation and fragmentation, which allows upper administration and boards to follow their business model of flexible and adaptable wealth extraction and labor control. They present all of this profit-oriented work through the lens of the “schoolhouse” and hence as an unquestioned “public benefit.” We need to break through that myth by turning toward each other, from the classroom to the street corner, and building out a framework of values with corresponding practices that redefines what the university is on our own terms. We can only do this with collective action.

Davarian L. Baldwin, the author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, where he writes and teaches about urban and cultural studies, Black social movements, and higher education and founded the Smart Cities Research Lab. He is a founding member of Scholars for Social Justice and was elected in 2022 to the AAUP’s national governing Council.

Jennifer Mittelstadt is professor of history at Rutgers University, where she studies the twentieth-century history of the state, politics, and social movements in the United States. She is a founding member of Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education.