Campus Encroachment on Urban Communities

By Robin F. Bachin

In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities by Davarian L. Baldwin. New York: Bold Type Books, 2021.

The Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago had a storied history. It hosted some of the city’s most iconic blues musicians, including Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Muddy Waters, as well as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, among countless others. When the site had fallen into disrepair and needed restoration in the early 2000s, the University of Chicago stepped in and agreed to provide funding to save the Checkerboard. Yet rather than restore the existing building in the historically African American neighborhood of Bronzeville, the university moved the blues venue to a new site in a university-owned shopping district adjacent to its campus in Hyde Park. The university argued that it was saving a legendary cultural space from deterioration. Bronzeville residents and business owners had a different take: they called it “cultural piracy.” Local advocates argued that cultural spaces like the Checkerboard were in need of restoration because of the University of Chicago’s long history of turning its back on its Black neighbors, creating borders and boundaries between the campus and the surrounding community of the South Side that led to disinvestment and displacement. Yet when the university decided it needed to create a more engaging and dynamic lifestyle experience for students, faculty, and staff, it sought to shift the locus of cultural activity from surrounding neighborhoods to its campus community through what many considered an act of cultural theft.

The role universities play in shaping large-scale urban development decisions is the subject of Davarian L. Baldwin’s timely book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower. He asks a fundamental question about the relationships of urban universities to the cities that house them, What makes universities good for our cities? Universities traditionally have been viewed as a public good, as sites of learning and knowledge production that benefit society at large. Yet too often, historically, urban institutions of higher learning have created insular campuses that literally walled off surrounding neighborhoods. Increasingly, though, Baldwin argues, universities are not insular ivory towers that merely turn their backs on their surrounding cities. Instead, they have begun to swallow cities whole, shaping all aspects of urban life and remaking cities according to the priorities and planning rationales of their campuses. “UniverCities,” as he calls them, reflect the belief in the role of the “knowledge economy” in transforming urban life, revitalizing so-called blighted neighborhoods and offering lifestyle amenities such as arts and culture districts and tech-innovation hubs that are attractive to urban politicians and university administrators alike. But when universities control urban-planning priorities for the cities beyond their gates, what happens to the people and places that already exist in the shadow of the ivory tower?

Baldwin answers this question by examining the impacts of university development strategies on urban-planning practices in cities across the country. Like a tenacious investigative reporter, Baldwin combines rigorous research into official policy and planning documents with in-depth storytelling from those most affected by these decisions. He has interviewed a wide range of individuals, from university presidents to food-service workers, from neighborhood organizers to student activists. He cites independent and student newspapers alongside scholarly texts and reports from major news outlets to provide a range of perspectives on neighborhood change. His no-holds-barred account of the history of how universities have shaped their cities is a tale of “big dreams, broken promises, and brokered concessions.”

One of the tensions Baldwin exposes in the university role in urban planning is the perceived view of cities both as sites of vibrant democratic citizenship and as places for lucrative investment. He effectively illustrates how universities continue to use their public mission of providing education as a justification for encroaching on larger swaths of urban space. Through examples from Columbia University and NYU in New York City to Trinity College in Hartford and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Baldwin highlights how campus and community are linked together through a growth mentality designed to secure added value and prestige for both. City leaders often see university expansion as a source of urban revitalization and defend colleges’ tax-exempt status by drawing attention to the benefits these “anchor institutions” bring to cities. Yet when local activists in New Haven, Connecticut, for example, challenged the tax-exempt status of Yale University because the institution generates enormous profits from biotech, patents, and software products, some city officials, including the mayor, were sympathetic to the activists’ concerns. New Haven negotiated a deal with Yale whereby the university would voluntarily provide payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) for a fixed amount annually. While these PILOT programs help cities recover some of the funds they lose through universities’ tax-exempt status, they are nowhere near the amount they would gain if universities paid their fair share of taxes.

“Eds and meds” also have a significant influence on the wage ceiling in urban employment. Because universities and hospitals often are the largest employers in cities, their practices of outsourcing much of their labor to subcontractors who forbid unionization, fail to offer a living wage, and employ workers on a seasonal basis (during the academic year) means that it’s harder for workers to make ends meet. Baldwin shows how university expansion in urban neighborhoods has the consequence of driving up rents while providing low-wage jobs with compensation that doesn’t keep pace with rising costs. And, as was the case with the Checkerboard Lounge, universities also often seek to steer the campus community away from neighborhood retail, restaurant, and cultural establishments and toward on-campus offerings, making it more difficult for local communities to capture the added revenue that they expected from university expansion.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the outsized influence of urban universities on city life that Baldwin exposes is the enhanced role of campus police in security operations beyond the college gates. As universities expanded their real-estate portfolios to include properties throughout the city, they justified an increased campus police presence in the city by highlighting the need to protect students and staff. The effect has been, according to Baldwin, the militarization of the campus and criminalization of surrounding neighborhoods. The racial implications, Baldwin argues, are clear. Under the guise of student safety, institutions as varied as the University of Chicago and the downtown Phoenix campus of Arizona State University placed campus police in largely Black and brown communities, so that a private police force was “serving a public function but without public oversight.” Moreover, students of color from numerous urban campuses described confrontational encounters with campus police, leaving one University of Chicago student to proclaim that the campus neighborhood of Hyde Park had “the vibe of a police state.” Students recounted intentional strategies to ensure that they looked like they belonged. At Chicago as well as at Trinity, students of color report that they make sure to dress in school gear and always carry campus IDs in case they were questioned about their status on campus.

Given the devastating consequences of the university planning practices that he documents, Baldwin wonders how universities can help create just and equitable campuses and communities. He includes a few examples of campus initiatives that have benefited urban communities, especially at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. The partnerships put in place at Winnipeg are in line with the prescriptions that Baldwin helped to develop through his Smart Cities Lab, which “provides a venue for cities to share what works and partner with the innovation community to forge new solutions,” at Trinity. He calls for robust community-benefit agreements that have training and hiring preferences for local community residents; community-based planning that includes residents so that any changes to zoning or land-use practices would be put before the people most affected; the right to collective bargaining for all workers at universities, from faculty to maintenance staff; and equitable policing so that both campus and community police are held accountable.

These prescriptions resonate with initiatives taking place on urban campuses throughout the nation. Yet Baldwin is dismissive of many of these efforts because he argues that they often have been co-opted by university administrations to serve as a cover for their real-estate strategies in surrounding city neighborhoods. While the potential for appropriation is real, it should not diminish the power that faculty, students, and staff have wielded in shaping change around equity, access, and inclusion. Initiatives in community engagement have propelled universities to rethink policies related to everything from admissions priorities to procurement practices. Universities are not monolithic entities; the history of urban universities shows how campus-community partnerships grounded in equity and reciprocity have the power to transform cities and campuses alike. Groups like Imagining America, which “brings together scholars, artists, designers, humanists, and organizers to imagine, study, and enact a more just and liberatory ‘America’ and world,” advance the work of public scholarship, cultural organizing, and campus and community change. They offer a mandate for institutions of higher education to reexamine their commitment to democratic engagement and directly link academic scholarship to public practice.

Baldwin does a masterful job of illuminating the ways in which urban universities have abrogated their responsibilities to the cities that support them. Through compelling examples and poignant stories, he demonstrates how land use, labor, and policing practices have left a legacy of division and disinvestment in university communities, particularly those of color. Yet clear signs of change are on the horizon. Baldwin shows how protests across the country denouncing racial violence have forced universities to reckon with the ways they are implicated in perpetuating racial inequity. Voices both outside of and within universities are calling on them to better address issues of social justice, inclusion, and belonging. These alliances have the potential to embed the values of social equity and racial justice more deeply into university culture and to pave a new path forward for campus-community collaboration and meaningful social change.

Robin F. Bachin is the Charlton W. Tebeau Associate Professor of History and assistant provost for civic and community engagement at the University of Miami. She is the author of Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago, 1890–1919Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America; and the forthcoming coedited essay collection Engaging Place, Engaging Practices: Urban History and Campus-Community Partnerships. Her email address is [email protected].