Universities Are Plundering Cities. How Can This Relationship Change?

How do universities relate with the cities where 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.Baldrick, the Paul E. Raether 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. This interview is with Reshmi Dutt–Ballerstadt, and Bertin M.Louis Jr., coeditors of Truthout’s Baldwin talks about his work and explores the concept of UniverCities.

Reshmi Dutt–Ballerstadt, Bertin M.Louis Jr. Are UniverCities essentially modeled on 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. Yes, schools were forced to seek new revenue streams by the increased withdrawal from public funding of public and private higher educational institutions. 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. This narrative also suggests that a pristine higher education system was corrupted by economic concerns and not the new face 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. The campus, as an urban form, becomes the central vehicle for wealth acquisition, not only for schools, but also for financial institutions and government. The campus is exempt from tax real estate expansion and private corporation partnerships. The campus converts the student’s productive labor into work study status or apprenticeship status. This exemption from collective bargaining was not available until recently. Campus safety also protects wealth extraction by allowing private police forces to be entrusted with public authority and unreliable public accountability.

My UniverCities concept can be summarized as follows: the knowledge economy is better than 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 university address this imbalance for both low income minoritized residents of these cities and students who are in financial hardship? What are the racial implications that UniverCities has on race?

First, we have to get rid of the notion that there is a clear divide between the so called “real” and “false” sides. town and gown. My book explains that the very prosperity we see on campuses, ensconced with glass, steel, and ivy, is directly derived from the public wealth, knowledge, and labor power of the many impoverished host communities. These imbalances are rooted at the base in wealth extraction and can be corrected through reparations. Reparations can include scholarships for the descendants and enslaved of Indigenous people whose land and labor made these institutions possible. Reparations is the process of addressing the collusion of universities with both private real estate developers as well as state agents in the 20th-century segregation and demolition of communities. It also involves a redistribution and redistributing university land and its resource. Reparations could also mean a pro-rating property tax exemption and an endowment that supports 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. This has profound and direct racial implications. Non-white people have been at the center of campus wealth but they remain marginalized from campus possibility.

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 in these protests, while also gaining support from politicians and other political forces for increasing the police presence (sometimes an increased police force), as well as their response to these protests? endorsed by Michael Bloomberg)? Is there a way that minoritized students, faculty, and staff have been retaliated at for protesting racist police and policing practices on university campuses?

One of the most significant outcomes of the Black Spring protests in 2020 was that the larger movement for police abolition focused its attention on higher education. This brought more light to existing campaigns such as Cops Off Campus. Many universities continue to grow their police forces in the name and service of Black and Brown communities, or deputize instructors and health workers in the name and cause of abolition. But it’s organizations like the Cops Off Campus CoalitionThese tactics are being criticized by many others. We demand an immediate framework for divestment from militarized law enforcement and investments in trauma care, living-wage job opportunities, housing and food security.

Public schools like San Francisco State and Tufts College, as well as private schools like Amherst College, were pushed to form task teams or mandates for abolition. We will see. Johns Hopkins had to suspend their private police department after undergoing massive movement work. They are not the only ones using resentments to relaunch the policing process in the current backlash to Summer 2020. Residents of Black and Brown are the most affected. Campus police stop black and brown residents at a rate that is far greater than their population by racially profiling them. 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. Over-policing campus perimeters and under-policing campus campuses is a cost that women from all backgrounds have to pay. Addressing largely white-on–white crimes such as sexual violence and assault would be detrimental to the institution’s image. The only solution is to divest/invest.

Your book is mainly focused on urban universities, and how urban universities use their cities to promote urban revitalization. What about rural universities and colleges? Are they plundering rural communities in a similar way?

As an urbanist, my main focus is on cities and their communities. However, the issues that I examine are applicable to both rural and college towns. This plundering also includes the expansion of campus police authority over entire states or counties. We also see the encroachment of rural lands, including Indigenous reservation areas. The appropriation of local farming techniques, and seed cultivation, into intellectual property by agricultural school for the bioscience marketplace is another issue. The rural story is worth further investigation and building political coalitions.

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

Universities have shifted their focus to profiteering, whether it be to counter state divestment of education or to gain great power and profits from 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. The opposition to this unjust university is not 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. One thing is certain about the blueprints that preceded it: they did not advocate tearing down everything but instead advocated for reconstruction and redistribution knowledge and resources based on a common vision of higher learning and an end to current conditions.

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

Yes, this was my experience! 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 merely amplified an already exploitative relationship that has been made even more severe. Campuses put service workers on furlough, often with very limited benefits. They push fiscal austerity while simultaneously stuffing CARES Act funds into record high endowments. Schools used social distancing as leverage to shift curricula towards more labor intensive (and therefore cost-reducing) online learning. Administrators refused to lower or freeze rates in expensive areas where graduate students live in university-owned housing. Online teaching options were denied to elderly and immunocompromised faculty who were forced into retirement and replaced with precarious labor.

COVID-19’s problems go beyond campus work. Residents in West Philadelphia pointed out to me the health hazards that come with introducing thousands, with varying health care practices, into an already vulnerable Black neighborhood so schools can maximize tuition, residential and retail revenues.

How has Trinity College, where your work is located, and other institutions responded to your work? What were your expectations?

Surprisingly, Trinity actually supported me by providing seed money for my 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 are upset that I am expanding the battle beyond faculty concerns about academic freedom, shared governance, or simply Faculty housing. Graduate student workers and junior and contingent faculty are motivated and mobilized because the book was published during a lively strike wave on campuses. Except in places where there are unions, campus workers don’t speak out for fear of reprisal and instead give me the nod of approval. Most importantly, community groups have encouraged me to turn this research into advocacy because they are able to relate their stories and make them feel included in a bigger story than 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 combination of academic and activist labors has been transformative for me just as much as it has for anyone else.

What steps could UniverCities take if universities took your argument about inequality, exploitations, seriously?

Hmmmm. I think I have covered this in previous questions. I will add an example I discuss in the work to illustrate this. I was privileged to spend time at University of Winnipeg in Canada. Administrators created a vision for sustainability that included the environment as well as social, economic, and cultural issues for a campus located in an Indigenous, multi-racial, and 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 required that the new recreational center be placed under a community charter, which guarantees community use 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. It is important to note that even this model has limitations. Many residents living in the surrounding areas still have difficulty accessing these resources. Jim Silver, a University of Winnipeg professor realized that most Indigenous people would not come to the main campus. He raised money independently to transform a dangerous boardinghouse into a learning Annex with affordable housing, right in 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 was lightly edited to improve clarity.