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In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower
How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities
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Urban universities play an outsized role in America’s cities. They bring diverse ideas and people together and they generate new innovations. But they also gentrify neighborhoods and exacerbate housing inequality in an effort to enrich their campuses and attract students. They maintain private police forces that target the Black and Latinx neighborhoods nearby. They become the primary employers, dictating labor practices and suppressing wages.
In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower takes readers from Hartford to Chicago and from Phoenix to Manhattan, revealing the increasingly parasitic relationship between universities and our cities. Through eye-opening conversations with city leaders, low-wage workers tending to students’ needs, and local activists fighting encroachment, scholar Davarian L. Baldwin makes clear who benefits from unchecked university power—and who is made vulnerable.
In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower is a wake-up call to the reality that higher education is no longer the ubiquitous public good it was once thought to be. But as Baldwin shows, there is an alternative vision for urban life, one that necessitates a more equitable relationship between our cities and our universities.
CHESS MOVES ON A CHECKERBOARD
I never thought a university would foretell the future of our cities. But there I was, on a December afternoon in 2003, stepping out into the brisk South Side air after hours holed away in the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. I immediately heard chants of protest and saw people buzzing about. So I followed the sound over to the main quadrangle, just outside the university’s administration building. There I saw a crowd of about fifty people surrounded by media crews and onlookers. On one side stood residents from the historic Black neighborhood of Bronzeville, alongside students and others chanting “U of C, look at your history!” while holding signs that read “Support the Checkerboard Lounge in Bronzeville.”1 And on the other side, university officials listened, mostly playing defense, with a silent chorus of furrowed brows.
The famed Checkerboard Lounge had been a cultural mainstay of Bronzeville, a “blues shrine” that had stood on 43rd Street since 1972. The lounge needed restoring, but instead of providing funding the university put together a plan to relocate the lounge from its original spot to a university-owned building inside the Hyde Park neighborhood’s Harper Court shopping district. Outraged, Restoring Bronzeville advocates immediately charged UChicago with “cultural piracy.”2 For decades the city had turned its back on Bronzeville, but things were slowly changing, largely because of the sweat equity of local advocates working to turn things around.
Renovated hundred-year-old graystones, newly built condominium developments, and small shops slowly began to fill in the spaces between vacant lots and run-down storefronts. And many saw the Checkerboard as central to the economic revitalization of Bronzeville as “a heritage tourist destination.”3 But just when momentum started building around a modest neighborhood comeback, the university swept in and bought up one of the area’s best cultural assets. And UChicago’s backdoor deal resuscitated almost a century of local stories in which the school had either demolished Black neighborhood blocks or built institutional walls to keep Black residents away from campus. Here we go again, activists thought.
Of course, the university had a much different take on the story. School administrators and local stakeholders for the Hyde Park campus neighborhood argued that the Checkerboard acquisition was a simple economic transaction between owner and buyer. UChicago officials also explained that the relocation was an act of Black historic preservation.4 At the time, Sonya Malunda was the senior associate vice president for Civic Engagement at the university. She rejected any suggestion that UChicago did anything wrong in the acquisition. In fact, the lounge owner, L. C. Thurman, got on a bullhorn at the December rally and told the protestors to go home. “A lot of myths surrounding the Checkerboard became the narrative,” Malunda explained. School officials were responding to the closing of the lounge because of building code violations and considered the relocation a mutual benefit to the university and the community. She still looks back with frustration on that chapter in her life: “We wanted to do the right thing, but it seems no good deed goes unpunished.”
“I think that’s complete bullshit” is how Bernard Loyd responded to Malunda’s account. As he saw it, the university identified the Checkerboard Lounge as a key attraction for the Hyde Park campus neighborhood… and for no one else. He pointed out that the Harper Court shopping and entertainment district, where the Checkerboard would sit, was being renovated because there was hardly anything to do in Hyde Park. “Students were coming to the Checkerboard,” he exclaimed. In 2003 Loyd was working as a high-end consultant at the downtown business-management firm McKinsey and Company. And there was one moment during the December protest when things got tense and he and Malunda squared off in a testy shouting match.5 As Loyd told me the story, I wondered how this corporate executive became such a feisty Bronzeville community activist waging battle with the university.
Loyd didn’t even grow up on the South Side, but he brought his broad perspective to the Checkerboard controversy. He was born to a white German mother and an African American military vet from Chicago, by way of Louisiana. I could still hear a German inflection in his voice while he explained why the Checkerboard meant so much to him. Loyd had lived with his mother in Liberia before going to school at MIT. After graduation he served on the school’s board of trustees while living in the neighborhoods that Harvard and MIT targeted for campus expansion. “Town-gown friction is not new to me,” he explained. Loyd saw how higher education institutions worked from the inside. This knowledge of town-gown—or the city and its schools—proved critical when he moved to Chicago’s South Side.
Very few corporate executives working for white-shoe firms like McKinsey look for housing on the South Side and definitely not in the hardscrabble blocks of Bronzeville. But Loyd went there anyway, and in 1993 he purchased what he described as a “shell of a home” on 43rd and King Drive. He said one of the things that kept him in the neighborhood was the Checkerboard Lounge. Just two hundred feet from Loyd’s porch steps stood the place known as “Home of the Blues.” Blues great Buddy Guy and local small-business owner L. C. Thurman opened the Checkerboard in 1972. And its “nicotine-hued wall of fame” held many stories about impromptu jam sessions that included Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Junior Walker, and KoKo Taylor, just to name a few. Long after blues’ popular appeal faded, university students, suburbanites, and both local and international tourists still came to pray at the altar of this “blues shrine.”6 As Loyd told me, “Anybody and everybody would trickle into the Checkerboard… and I was one of them.”
The city shut down the lounge for what was essentially a problem with the roof. And Loyd had even met with Thurman to address what he considered an easy fix. But he couldn’t believe how quickly the public story became “the University of Chicago is going to ‘save’ the Checkerboard by moving it south to Hyde Park.” Loyd knew something else was going on. When he met with UChicago officials, such as Vice President of Community and Government Affairs Hank Webber, they told him the university was very interested in preserving a community landmark by finding a “mutually agreeable location.” And Loyd believed the best solution was to save the Checkerboard in its original location, within its historic cultural context. But when asked about that solution, Webber told the press, “We don’t make grants to for-profit institutions.”7
As a business consultant, Loyd then wondered why UChicago was willing to renovate a building for free and rent space to the Checkerboard at less than half the market rate in Hyde Park. He certainly didn’t blame Thurman for taking such a sweetheart deal. But if the university was so invested in preserving a historic landmark, why not do it in Bronzeville? He believed that UChicago saw the steady stream of students and faculty going to the lounge and wanted that kind of magnetic pull for its own “entertainment district” in Hyde Park.8 A thriving campus neighborhood draws students and faculty while redirecting investment dollars and new residents to the city. Loyd saw that grabbing the Checkerboard “helped the university increase the allure of Hyde Park as a profitable destination.” But what about Bronzeville?
UChicago’s chess moves on the Checkerboard Lounge were about much more than a simple neighborhood squabble. The Checkerboard controversy points to a new reality affecting anyone who cares about urban America. Higher education exerts an increasingly powerful hold over our cities and those who struggle to survive in its shadows. Schools have become the dominant employers, real estate holders, health-care providers, and even policing agents in major cities across the country. And the lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color that stand in the immediate path of campus expansion, while in deep need of new investments, are left the most vulnerable. These residents face increased housing costs or even displacement amid university land developments. Many of the same Black and brown urbanites also toil in the low-wage sectors of the higher education workforce as groundskeepers and food service staff. And they often endure violence and surveillance from campus police forces.
Those in the immediate shadow of the ivory towers have long been the first to experience the consequences of the entangled relationship between higher education and urban life, or what I call the rise of UniverCities. But the story here is bigger than campus neighborhoods. The growing influence of these schools on entire cities solidifies their political authority over housing costs, labor conditions, and policing practices for everyone living in urban America.9
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. And building profitable UniverCities helps schools offset a drop in state funding. Campus-expansion projects meet the increased demands for upscale housing, high-tech laboratories, and plentiful retail options that will attract world-class students, faculty, and researchers. These university developments also reorganize their host cities for new private investments in the bioscience and information-technology industries. As urban campuses continue to grow, all city residents will be living in the shadows of ivory towers.
Indeed, urban universities and their medical centers—the “meds and eds”—stand as one of the most central yet least examined social forces shaping today’s cities.10 In today’s knowledge economy, universities have become the new companies, and our major cities serve as their company towns. But unlike Amazon, Microsoft, and other info-tech industries, higher education claims responsibility for our public good. It’s time we investigated that promise, asking whether a school’s increased for-profit ambitions can undermine the interests of the public. In fact, the presumption that higher education is a public good has for too long distracted critics and urban residents from getting to the heart of the matter: what makes universities good for our cities? We need fewer assumptions and more analysis.
When most of the United States had abandoned cities in the mid-twentieth century, higher education was one of the only institutions that remained. A core group of colleges and universities used public urban renewal money to bunker themselves behind the walls of campus buildings or demolished city blocks—and away from the growing “invasion” of Black and Latinx residents. But starting in the 1990s, young professionals, empty nesters, and the children of suburban sprawl began to seek a more urbane lifestyle. And municipal politicians and real estate developers from different cities started competing with one another to capture the potentially lucrative new tax base and its consumer dollars. At the same time, colleges and universities were looking for new revenue streams in the face of tight state budgets. The interests of university and city leaders converged when the college campus was reimaged as the palatable and profitable version of a safe urban experience.11
The university has shifted from being one small, noble part of the city to serving as a model for the city itself. It is precisely the commercial amenities associated with “university life”—concerts, coffee shops, foot traffic congestion, fully wired networking, and high-tech research—that are sold today as a desirable urban lifestyle. Residents have flocked back to cities looking for these university-style urban experiences. And city schools are finding ways to generate new revenue in the for-profit realms of low-wage labor management, health care, applied science, and real estate.
The urban planning model of UniverCities is celebrated for providing needed capital to institutions of higher education and for generating a vibrant kind of urban life with cultural activities, sporting events, and student energy that can entice nonstudent residents to resettle in once-struggling cities. Social scientist and “prosperity” expert Richard Florida used the term creative city to describe these enlivened urban locales that attract wealth-building entrepreneurs and the workers they employ. A 2009 article discussing the economic development of Ithaca, New York, celebrated higher education as a key weapon for countering what it called the “bright flight” of the creative class.12 This racially charged allusion to “white flight” was left for the reader to interpret.
But no matter the dangerous implications, everyone wants to build a UniverCity. Places ranging from New York City to Mesa, Arizona, have recruited schools from across the country to build a campus in their backyard.13 Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg issued an international call for a school to establish a tech campus in exchange for land on New York City’s Roosevelt Island and up to $100 million toward infrastructure improvements. The partnership between Cornell University and Technicon–Israel Institute of Technology won the 2011 Applied Sciences NYC competition. During a waning third mayoral term of worker layoffs and budget cuts in the city, Bloomberg sought to reenergize confidence in New York’s capacity to generate prosperity. In a July 2011 speech he openly lamented that during “the 1980s and 90s, Silicon Valley—not New York—became the world capital of technology start-ups.”14
Colleges and universities are celebrated for sparking neighborhood vitality when they provide museums, lectures, and public safety protections while also creating new economic opportunities. The most successful of these efforts often arise when city leaders and higher education administrators come together in resourceful ways to navigate the changing economy.15 In Pittsburgh, for example, the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and the city government collaborated to transform the dangerous brownfields from an abandoned steel mill into the Pittsburgh Technology Center in 1994, an office park for advanced academic and corporate technology research. Saint Louis University instituted the Hometown SLU mortgage-loan-forgiveness program for employees and in 2011 opened the boutique-style Hotel Ignacio as part of its multimillion-dollar investment into the revitalized Midtown Alley district.16
There is no question that higher education institutions can deliver positive community outcomes for their cities. But a 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? Despite all of the triumphalist rhetoric surrounding higher education’s expansive reach across US cities, Black and Latinx communities that largely surround campuses don’t experience the same levels of prosperity. These neighboring communities of color frequently sit in zones of relatively cheap and sometimes divested land, while holding little political influence.
By the 1970s, many urban schools had become islands of wealth amid a sea of poverty. But in the 2000s, this uneven geography rapidly gave way to an extension of the campus as a planning model for larger swaths of the city. The result? Poorer neighbors are pushed farther to the periphery of “meds and eds” prosperity. Large-scale university acquisitions of now prime real estate—in cities such as Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles—lead to housing and land values that skyrocket beyond the reach of local community members. In 2017 the University of Southern California demolished a decaying shopping center to make way for its upscale $900 million residential and commercial complex, USC Village. But with a design derided as “Disneyland meets Hogwarts,” the new complex also pushed out community-friendly stores while doing little to prevent student-related rent spikes in the impoverished South-Central neighborhoods around the school.17
In the 2000s, Johns Hopkins University and the city of Baltimore joined forces to create the East Baltimore Development Initiative (EBDI) and take control of eighty acres of the city. This partnership invoked the power of eminent domain to displace 742 Black families and make way for a biotechnology park. Residents first learned of their own forced removal from news reports. According to EBDI officials, residents were given funds for a comparable replacement home minus appraisal costs, as mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But activists and residents counter it was only after they formed the Save Middle East Action Committee that homes were purchased at fair-market value and relocation funds were included. In 2011 Lorna Alexander was one of many displaced residents angry about what she saw as the broken promises that they would have jobs and housing to return to in the mixed-use development area. “They came in and tore up the community,” she said. It wasn’t until 2018 that housing, laboratories, and biotech incubators began taking root.18
Johns Hopkins points to a portion of construction jobs made available to residents of East Baltimore and the hefty housing subsidy of $36,000 for some of the school’s employees to settle in new townhouses on the development site. But one professor told me the housing program “represents one of the signal examples of how gentrification is packaged at Hopkins.” The subsidy underwrites inflated housing costs for its employees in the new development but at prices above the means of previous residents. At the same time, subsidies are not accessible to the lower-wage workers employed by the university subcontractor, Broadway Services. Former residents have found few pathways of return to their original homes.
Many of the excluded residents return only through the low-wage sectors of higher education labor, as ivory tower janitors, cooks, groundskeepers, and other support staff. At the University of Virginia, African Americans and women from the city of Charlottesville make up a large portion of the school’s low-income employees. Black workers continue to endure clear racial inequalities in salary, promotions, and disciplinary sanctions. Since the 1960s, a core group of students has been organizing around these disparities; in 2006 UVA’s living-wage supporters staged a three-day sit-in at the president’s office, in solidarity with local workers, until they were arrested by the police.19
On another battlefront, roughly twenty-six thousand low-wage workers throughout the University of California system went on strike in November 2019 to protest unfair labor practices. Workers charged the university with outsourcing a significant number of jobs to subcontractors to avoid paying negotiated wages and benefits. AFSCME’s local 329, the university’s largest employee union, supplied the Mercury News with two sets of pay stubs for one food service worker at rates well below the $15-per-hour minimum. The union alleged that this worker was paid under two names to avoid providing overtime pay. UC has since amended its outsourcing and competitive bidding protocols, and spokesperson Claire Doan insisted that the worker might have been employed with a company under a contract that predated the new minimum wage. Still, both workers and organizers remain suspicious of the contract loopholes that seem to remain.20
At the same time, residents near city schools are subjected to racial disparities in policing. Residents in Black and brown neighborhoods that surround predominantly white schools grow especially weary when university police have jurisdiction to patrol their blocks but are driven by a mandate to protect the campus. A 2003 University of Pennsylvania Police report found that the department stopped Black people in a car or on foot more than any other racial group. And between 2012 and 2015, seven cases involving excessive force and violation of civil rights were filed against the same police force. Four of these cases were settled out of court and dismissed. Penn officials also point to the “Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training” required for all police officers in the state of Pennsylvania. But the training fails to curtail the broad discretion that campus officers are given when making arrests and determining the appropriate amount of force.21
Students and staff of color face similar kinds of surveillance. Tahj Blow, the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, got forced to the ground at gunpoint by Yale police in 2015. Reportedly, the officer let Blow get up after learning he was a Yale student, as if that kind of rough treatment would have been acceptable for a mere New Haven resident. Ultimately, Yale conducted an internal investigation and found that the police officer did nothing wrong while also oddly acknowledging that “the student [Tahj Blow] who was detained endured a deeply troubling experience.”22
The long-simmering racial injustice of urban policing came to a boil in the summer of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the world to confront a series of killings that included George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks on a digital feedback loop. The terror was unrelenting. Yet these deaths galvanized years of grassroots organizing into a social movement that called for the abolition of the current policing apparatus as a state-sanctioned expression of white supremacy. Both community and student activists have also reignited long-standing critiques of campus police. But this time policing, for many, became a window into a deeper analysis of higher education’s broad political and economic impact.
As this critical moment forces us to reckon with higher education’s wide-ranging influence over our cities, we can’t keep discussing colleges and universities in purely educational terms. UniverCities are all around us, yet we fail to examine the consequences of schools embracing an increasingly for-profit approach to their urban surroundings. Our blind spot to this shift largely comes from the assumption that higher education is an inherent public good, most clearly marked by its tax-exempt status for providing services that would otherwise come from the government.
But it’s here that a critical paradox has emerged. Nonprofit status is precisely what allows for an easier transfer of public dollars into higher education’s private developments with little public oversight or scrutiny. City colleges and universities pay virtually no taxes on their increasingly prominent real estate footprint. Even public universities, which are in fact government entities, use their public-good status to shelter their own interests in for-profit research or even the financial security of private developers and investors that sit on their campus land. Schools also reap the benefits of police and fire protections, snow and trash removal, road maintenance, and other municipal services while shouldering little financial burden. Homeowners and small-business owners take on the weight of inflated property taxes caused by urban campuses while the cost of rental properties skyrocket.
Such unfair taxing rates compelled Princeton to pay more than $18 million to settle a 2016 lawsuit with residents of the historically Black New Jersey neighborhood of Witherspoon-Jackson.23 Residents argued that while local property taxes increased, the university still received tax exemption for buildings where research had generated millions of dollars in commercial royalties. The unqualified belief in higher education’s public good creates a lucrative “shelter” economy where tax-exempt status helps generate significant private profits for schools without public discussion and with little public benefit. Donor gifts to endowments are tax deductible. The investment income earned by endowments is tax free.24 And higher education institutions have a competitive edge over similar industries, whether biotech or property management, that still pay property taxes.
One plaintiff in the Princeton case described the university as “a hedge fund that conducts classes.”25 It’s an insult often lobbed at today’s higher education institutions. Colleges and universities have become city managers that, along with producing educational services, also discuss students as consumers, see alumni as shareholders, and imagine the world beyond the campus walls as either prime real estate or a dangerous threat to the brand.
This corporate mode includes the financially predatory relationship between universities and their own students. Although many colleges have recently banned this practice, it wasn’t long ago that fliers for preapproved credit cards were stuffed into the mailbox of every college student at the start of each school year.
At one point, Catherine Reynolds was heavily scrutinized for what some perceived as a conflict of interest because she served on NYU’s Board of Trustees while also owning Servus International, which made high-interest loans to students who maxed out of the federal loan market. Reynolds has continually explained that she followed standard business practices. But the optics of a company Gulfstream jet and million-dollar salaries, acquired from the interest rates charged to high-risk borrowers, simply exposed another exploitative market in the world of nonprofit higher education.26 And when campuses expand across cities, they often choose to bank land and await its appreciation rather than invest in services and infrastructure that would aid the existing community. Higher education is central to the growth of capital in today’s cities. These institutions have been given the keys to drive the urban economy forward by reorganizing urban space to best service their institutional desires, as much or more than any public interest.
It is time for a broad examination of higher education’s growing for-profit influence on our cities. And this conversation must take place now, before it’s too late and America’s cities have fully ceded our public resources and public control to these tax-exempt “hedge fund[s] that conduct classes.” Urban colleges and universities are increasingly setting the wage ceiling for workers, determining the use and value of our land, directing the priorities of our police, and dictating the distribution of our public funds in cities all over the country. We regularly rail against the high price tag and diminished value of higher education. But public discourse remains overwhelmingly silent about the consequences of turning the US city into one big campus.
- On Sale
- Mar 30, 2021
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Bold Type Books