Davarian L. Baldwin’s recent book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, offers an insightful examination—and stirring critique—of the role of universities in the political economy of U.S. cities. In this interview, Baldwin shines a light on how institutions that define themselves as key contributors to the public good have entrenched new forms of urban inequality. Understanding the meaning of higher education in American life today requires seeing the university from the perspective of the workers it exploits, the residents it displaces, and the people it polices.
Sam Klug: You claim that many major cities have not just embraced the eds and meds economy but have actually become company towns for large institutions of higher education—what you label “UniverCities.” How do universities exercise this kind of control?
Davarian L. Baldwin: When I traveled across the country to talk to people about the relationship between higher education and urban development, the phrase that came up time and again was, “I feel like I’m in a company town.” My job was to delve into: what do they mean by this? And how did we get here?
Colleges and universities have become some of the biggest employers, real-estate holders, healthcare providers, and, surprisingly, policing agents in major cities and college towns across the country. I focus on two critical developments: the convergence of interests between universities and cities, and the rise of the knowledge economy.
On one side, both public and private institutions of higher education faced significant declines in state contributions to their budgets. They were looking for new revenue streams. On the other side, starting in the 1990s, cities did a lot to make their neighborhoods attractive to certain classes of people. I was living in New York in 1995 under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his “quality of life” campaign—cracking down on homeless people, over-criminalizing squeegee-washers, kicking people out of mental health facilities and converting them into upscale housing, subsidizing tech start-ups and digital design companies. Cities were competing for young professionals and empty nesters, the children of suburban sprawl. Many of these returnees had an idea of urban life that consisted of coffee shops, fully wired streets, designs of glass and steel, museums, concerts in the park. Their idea of urbanity was basically a campus. University administrators and city leaders saw they had overlapping interests, and that gave rise to the UniverCity. Significant amounts of public dollars and investment were funneled into universities as vehicles for urban revitalization.
At the same time, academic research was being used to produce profitable goods and patents in a range of fields, from biotechnology and pharmaceuticals to software products and military weaponry. With the rise of the knowledge economy, universities became central command posts for facilitating labor relations between private industry and their own students, researchers, and faculty. Turning the cities that surround them into campuses made surrounding areas attractive to university faculty, researchers, their families, and investors.
Klug: You have universities becoming an engine of economic growth for the cities, but also serving as models for a new vision of what city life is supposed to be.
Baldwin: It’s not by accident that the story that I’m telling happens at the same moment that Richard Florida is coming up with the idea of the creative class, in which universities serve an anchor function. We have a shift from the suburban research park to “innovation districts,” or “knowledge communities,” which sit right in the middle of existing communities of color surrounding campuses. The land is relatively cheap, because of the history of the relationship between race and real estate.
My book is an attempt to follow the story that Florida tells about the creative class and cities and to add a critical race analysis, a materialist examination, and, more simply, a story of power relations—around taxation, land control, and wealth transfer.
Klug: It’s well known that universities are nonprofit institutions and therefore aren’t subject to property taxes on their real-estate holdings and only limited taxation on the investment income earned by their endowments. How does this tax status affect their relationships with residents, workers, and other businesses in these cities?
Baldwin: Universities’ tax code status is a powerful example of what I call the “public good paradox.” It’s precisely their status as institutions of public good, their status as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, that allows them to transfer public dollars into private, for-profit interests.
The clearest evidence of this paradox is the property tax exemption. There have been fights about the exemption since the 1960s, but by the 1990s, when the university was becoming the economic driver of cities, it became extremely problematic. I’ll give a recent example. In 2015, in the town of Princeton, New Jersey, African-American residents in the historically Black neighborhood of Witherspoon-Jackson began to see their property taxes go up. They started doing some investigation and found that the increase occurred because they sit right next to Princeton University research labs and buildings. The property taxes were rising because these buildings were sites for producing research that was reaping millions in royalties—and yet the buildings themselves were off the property rolls.
In New Haven, former mayor Toni Harp called this the “property-tax gray area,” whereby universities use their property tax exemption as a financial shelter when producing for-profit services and products in the knowledge economy: biotech, pharmacy, military weaponry, and so on.
Klug: The “public good” ideology of universities goes into the production of private wealth, of corporate patent research, and, in so doing, actually reduces public contributions to public goods in the cities around them.
Baldwin: We’ve talked about this from the tax perspective, but there’s a labor side of the story, too, in the relationship between private industry—say Google, Bombardier, or General Motors—and universities like Carnegie Mellon. Companies “donate” huge sums of money to universities to do research and development that helps private industry, so it’s great for the colleges. And it’s great for industry because when they donate money, they can write it off, because the money is for “educational purposes.” And graduate students do the work, instead of working for these companies directly. If these researchers worked in private industry with the same credentials, a bachelor’s degree in engineering or computer science, they would get salaries of $60,000 or more, and after a couple of years of research it would bump up to $100,000. At Carnegie Mellon or at MIT, they get maybe $30,000 or $40,000 for the first year, and five years later they’re getting the same $40,000. That’s a great arrangement for industry and the university. But the graduate workers are obviously exploited.
And that doesn’t even get at the biggest workforce on campuses: the low-wage workers in food service, groundskeeping, support staff, and security, who are mostly Black and brown. They are the frontline workers, and they usually work on a nine-month cycle, which means they don’t get health benefits in the summer for their families. They don’t receive a living wage for their families, and because universities are the biggest employers in most of these cities, their low wage is setting the wage ceiling for cities at large.
Klug: The expanded real-estate footprint of urban universities has been accompanied by the growth of campus police forces and extensions of their jurisdictions. What is the role of campus police—which you describe as more like private security forces—in these UniverCities?
Baldwin: To build out these “knowledge communities,” armed university police are being unleashed on the largely working-class neighborhoods and communities of color that surround campuses.
The myth is that these police officers are agents of student or community safety, that they are doing a public service. But two of the biggest crimes on campus are sexual violence and substance abuse. Campus police don’t handle either of those well. And the reason why is because focusing on sexual violence, or alcohol and drug overdose or abuse, would actually undermine the primary function of these police—which is to protect the university brand.
In the critical period of the 1990s and 2000s, white parents freaked out when they sent their children to urban campuses and off-campus housing was in Black and brown neighborhoods. For many universities, the solution was to enact a memorandum of understanding between the university and the city that gave armed campus police broader jurisdiction—either in the blocks around the campus, or jurisdiction over the entire city. In the case of the University of Chicago, wherever there is a university development, the jurisdiction of the campus police follows.
I spoke about this in some detail with Mary Washington, a state senator in Maryland from Baltimore City, who was highly critical when Johns Hopkins was attempting to create a private security force. She described it as putting a Vatican City in the middle of Baltimore, because private schools are not subject to freedom of information laws—whatever they do doesn’t have to be reported, and their policing priorities are driven by the interests of the administration and the board of trustees. State schools in Maryland are under the jurisdiction of the state, but with these private entities, she said, public officials have no say: these schools are private republics in the middle of the city.
In Chicago, student activists talked about a two-tiered policing system: a student and a resident—usually of color—could commit the same infraction, but the student would be sent to the dean of students, and the resident would go through the criminal justice system.
Klug: You discuss one tragic case of police violence in particular detail: the killing of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati. How did that event catalyze some of these movements against campus police violence and the expanding jurisdiction of campus police forces?
Baldwin: DuBose was killed in 2015—right in the wake of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. DuBose was pulled over for a license plate violation. He had an argument with the police officer and wouldn’t open his car door because he was afraid. The police officer drew a weapon and shot him and killed him. A question was immediately raised: What was a University of Cincinnati police officer doing miles away from campus, stopping someone for a license plate violation? And why was he stopping a non-university affiliate? This spoke to the reality of private police with public authority and no public accountability.
I spoke to Brittany Bibb, who was a student at the time. When the case against the officer who killed DuBose resulted in a mistrial, she said the campus looked like a police state. There were snipers on top of buildings, armored trucks patrolling the campus borders. What was most striking to her was that, in bracing for what they thought was going to happen, it was clear that all of the militarization was facing from the campus outward. It sent a clear message of the priorities of the city and the university. It wasn’t about protecting the community. It was about protecting the campus.
Bibb organized the Irate 8 movement to oppose this police expansion—named after the fact that only 8 percent of the student body at the University of Cincinnati was African American in a city that is more than 40 percent African American. The movement galvanized student protest and activism across the country. As schools like the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins were ramping up their policing, students and community residents were raising up the name of Samuel DuBose.
Klug: Most of your case studies focus on private institutions like Trinity College in Hartford, the University of Chicago, Columbia, and NYU, but you also have a chapter on Arizona State and its massive expansion in Phoenix over the last twenty years. What is distinctive about ASU’s urban growth strategy? How has it shaped Phoenix, and how does it relate to the declining public investment in higher education that you mentioned earlier?
Baldwin: Arizona State was an agriculture/tech school, and it was known as a “party school” for many years. The school was striving to improve its pedigree at the same moment that the state contributions to the university budget went from 60 or 70 percent to 20 percent.
The school’s response was to bring in Michael Crow from Columbia University, who billed himself as an “academic entrepreneur”: somebody who was known for figuring out ways to market academic research. Instead of trying to market selectivity and charge $70,000 a year, ASU administrators decided to pack their campuses to the gills with students and to expand online education, and to characterize those plans as a diversity project. ASU’s main campus of Tempe is now the biggest campus in the country, with over 50,000 students.
But the real economic model wasn’t based on democratizing education; it was a big real-estate deal. The school packed in as many students as possible and offered them up as a captive market for retailers and food franchises, and it offered up its tax-exempt public land as a tax shelter for investors. ASU became one of the biggest real-estate developers in the state of Arizona.
When ASU built its downtown campus in Phoenix, it billed the project as integrating and revitalizing what had become a “doughnut city.” All the development since the 1960s had happened in a heavily suburban ring still within the city limits of Phoenix. It is the fifth-biggest city in the country, but it has very little urban feel. ASU promised to put an NYU-style campus in the middle of downtown, to integrate the campus with the existing blocks of the downtown area. As students walked from campus building to campus building, they would patronize local businesses.
Instead, ASU built a suburban-style campus: five buildings turned away from the city, with all of the amenities on campus, so that suburban kids could come down to the city and feel safe and be in the city but not of the city. The school received a $200 million bond from the city to build this downtown campus on the grounds that it would help revitalize the city, but all the commercial development was internalized.
There’s also a tax-shelter part of the story. The president, Michael Crow, realized that the property on university campuses is owned by the Arizona Board of Regents. It is tax-exempt. He thought, we are in a small-government, pro-developer state. There’s a loophole here. We can lease out our land to private companies.
Klug: State Farm Insurance has a huge development on the ASU Tempe campus.
Baldwin: Its regional headquarters is the biggest development in the state of Arizona. It is sited on Arizona Board of Regents land. There are also hotels and conference centers, and even a retirement community.
The university understood it could put these private companies on its land so they would receive tax-exempt status, then have the companies pay the school a relatively smaller fee, which ASU could use however it wanted without state oversight. Under the cover of education, these business transactions can sidestep the scrutiny of the democratic process. With this money, ASU built a football stadium and was able to pay former NFL coach Herm Edwards an NFL-style salary. Tempe is now full of these tax-exempt buildings, so property values are going up, but property tax dollars are not coming into the city for public works like schools and infrastructure.
The new downtown campus is directly tied to all the ASU for-profit endeavors in the college town of Tempe. Many told me that the real reason for this downtown campus was to move students and make way for market-based research on the main campus. I asked some of the administrators if the new downtown research parks would also be tax-exempt, and they got really frustrated with me. They said, “Well, it’s slated for educational purposes.” And then I talked to some tax advocates who thought this was outrageous, that ASU couldn’t just leave tax status up to the assessor. They thought if there’s any for-profit work being done, it should be taxed.
Klug: A shift in the legal regime, the Bayh–Dole Act of 1980, enabled this research-based development: it allowed patents that came out of research supported by federal funding to be taken out of the public domain.
Baldwin: Most large-scale scientific research on campuses is publicly funded in some way, usually by the federal government. For years, because the research was publicly funded, the results could not be converted into private intellectual property. After Bayh–Dole, which was pushed by university lobbyists, universities could privatize their research and receive royalties. They could sell it to the highest bidder.
As soon as this was passed, you had schools like MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, and soon thereafter ASU creating technology transfer departments on their campuses to facilitate these relationships. Google at Stanford, Gatorade at the University of Florida, the medication Lyrica at Northwestern: these are some of the most well-known examples. When students and faculty produce this research, the universities get 50 to 60 percent of the royalties, just for housing this research. They don’t do the work. The faculty members and students do it.
Another key piece of the legal regime is the 2005 Kelo v. City of New London Supreme Court case, and the changing terms of eminent domain. Before this case, the rationale for eminent domain had to be “public use”: building roads, schools, highways, and so on. But after Kelo, private property could be seized for a private entity if the project produced jobs, increased tax revenues, or led to neighborhood revitalization. Private developments no longer had to directly help or be accessible to local residents. Universities jumped on this new policy and used eminent domain as they expanded to build research parks and laboratories, as Columbia did in West Harlem. All they had to do was show that this development had a public good, not a public use.
The Bayh–Dole Act, Kelo v. New London, and the presumption that anything a university does is inherently for the public good—all this has become a powerful mechanism for sheltering the private interests that are driving the new knowledge economy.
Klug: You weave in stories of bottom-up activism throughout your book. A diverse range of actors—students, low-wage workers on campus, faculty and graduate workers, city residents—all play significant roles. How can more durable movements form across these groups to confront the power these universities exercise?
Baldwin: First, I want to raise up the names of some of the organizations involved in this work: Nos Quedamos (We Are Staying) at Columbia; NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan; the Campaign for Equitable Policing, which became Care Not Cops, a national network; the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition in Chicago; the Irate 8 in Cincinnati; the Students Against Private Police at Johns Hopkins; Reparations at UChicago; Penn for PILOTs. There are many more.
I talk to students all the time about feeling isolated in their activism. There’s one case over here about gentrification and displacement; one case over here about policing; one case over here about labor rights; a graduate student strike over here. I hope that my book helps us see how these seemingly isolated campaigns are actually part of a broader UniverCity political economy.
I’ve been shouting from the rooftops: “The Ivory Tower is dead.” Some of that’s rhetorical, but it’s also strategic. When we see higher education not as a place cut off from the rest of society but as an institution embedded within cities, then we can begin to offer some materialist analysis that connects the campus to the city, to city hall, to the statehouse, to the shop floor. The campus is the shop floor for the city. It is the political boss for the city. It is the land baron and healthcare apparatus for the city. It’s becoming a private security force over the city. We must develop a collective response to these integrated conditions.
Klug: When higher education has made it into national political debate on the left in recent years, discussions have focused on student debt and the prospect of tuition-free public college. What do you hope people who share those concerns about student debt and college accessibility will take away from your book?
Baldwin: We need to destroy the myth of higher education as simply a schoolhouse. The job of teaching classes has become a minor side business on these campuses.
Both activists on the left and conservatives often talk about universities in terms of the rising cost of educational services, but these conversations about tuition must also engage with the other ways schools generate revenue: through the real-estate department, the development office, the technology transfer department, the data-mining contracts, the university foundation, or even the police force. That’s where the money is, and we don’t even talk about them.
I think we need to put these issues alongside the conversations on student debt and endowments. Right now, most endowments are placed in money-market accounts, and they spend more money on the fees of their financial managers than they do on so-called public good projects. What if Harvard used just 3 percent of its $40 billion endowment and invested in social justice? It could build an affordable housing land trust for the neighborhoods where the university is expanding so that residents can afford to stay where they live, with community benefits agreements with zip-code-specific job training and job quotas for the neighborhoods in which the expansion sits. An allocation like this would have little impact on these major universities, or even on some smaller schools that have multimillion-dollar endowments.
The university’s growing urban power places campuses at the center of broader struggles over neighborhood displacement, living wages, intellectual property rights, universal healthcare, wealth redistribution, and police abolition. Universities are ground zero for these citywide, nationwide issues. They are the fulcrum upon which many of these issues rest. This is why, just this year, you have graduate worker strikes at Columbia, NYU, and other schools. This is why you have basketball players at the Big Dance with T-shirts that say #NotNCAAProperty. If we can stitch together these campaigns, we will have a full-blown movement toward the abolition of our current conditions. The future of our cities largely rests on the struggles being waged on and around campuses.
Davarian L. Baldwin is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies and founding director of the Smart Cities Lab at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
Sam Klug is a historian and postdoctoral fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University.