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.