Universities and Cities: An Interview with Davarian Baldwin

This is an interview with Robert Greene II, the lead associate editor of Black Perspectives, and Davarian Baldwin. Baldwin is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College. He is the author of Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (2007) and is also co-editor, with Minkah Makalani, of the book Escape from New York! The New Negro Renaissance Beyond Harlem (2013). Most recently, however, Dr. Baldwin has written the book In The Shadow of the Ivory Tower, which examines the fraught and conflicted relationship between American universities and the cities in which they reside. Follow him on Twitter @DavarianBaldwin. In this interview, Dr. Baldwin talks more about the dynamics behind the problems his book speaks to, and also additional ideas for how to think about the ever-changing relationship between “town” and “gown” in the 21st century. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

University of Chicago (Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock.com)

Robert Greene II: In The Shadow of the Ivory Tower does a thorough job of taking a look at the role of the modern university in urban development. With your book coming out against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, do you believe that the current crisis offers new opportunities to think of the city-university relationship, or is it only exacerbating current issues? 

Davarian Baldwin: I think the combined forces of the COVID pandemic, and the racial reckoning of summer 2020 highlighted existing incoherencies in the university-city dynamic. Even early responses have failed to grapple with the full scope of the issue. Most solutions have been primarily campus based. On one side, we see schools scrambling to ramp up on-line learning to account for projected profit losses. On the other side, most discussions of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” are limited to issues of curriculum, admissions, and faculty ranks. The irony here is that because most wealthy schools sit in largely Black and Brown communities, their unjust and inequitable relationships with their neighbors are precisely “DEI” issues. In fact, a large portion of the wealth that schools brag about is being directly extracted from the impoverished cities that host these institutions. But from the streets, from the communities that surround them, especially the most prosperous schools, we are starting to witness calls for far broader transformation. For example, for far too long schools have increased their for-profit coffers by hiding behind their tax-exempt status as educational, non-profit institutions. This tax-exempt land has been the site for both research and development that bring millions back to the schools in patent royalties and has even become the site for private companies to nest their developments on tax-exempt school land. This public-private arrangement is a gross manipulation of the non-profit tax code status on its own. And the wealth generated here is never even considered when schools call for “austerity measures” to furlough or fire the largely Black and Brown support staff workers that run our campuses. 

But on top of that, the millions, sometimes billions, in tax-exempt profits and landholdings are being taken from city budgets that would sustain property tax starved public schools, help pay low-wage workers sustainable benefits and wages, and support basic infrastructure paid for by city budgets like trash and snow removal, the electrical grid, first responders etc. Moreover, while most schools don’t pay in, they also benefit from these services. Across the country, communities from New Haven and Philadelphia to Chicago and Los Angeles are calling for PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) or Community Benefits Agreements to at least begin to level the gross disparities in these financial arrangements. But of course, these aren’t just financial disparities but also moral ones, in the case of UPenn and Princeton holding the remains of both Tree and Delisha Africa after the infamous MOVE bombing. Activists and residents are starting to think more broadly about the deep and even perverse relationships between universities and cities; now using the language of reparations and calls for an Abolitionist University, to abolish the current arrangements of how these institutions function and build both wealth and prestige. And I am very proud to see that my work is offering some framing and research to help think alongside local advocates.  

Greene: Early in your book, you note that the current problems of universities “plundering” cities can be tied back to the creation of land grant colleges in the 19th century, which only heightened the problems of segregation and Indigenous land displacement. How much do you see a link between the growing problems of the city-university relationship in your book and trends in African American intellectual history during the 20th and 21st centuries, such as the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and Black Nationalism? 

Baldwin: The normally celebrated Morrill Land grant act of 1862 and 1890 helped set the tone for the 20th century relationship between race and capitalism as mediated through higher education. The first version extracted land to build “public schools” for largely white citizens while the second version incorporated Black citizens through a segregated and underfunded system of Jim Crow education. We can certainly see the residual traces of this triangulation between race, capital, and higher ed throughout the 20th century and up to the present.

With regards to trends in African American Intellectual history, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower points to a different degree of materiality when discussing the production of knowledge . . . its built environment. Especially in the critical period of the 1960s, we can see direct relationships between calls for the reorganization of urban universities and the changing meaning of Black Freedom dreams, to quote my mentor Robin Kelley.  

Historian Donna Murch points out that Merritt College’s location and relationship with North Oakland’s Black community profoundly shaped what became the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. When Columbia attempted to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park as an extension of its decade’s long acts of evictions and displacement, folks charged “Gym Crow” in 1968. Black students in Chicago took over Crane Junior College and renamed it Malcolm X Community College. But beyond a name, they built a prison annex to educate incarcerated residents and hired unarmed workers from a Black owned security firm to replace Chicago Police Department officers. We can also look to Roderick Ferguson and Vineeta Singh’s discussion of the thwarted efforts of Black students to build a transnational vision of learning through a Lumumba Zapata College at the University of California at San Diego or the social movement pedagogical origins of SUNY Old Westbury discussed in the pages of Black Perspectives with Sam Anderson. And that is a story to which I would love to return. But the point here is that when we continue to think more comprehensively about Black Freedom struggles at mid-century, schools were not only the sites for ideas, but higher education’s physical presence in Black neighborhoods and institutional presence within an increasingly anti-colonial world was already being incorporated into visions of liberation in ways that get lost in present-day conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. I think this past summer was prescient for highlighting the role of schools in citywide policing, gentrification, health care, etc. that may help us revisit the higher education blueprints for liberation under development in the 68’ moment. 

Greene: The cities covered in your book—New Haven, Hartford, New York City, Chicago, and Phoenix—have all had serious problems with universities usurping the power of local communities. Are there other cities and universities you were tempted to look at—or believe need the same kind of coverage—as well?

Baldwin: Oh, most certainly. Of course, with a book, you can only do so much. But with my Smart Cities Lab I will certainly turn to other city stories. I mention USC’s relationship to the recently re-branded South LA but that is a story that deserves its own book. I started to use Duke University’s closing down of the light rail in the Research Triangle as a way to discuss a campus that residents have long called “the plantation.” But that discussion didn’t make the final draft. After Hank Webber helmed UChicago’s development projects, he was recruited away to build out Washington University’s Cortex science and technology and real estate complex in St. Louis. ASU’s Duke Reiter served as a consultant on Central Florida University’s downtown Orlando campus. The convergence of universities and medical facilities in Cleveland Circle was an early example of the “UniverCities” model but that story needs revisiting. We certainly need more attention on university developments in Sun Belt cities like Albuquerque and Houston. And finally, while the story is different and requires greater nuance, the town gown relations surrounding the Atlanta Center and Howard University, especially the real estate ambitions of the medical school, must come under scrutiny.    

Greene: Finally, what do you see as the role of historians and others in the humanities and liberal arts to push universities to have a less extractive relationship with the university? It was noted more than once that faculty at a liberal arts institution saw the problem as one for a “social agency” and not a university.

Baldwin: Historians and other scholars in the liberal arts have a central role to play in this work. For example, it is archival analysis that allowed me to engage with these Black Freedom blueprints for a “liberation university” that have rarely been discussed as models of urban development. 

Historian Craig Wilder pushed the relationship between human bondage and higher ed back to the center of histories of capitalism where actually people had become strangely absent. And finally, it’s the liberal arts regime that is constantly raised up as the civic conscience of what higher education can bring to our society, as the place where we nurture an ethos of global citizenship values around the public good. As you mentioned, some at my own college use the language of “liberal arts” to justify turning away from their neighbors, to retreat up to our city on a hill; arguing that liberal arts is a state of contemplative reflection above the messiness of the everyday. But my work shows how that tranquil site of refuge is built on explicit practices of exclusion and extraction. So here an intellectual historical analysis of language and discourse is vital for understanding how even the concept “liberal arts” can become a weapon of evasion. Furthermore, how can you exist as an institution of higher education, especially an urban one, and talk about your grand role as a problem solver, a civic compass, an arbiter of the public good and yet not interrogate your role in bringing misery and despair to the neighborhoods that surround your campus? Tutoring programs, low wage and low benefit job opportunities, and neighborhood clean-up programs are not enough when the very foundation of a school’s fiscal apparatus is built on over-policing and withholding tax, healthcare, and land resources from its host city. It’s time for a higher education, and African American intellectual history is actually central to the reparations work that is needed.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and lead associate editor of Black Perspectives. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.