Thorough and Damning — A Review of “In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower”

Editor’s note: It’s summer, and that means (hopefully!) more time to catch up on new work in urban history. For our Month of Books this June, we’re running eleven reviews of recently published monographs on everything from the immigrant Sunbelt to Rust Belt racism. Thanks to the reviewers who worked hard to make this happen!

Baldwin, Davarian L. In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities. New York: Bold Type Books, 2021.

Reviewed by LaDale Winling

The broad consensus on higher education is that going to college is the path to the middle class and economic mobility. Recently, colleges have positioned themselves as urban amenities with cultural and arts centers, bringing poets, artists, authors, and important thinkers to their communities. And universities are now leading employers and investors, bringing jobs to cities that may have few other major industries.

Or this is what colleges’ promotional materials and press releases tell us. Davarian Baldwin has taken a public turn in his scholarship with In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower and has done historians a favor by bringing a scholar’s rigor and a journalist’s style to his critical examination of universities. He reminds us that we must also reckon with the other powers and assets they have accumulated in the course of their growth. “We can’t keep discussing colleges and universities in purely educational terms,” he writes.

When universities amass sprawling campuses of enormous acreage, they largely do not pay taxes on that land, starving local municipalities of funds. Many extract tax breaks for development, as Baldwin details in Phoenix, Arizona. As many universities provide wide-ranging medical services, from hospital emergency care to specialized treatment, they can become the dominant local player in an essential economic and social sector, as Yale has done in New Haven. Even more importantly, Baldwin reminds us that there is nothing sacrosanct or inherently moral about the work of colleges and universities. They are corporations that pursue and defend their own self-interests, and are often supported by foundations and other forms of endowment that pursue those same interests. Civic interests romanticize higher education institutions at their peril.  

Baldwin goes much further than merely offering caution or caveat. In the subtitle of the book he alleges plunder. Truth be told, he offers a more thorough and damning portrait of colleges’ and universities’ exploitative relationships to their communities than we have seen in some time—probably ever.

In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower considers a wide variety of institutions, from familiar and enduring villains such as Columbia University and the University of Chicago to smaller, more local players like Trinity College in Hartford, where Baldwin works. These institutions continue to buy up private property near their campuses, sometimes taking it through eminent domain. They then create campus expansion plans that promise community benefits but, unless there is forceful community activism, deliver much less than the institutions claim. Sometimes they learn—the long shadow of the 1968 protests over the proposed gymnasium in Morningside Heights continues to shape Columbia University’s approaches to their neighbors—but rarely does this dampen their appetite for building, as Columbia proved in 2018 by breaking ground on its new campus section in Manhattanville. 

Davarian Baldwin documents how colleges and university such as Hartford’s Trinity College are systemically bad neighbors to those who live close to their campuses. Carol M. Highsmith, “Hartford, Connecticut from across the Connecticut River,” 2011, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

We see local residents, business owners, and community groups displaced from near-campus areas again and again. These people struggled to build communities and livelihoods and to maintain them in the face of economic transformations and cycles of urban change beyond their control, only to find themselves displaced by institutions who trade upon their liberal associations and are revered for their thoughtful leadership. It comes as no surprise that university neighbors have long memories for the landgrabs, the demolitions, and the barriers that institutions put up—even for those of a generation ago. Universities work on long timelines and have strategic plans that outlive the terms of individual presidents or the careers of mid-level administrators.

This helps us understand why, while there is broad consensus that higher education is good for individuals, for communities, for cities, and for humanity, the greatest opposition to university expansion comes from the communities immediately around their campuses. Local neighborhoods bear the greatest costs for the benefits and the investments colleges and universities make in education and knowledge creation. In 1957 Clark Kerr, then the chancellor of the Berkeley campus of the University of California, gave a statement before the Berkeley Planning Commission. He emphasized that the last ten elements on the periodic table had been discovered by Berkeley researchers and that the university had a greater obligation to humanity at large than the people in their community. Lee Bollinger, then president of Columbia, echoed the same sentiment a half-century later when he said, “We are trying to do things that help the world more broadly. The community is not everything.”

One of the most disturbing developments in the work of universities is the creation and expansion of their private police forces. A wide variety of public universities have state authority to create police forces for their campuses and numerous private universities have created security forces with powers that only antagonize neighbors and exacerbate community tensions in the name of comfort and security for students, faculty, and staff. In 2015 a University of Cincinnati police officer shot and killed Samuel DuBose, a city resident, during a traffic stop. The officer was fired from his job but was not convicted of murder. As many problems as there are with municipal policing, private university security forces don’t have even the slightest pretext of community oversight or concern for local welfare. Policing at universities is much like real estate development activities—it advances the institution at the expense of its neighbors. We must recognize this truth, Baldwin emphasizes, and respond accordingly.

LaDale Winling is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech. He is author of the book Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

Featured image (at top): Arizona State University dominates much of Tempe, Arizona. Carol M. Highsmith, “Aerial View of Tempe, Arizona, a Phoenix Suburb,” 2018, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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