The TIE Podcast Fall Semester Preview: Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin on How Universities Exacerbate Inequities in Urban Living

illustration of an urban university building

The arrival of fall heralds a return to college and university campuses for students, faculty, and staff across the United States and with that comes the recognition of these institutions’ vast urban reach. While institutions of higher learning are often bastions of positive change and innovations, the “entangled” relationship between urban life and higher education also nets more complicated outcomes for urban dwellers, which TIE’s latest Fall Semester podcast explores. In this episode, TIE Editor in Chief Alexia Hudson-Ward sits down with Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin, a leading urbanist, historian, and cultural critic, to discuss how this relationship impacts city residents who live in the shadows of these ivory towers.

Listen to the full conversation below:

TIE Podcast · Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin on How Universities Exacerbate Inequities in Urban Living

​Davarian L. Baldwin currently serves as the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies and founding director of the Smart Cities Lab at Trinity College (CT). The author of several books, most recently In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities (2021), he also serves as a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Studies, on the executive committee of Scholars for Social Justice, and on the national council of the American Association of University Professors. His opinions and commentaries have been featured in numerous outlets from NBC News, PBS, and The History Channel to USAToday, the Washington Post, and TIME.​

Dr. Baldwin joins TIE‘s Alexia Hudson-Ward for an enlightening discussion that centers on the topic of his latest book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower. Together they consider how the growing influence of higher education institutions in urban areas often results in gentrification, housing displacement, labor issues, and over-policing and increased surveillance, all of which disproportionately impact communities of color. Through the course of their conversation, they further examine how universities exacerbate racial disparities between these institutions’ predominantly white college campuses and the largely Black and brown communities in which they reside and from which universities extract and hoard wealth through their nonprofit, tax-exempt statuses.

Dr. Baldwin further raises and defines the issue of “bright flight” and its racial undertones, as part of a joint effort between universities and city leaders to keep educated, white collar professionals in urban areas, an inverse parallel to earlier generations’ white flight to the suburbs. Dr. Baldwin concludes with possible solutions that universities can implement to alleviate these problems, noting that although some people may perceive his research as being opposed to the university, his work is intended to imagine a new university that lives up to the promise of truly serving the public good.

We hope you enjoy this fascinating conversation with Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin.

Here’s a quick peek inside the episode:

book cover of "In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower"

On how colleges’ and universities’ nonprofit status creates tax shelters:

“To what degree have universities become the factories in our communities? And so with all [their] land that is nonprofit, how do partnerships with universities become tax shelters for both the university and private industry, private partners? The perfect example of this is the historically Black neighborhood of Witherspoon-Jackson [in Princeton, New Jersey]. They realized that their property taxes were going up, but their amenities were not, so the public works were not being improved and they wondered why. And then they realized that it was because they sat next to … buildings on the Princeton University Campus … They realized that these buildings were housing multi-million-dollar contracts with the pharmaceutical company Ely Lilly … so the campus was hoarding millions of dollar on nonprofit land while the surrounding neighborhoods were not doing well [and] were not benefiting from improvements, and yet their property taxes were going up … [T]his is not just a New Jersey story, and it’s not just a private school, Ivy League story.”

On “bright flight” and the back-to-the-city movement:

“The children of suburban sprawl, young professionals and empty nesters, began powering what was called at the time a back-to-the-city movement in the 1990s … city leaders were competing with each other … to prevent what we could call ‘bright flight,’ what Richard Florida calls the creative class of professors and tech workers and digital designers and advertising agency workers … And it was precisely the commercial amenities associated with university life—concerts, coffee shops, foot traffic congestion, fully wired networkingthese are the things that were marketed as a desirable urban experience, kind of a suburbanized version of the city … And so with the decline in manufacturing, it was said that the ‘bell towers’ of higher education were seen as the new smokestacks, the signals of a potentially thriving economy. This was happening just at the same time that colleges and universities faced shrinking state contributions … so by extending their footprint into surrounding neighborhoods, schools began to engage in land ownership, for-profit research, low-wage employment, and policing as a way to generate new sources of revenue by providing the urban amenities and protection to attract students, researchers, their families, young professionals, all to come back into the city.”

On possible solutions and reasons for hope:

“Higher education is pervasive in our lives in ways that we don’t always confront. They’ve become the shop floor of all workers, they’ve become the land barons over all residents, … and they’ve become the political boss over city budgets … If the university is so all-encompassing then there is much therefore that can be done to hope and help these institutions live up to their public good expressions and mandates … With this in mind, collectively, we can call on schools to enact reparations for the degree to which slave labor, Indigenous land seizures, Jim Crow practices, and urban renewal practices all underwrote the building out of these institutions. We can also call for what have been called pilots or payments in lieu of taxes to compensate for the ways in which the money that’s supposed to go to public services is going onto these campuses. We can call on schools to reserve a portion of their tax-exempt endowments for community development projects. We can call on schools to attach a community benefits agreement to any campus expansion project that can include things like affordable housing mandates, zip code-specific jobs, job training, procurement contracts with small businesses in zip code areas, scholarships, and guaranteed access to campus facilities.”


TIE gratefully acknowledges underwriting support from Taylor & Francis.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.