A New Framework of Values for Universities?Historians in the News
tags: higher education, colleges and universities
Davarian L. Baldwin, the author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, where he writes and teaches about urban and cultural studies, Black social movements, and higher education and founded the Smart Cities Research Lab. He is a founding member of Scholars for Social Justice and was elected in 2022 to the AAUP’s national governing Council.
Jennifer Mittelstadt is professor of history at Rutgers University, where she studies the twentieth-century history of the state, politics, and social movements in the United States. She is a founding member of Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: Your book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower makes the argument that urban universities play an outsized role in America’s cities, not only in research, teaching, and innovation but also in enriching their endowments, gentrification, property development, suppressing wages, and policing. Colleges and universities become primary employers and landlords, venture capitalists, displacers, and police in local Black and brown communities. In tracing these developments across the country and over time, in private and public institutions, you ask faculty members, university leadership, and everyday residents to wake up to the reality of higher education today. You also offer an alternative vision for universities and cities, one rooted in equity, shared governance, and creating genuine public good.
You’ve spent your adult life in American universities. Was there anything about your specific experiences as a student or faculty member that affected your decision to research the university’s changing role in campus and urban communities?
Davarian L. Baldwin: Reflecting back on my life, as somebody who was academically oriented before I even knew I wanted to be a faculty member, I can now say that the story I tell in my book was always hiding in plain sight. When I went to Marquette University for my undergraduate education, the issues crystalized for me. I was a student organizer and activist—this was the 1990s—around the culture wars, regarding Western civilization, diversity, multicultural curriculum, things like that. But during my last year, I ended up as an activist fighting the university’s plan to close off Wisconsin Avenue, to make it an enclosed campus and have buses and everything route around it. It’s the main thoroughfare that cuts through the entire city of Milwaukee, a lifeline for business and community in the largely Black and brown community surrounding Marquette. We won the fight against this closure, because of a lucky coincidence associated with the unexpected decision of an alumnus. That catalyzed for me, in a very powerful way, the misguided interests of universities in shaping communities, but I still wasn’t quite there yet, in terms of getting the whole picture.
Then when I was a faculty member, researching at the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago—I tell this story in the beginning of the book—I came out of the library one afternoon, and the story of university pillage hit me in the face. There were students and residents protesting about the university’s purchase and relocation of the historic Checkerboard Lounge, a blues club, from the historical Black neighborhood of Bronzeville to the university commercial corridor of Harper Court. The residents were charging piracy and cultural theft, and that became the instigation, the most direct instigation, for the project I began. As I shared this story with colleagues, mentors, and friends, they said, wait a minute—if you are thinking about U Chicago . . . What about NYU and Columbia? What about Washington University in St. Louis? What about USC in Los Angeles? What about Emory in Atlanta? What about Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, UPenn in Philadelphia? And the list just went on and on.
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