Right before our eyes, many of our nation’s leading universities have become our biggest employers. They are also real estate owners, health care providers, and policing agents. In New York City, NYU and Columbia are two of the largest property owners in Manhattan—so large that, at one point they were number two and three, only behind the Catholic church. UCLA is the biggest private employer in Los Angeles County. The University of Chicago has the second largest security force in world, next to the Vatican; more than 50,000 non-university residents fall within its jurisdiction.
We have allowed that influence to take shape. In a world without factories, we need some form of economic revitalization. But what we have witnessed is the rise of higher education’s control over both the economic development and political governance of our communities—the rise of what I call UniverCities.
Across America, universities have become today’s companies. And the cities and towns in which they are located have become modern-day company towns. But there is a cost to those who live in the shadows. Campus expansion can raise housing costs for homeowners and renters which has displaced residents in surrounding neighborhoods. Colleges and universities dictate and control the wage ceiling in the communities they inhabit. In some cases, they suppress collective bargaining. Often, to reduce labor costs, they shift workers from direct employment to subcontracts.
The same residents who live and work in those neighborhoods also face greater surveillance at the hands of campus police, many who hold public authority and carry guns. And in the case of private nonprofit schools, these institutions, even as they carry out public functions, are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. So, in these cases you have private police with public authority but no public accountability. This has nothing to do with teaching classes or running research laboratories.
How did our cities become campuses and what does it mean for our public good? The governing structures, the economic priorities, and the built environment are reorganized to serve university interests when our cities become campuses.
How We Got Here
The origin of the UniverCity dates back at least to the 1950s, a period that in US urban history is often referred to as the era of “white flight.” But white flight is really a misnomer. White families were chasing capital—factories, wealth—that was moving to suburban areas. Because of racial restrictions, they were the primary ones allowed to follow the resources.
But universities are not as nimble as individual families. They had to stay in cities, so they lobbied the federal government to make universities the friendly face of …….