Davarian Baldwin is a professor of American Studies. He wrote In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, about the negative impact of higher education institutions on cities. On Thursday he gives a lecture on this in Rotterdam.

Davarian-Baldwin-VisionMerge Productions
Davarian Baldwin Image credit: VisionMerge Productions

In the title of your book, you use the word ‘plundering’. Can you elaborate why you chose such a strong word?

“Here in the West, the knowledge economy is very important and universities therefore have a lot of power, both political and economic. We often underestimate the power of universities, even though they can, for example, influence or even dictate policy in the development of cities.

“We talk about universities as a scientific body, but their impact on cities is much broader. Universities have become more like big companies. They use education as a kind of shield to obtain public funding for projects that have nothing to do with education.

“In the United States, private investors launch business ventures with universities to reduce their research costs. At Arizona State University, for example, a large insurance company is building its headquarters on campus to avoid paying property tax, even though that tax is levied to fund public schools and public services such as waste disposal. This is an example of universities teaming up with private investors to use public funds to generate profits. Thus, they plunder cities, so to speak.”

Is this plundering behaviour by universities a typically American problem?

“No, it’s a global phenomenon. At University College London, even at universities in China and Germany, I see the same pattern. It’s great that universities work on providing education, healthcare and economic development, but they don’t necessarily serve who they claim to serve. Especially vulnerable communities suffer.”

So how do you see this reflected in university towns?

“Universities expand, they build a campus and chase residents away from their neighbourhoods. See, when a university builds a campus, property values in the neighbourhood rise. It becomes so expensive that residents can no longer afford to live there.

“The neighbourhood is then transformed to meet the needs of the university and its students. Private landlords modify their properties to rent them to students, because that is more profitable. I call this phenomenon ‘studentification’. Even if residents can stay, the services and facilities in the community no longer serve them, leaving residents feeling displaced in their own city.”

Studentification also takes place in Rotterdam, in Kralingen for example. How did the problem get this bad?

“In the last twenty years, governments have been giving less money to universities. This is happening all over the world. So that means universities have to come up with other means to cover costs, including by increasing student numbers. So they admit many more students than they can actually cope with.

“Because universities have no infrastructure to accommodate so many students, student ghettos arise. In Europe, there is much less housing on campuses, so students live where they can. But that becomes a problem as soon as there are too many students. Instead of integrating into the city, they take over the whole neighbourhood.”

The mission of this university is positive social impact. How do you see that?

“In the US, we use the word ‘urban engagement’, which is more or less the same as ‘social impact’. Unfortunately, those terms are sometimes totally meaningless. If a university builds a campus in the middle of a vulnerable community, it’s called urban engagement, without any measurement or research as to the actual social impact.

“EUR is currently building a Culture Campus in Zuid, Rotterdam’s south side, which has historically been an immigrant neighbourhood. This project naturally attracts further investment from private investors. But what will happen to local residents once the campus is there? Will residents still be able to stay there if rents or house prices rise? EUR likes to research and study social problems in Zuid, but does it realise what impact its presence has on the population? And why is EUR building a campus there in the first place?”

Do you have any suggestions on how EUR should organise this project?

“Involve the local community. The university would like to bring innovation to Zuid, but the residents there probably have different ideas about that. Neighbourhood organisations and residents should have a say in the project from the start. You should also realise what the consequences are of your new campus and take your responsibility.”

Do you have any examples of universities that do well in this respect?

“Of course, I see small positive developments here and there. For example, the University of Winnipeg in Canada is building housing on campus for students as well as vulnerable residents. Syrian refugees, immigrants, indigenous people can live there. This is an example of how it can work. EUR could do the same in Zuid.”

But by doing that, won’t you then create a new problem, such as friction between students and residents, as we see in Kralingen?

“That’s a good point. They do indeed have to adapt to each other’s lifestyle. Of course, you can also build social housing near the campus. My idea is that you have to provide equal development for locals so that they are not driven away.”

What else could EUR do for the city?

“The university should treat the city as a partner and a host. EUR strives to bring residents from underprivileged communities to the university. That is a good example of social engagement. There is nothing wrong with social impact as a measure, but it has to remain concrete. Involve the local community, they should judge whether your impact matters.”

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