2017 Bonnycastle Lecture

Faculty of Arts

Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin
Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut gave this year's Bonnycastle Lecture on September 13, 2017.

The topic of Dr. Baldwin’s lecture is in keeping with the tradition of the Bonnycastle Lecture Series and a fitting discussion to be had at the University of Winnipeg, where increasingly the University has grown to celebrate its location in the downtown community, both on the main campus and on the campus on Selkirk Avenue. As a tribute to the memory of Mr. Bonnycastle, the Lecture Series is most often on an area that was of particular interest to him, and that is the economic, social, and cultural life of cities.

In his lecture, Dr. Baldwin brings to light the tremendous impact universities have on the urban landscape as land owners, employers, and agents of security; in view of this impact, Baldwin has coined the term “UniverCities”. Consider, for example, the following:

  • The University of Southern California in Los Angeles is the largest employer in the city.
  • New York University and Columbia University are the second largest land owners in New York City, second only to the Catholic Church.
  • The University of Chicago has one of the largest private security forces in the world.

Baldwin explains that the influence of higher education on urban development dates back to the end of World War II when Stanford University and the University of Chicago conducted research for the military, giving rise to the term “military economic academic complex”. Over time, universities have increasingly driven urban development. All-too-often, this development is at the expense of communities of African American residents. Little concern is given to the loss of the affected neighborhoods and communities, and, according to Baldwin, it is the racial dynamic that is key here; these communities are characterized as being “blighted” by developers, as are the peoples of colour living in them.

Those negatively affected by this growth have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to it. One example Baldwin identifies was the opposition to the construction of a large science complex in the early 1960’s at the University of Pennsylvania. This development displaced the mostly African American residents of a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. In spite of the protests of the displaced community members, the project went ahead. In contrast, however, Baldwin gives an example where community protests did lead to the desired effect. In the late 1960’s, Columbia University had planned to build a large gymnasium, which would have served as a physical barrier between the more affluent Columbia University and the residents of predominantly black Harlem. These plans were set aside as a result of the widespread protests of students and community residents, who ruefully referred to the proposed development as “Gym Crow”.

Today, education’s tides of influence spread to the neighborhoods surrounding universities. Baldwin explains that university life includes the amenities desired by students, scholars, and their families. At the same time, colleges and universities are also dealing with shrinking state expenditures and experiencing greater competition to attract faculty and students. As cities look for ways to attract urbanites, universities are increasingly viewed as ways that cities can create economic growth and higher education usually gets the green light for this development, often with little public oversight.

Baldwin emphasizes that while universities have the capacity to spark growth and create economic opportunities, we need to be aware of the potential for harm that may accompany this development in those communities. In 2003, for example, Columbia University sought to expand into West Harlem. It was later revealed that the University had deliberately paved the way for this development by declaring that the neighborhood was “blighted’’ in community condition reports. Yet, in spite of widespread opposition, West Harlem residents eventually lost their case in appeals court in 2009 and the project forged ahead. Many of the displaced people have taken employment in low-paying jobs on the campus in, what Baldwin refers to as, the “ivory tower underclass”.

Sometimes communities initially welcome the type of development that universities offer. For example, according to Baldwin, residents around Harvard University viewed the expansion of the University’s security force as an opportunity to have increased police presence. Eventually, however, residents became frustrated by having to deal with a two-tiered system of policing, in which students who are charged with offenses are dealt with by the University, and residents who are similarly charged have to go through the court system.

Baldwin maintains that universities now play an inflated role in the economic development of cities due in large part, he says, to the assumption that higher education is for the public good.  Therefore, urban development undertaken by universities is also assumed to be for the public good, he says.  But is it always? As we have seen, the examples Baldwin has presented strongly suggest otherwise. He refers to this as the “public good paradox”.

And, Baldwin raises a further issue regarding the non-profit status of universities, which can, and do, use their status as non-profits to help generate private sector profits in areas such as land acquisition, for example, while paying virtually no taxes. While they do not pay taxes, they may still be getting city services, such as snow removal, the costs of which are passed on to home owners and small businesses.  Baldwin identifies a case in which there was an $18 million dollar lawsuit against Princeton University. Local business owners argued that the University’s non-profit status gives higher education a competitive edge, i.e., “a hedge fund that conducts classes”.

In closing, Dr. Baldwin concludes that in assessing the data, as he has undertaken to do, it is clear that we should no longer evaluate tax status by educational status; universities are key growth machines in today’s cities, and should be regarded as such, because although they have been given the keys to drive urban expansion forward, this growth often serves institutional desires as much as it does their educational mandate.

This should give us pause to consider our own situation here at the University of Winnipeg, which in its downtown location is in a lower income part of the city and, as one student pointed out during the “question and answer” part of Dr. Baldwin’s lecture, is also located within blocks of the ever-expanding Health Sciences Centre complex and its affiliation with the University of Manitoba. Efforts such as the community programming through the University of Winnipeg’s Axworthy Health and RecPlex (link) and the Wii Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre (link), the development of Merchants Corner (link) as an educational hub on Selkirk Avenue, and, more broadly, the work of the University of Winnipeg’s Community Renewal Corporation (link) help ensure that UWinnipeg’s growth has a positive impact on the community we are located in and in the lives of the residents in it.

Lisa McLean
Faculty of Arts