‘Universities and Their Cities’

Author discusses new book about the relationship between higher education and the localities where institutions live.

May 4, 2017
 

Colleges and universities in urban areas have long been a crucial part of higher education. Today they serve not only those who live in their cities, but many from elsewhere attracted to the idea of going to college in an urban environment.

But what of the relationship between the colleges and universities and their localities? That is the subject of Universities and Their Cities: Urban Higher Education in America (Johns Hopkins University Press). The author, Steven J. Diner, has experience with the topic as a university leader and a scholar. He was chancellor of Rutgers University at Newark from 2002 to 2011 and is currently a professor there. Among his previous books is A City and Its Universities: Public Policy in Chicago, 1892-1919 (University of North Carolina Press).

Q: Some universities that are located in large cities have missions explicitly tied to the city. Others have national or international missions (even if they say they care about their hometowns). How do you differentiate the different kinds of urban universities in terms of their responsibilities?

A: The question of the university’s responsibility to its city goes back to the early 20th century and was the subject of much discussion at the annual meetings of the Association of Urban Universities, founded in 1914. The association’s early members included not only municipal universities like City College, Hunter, Akron, Cincinnati, Louisville and Toledo, but private universities including Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Brown, Chicago, Harvard and Vanderbilt, among others. In the years after World War II, however, the term “urban university” increasingly came to be understood as an institution serving working-class, immigrant, minority and commuter students.

I believe that all higher education institutions located in cities should take full advantage of their urban location, which means using the vast resources of the city to support teaching, research and community service. Faculty at research universities should study the city, the metropolitan area, local government, business and economic development, public health, K-12 education, and so much more. Some of this research might be commissioned by government agencies, local business associations or other entities involved in advancing the needs of the city. But much of this research should be conducted independently. All urban institutions have a great opportunity to engage undergraduate, graduate and professional students in city internships and experiential learning, which has become quite popular in recent years. In addition to such instruction-based activities, more and more institutions have embraced a commitment to fostering civic responsibility in students through volunteer service. In short, I would argue that all colleges and universities in cities should engage with their municipality, and that such engagement greatly enhances their mission, whether they are exclusively undergraduate institutions or national research universities.

Q: What do you see as key periods in American higher education that have changed the university/city relationship?

A: Given the widespread belief by American higher educators in the 19th and early 20th centuries that higher education’s purpose was to build character and that this could only be done in the countryside where students would be close to nature, the founding of the Association of Urban Universities in 1914 and the years following it were crucial in shaping approaches to educating city students.

The years of the “urban crisis,” from the mid-1960s to around 1980, created a profound challenge to universities in central cities. They had to address issues of campus safety and growing demands by political figures that universities help solve America’s urban problems.

From around 2000 to the present, universities in cities have become all the rage. Applications to many urban institutions have increased substantially, because students seek the excitement of the city and the opportunities for internships that could lead to jobs when they graduate. Private colleges in small towns are suffering from significant enrollment decline. This is a dramatic reversal of the historic anti-urbanism of American higher education.

Many urban institutions have invested in improving their neighborhoods (at least in the view of the universities), and academic leaders say such efforts attract students and faculty members. But sometimes this is viewed as gentrification. How do you evaluate such disputes?

This tension between neighborhood improvement and gentrification has a long history. Both perspectives are appropriate. In 1958, an official of the Ford Foundation described “the plight of the urban university,” which he said has been “left behind to inherit a neighborhood growing steadily less desirable.” Under these circumstances, he argued, these institutions “will be sorely tempted to join the flight from the city,” but he insisted that to do so would “deny the purpose and potential of the urban university.” Retaining middle-class people in cities was widely viewed as an important national goal reflected in federal funding for urban renewal, begun in 1949.

The U.S. Housing Act of 1959 greatly expanded support for university-based urban renewal, providing that for every dollar an educational institution spent for land acquisition, demolition, building rehabilitation or relocation of occupants of demolished buildings adjacent to or in the vicinity of an urban renewal project, the city could receive two to three dollars of federal urban renewal money. By 1964, 120 colleges and university renewal projects had received federal funding. Keeping middle-class people in cities remained a major feature of liberal urban policy through the end of the century. But displacement of low-income residents has also been inconsistent with liberal policy goals. In recent years, many universities have found ways to work closely with neighborhood organizations in improving neighborhood conditions and meeting university expansion needs. I would argue that today, neighborhood-community collaboration is crucial.

Q: Many campuses see tension when they are seen as largely white in terms of students and faculty members but the surrounding city is not. How do you see such tensions?

A: Universities in cities generally have made significant progress in increasing racial diversity. Let’s take my institution, Rutgers University at Newark, as an example. In 1969, it had extremely low black student enrollment although located in a majority-black city. Black students took over Conklin Hall, resulting in substantial new programs to enroll black students, including special admission and academic support for lower-income students whose academic records did not meet admission standards. Almost two decades ago, U.S. News & World Report ranked Rutgers Newark the No. 1 research university in the U.S. [for] student diversity, a ranking that has continued every year since. And we have developed numerous other programs to enroll Newark students and to enable them to live on campus.

Q: What obligations do you see for universities -- public and private -- to educate more students from their cities?

A: I think this is very important. Students who are not local will learn a lot from students whose families live elsewhere. As chancellor, I did a great deal to reach out to Newark students to encourage them to enroll at Rutgers Newark. Among other things, we paid Rutgers Newark students who had graduated from Newark high schools to go to Newark schools and tell students about our institution and the opportunities it provided for them.

Increasing enrollment of local students at urban universities has been a major national policy goal for some time. In 1980, Congress enacted and President Carter signed an Urban Grant University Act to provide funds to urban institutions “to make their educational, research and service capabilities more readily and effectively available to the urban communities in which they are located.” To qualify, an institution had to be located in an urban area with a substantial part of their enrollment coming from the local area. A major goal of the program was to further increase local student access to higher education. Unfortunately, Congress never funded this program.

Q: What models for university-city interaction most encourage you?

A: University-city interaction must be a major institutional goal, and it must be promoted by the president/chancellor. It cannot be assigned simply to an office of community engagement, although such offices can be very valuable when engagement is a clear university priority. Universities should not view engagement simply as a matter of community service. They should strongly encourage faculty to take fullest advantage of the city’s vast resources in their teaching and their research.

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