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Storming the Ivory Tower with Davarian Baldwin
Episode 1494th December 2021 • Macro N Cheese • Steve Grumbine
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Do you think of colleges and universities as protected islands of intellectual activity, ivory towers where the world’s problems are contemplated and debated? Steve Grumbine’s guest is here to tell us otherwise. Davarian Baldwin, of Trinity College, is an urban historian and social theorist, whose work examines the landscape of global cities through the lens of the African Diasporic experience. His most recent book is In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities.

Baldwin describes how institutions of higher education are the largest employers, healthcare providers, and landlords in cities and towns across the US. They leverage their massive financial and real estate holdings to displace the most vulnerable communities across the US. Their tax-exempt status does not result in savings for the local citizens, but puts a greater burden on everyone else’s property taxes.

The conservative and mainstream media still maintain the pretense that campuses are a hotbed of radicalism, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Corporate partners sit on universities’ boards of trustees and shape the curriculum to reflect the interests of capital. The Koch brothers and other corporate entities are funding “innovation centers” and entrepreneurial institutes to fit their own needs.

The powerful thing about higher education is the myth of the schoolhouse -- that it's just a place where we conduct classes and conduct pure research. Teaching classes has become a side business in higher education. There's so much more here that goes on in ways that either generate or manage capital that have nothing to do with teaching classes.

Most colleges and universities maintain a substantial policing apparatus. According to Baldwin, “75% of public and private schools have police departments. Not public safety units -- police departments. Nine of ten are armed, and about 85% of these police departments have jurisdiction beyond the main campus. They police regular residents.”

And so the irony of this phenomenon is that the biggest crimes on campus, sexual violence and substance abuse, are not policed. They do a horrible job. While some people might say capacity. I say intent, because schools -- predominantly white schools, I'm going to be clear -- are not going to want to say that they have a campus full of white criminals. This undermines their brand. So the policing is all outward facing into the poor, black and brown neighborhoods around the campuses, to say to investors, to say to students, to say to families, and to say to everyone else that we are open for business and we are safe. These police units, their job is to protect the brand.

Baldwin gives numerous examples of different schools around the country and their outsized effect on the communities they reside in, their poorly paid employees, and, of course, students. He suggests specific reforms and asks that our listeners follow New Deal for Higher Education, Scholars for Social Justice, Cops Off Campus, and other organizations that are working toward change.

Davarian L. Baldwin is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College, and is a historian, cultural critic, and social theorist of urban America. His work largely examines the landscape of global cities through the lens of the African Diasporic experience.

Author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities 
Co-editor with Minkah Makalani, Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem 
Author of Chicago's New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life 
Series Co-Editor, Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy 

@DavarianBaldwin on Twitter

Transcripts

Macro N Cheese – Episode 149

Storming the Ivory Tower with Davarian Baldwin

Davarian Baldwin [:

A claim that universities make is that they solve the most difficult problems facing the world. That’s a part of their calling card. And so for me, taking that logic to its conclusion, why wouldn’t I require, inquire, implore, higher education to solve the problems in its own backyard, the problems that it has a hand in creating?

Davarian Baldwin [:

You have these neoliberal entities and these for-profit orientations in higher education and corporate America that gut the public infrastructure and then point to government say, look, it doesn’t work. But it is working. It’s working to funnel public dollars resources into these private interests. So it’s working precisely in the way that those who hold the levers of power designed it to work.

Geoff Ginter [:

Now, let’s see if we can avoid the apocalypse altogether. Here’s another episode of Macro N Cheese with your host, Steve Grumbine.

Steve Grumbine [:

All right. This is Steve with Macro N Cheese. Today’s guest Davarian L. Baldwin is a leading urbanist historian and cultural critic. He currently serves as the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies and founding director of the Smart Cities Lab at Trinity College, CT. Baldwin is the author of several books, most recently “In The Shadow of the Ivory Tower, How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities” from Bold Type Books, twenty twenty-one.

I’m really excited about this. One of our longtime supporters and volunteers and great all around people, Susan Eldridge, had seen Davarian speak and said, you have got to get him onto your program. Now I have been heavily focused on what I call the race to the bottom, the way the states compete with each other and destroy their tax base in the process.

And then austerity measures kick in and the poor get poorer and left behind and used as fodder for this class war that takes place at every level of society. Well, I had never considered the impact of the University system on that dynamic, but Mr. Baldwin wrote a great book, and this book depicts the way that the University system has been plundering and pilfering local communities to their detriment. So without further Ado, let me bring on my guest. Welcome to the show, Davarian.

Davarian Baldwin [:

Thanks so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks.

Grumbine [:

Absolutely. I started getting into your book and I’m listening to it because my eyes are the eyes of an old man, even though I don’t feel that old. But as I’m listening to your book and great guy reading it, he’s got a great reading voice. Easy listening.

Baldwin [:

Yeah, it was good.

[:

But the subject was not easy listening. And for me, this is such a focal point in the activism that I’ve been doing and the media work that we’ve been doing that it made me angry, and it felt like a Gordian knot. There’s no getting out of it because there’s all these layers that have been baked into this for so long. But they’re entitled.

They’ve been able to survive as a nonprofit, to avoid being able to help the very communities that they have planted roots in. Talk to me about your book. Tell me about the motivation and the overall storyline.

[:

Yeah. First of all, it must be said, I’m sure some of your listeners are thinking, ‘wait a minute. He’s a professor at Trinity College. He works at the institution. The hypocrisy of him talking about universities as having a parasitic relationship with their community.’ But from an economic perspective or from a political perspective, the University is my shop floor.

And if anyone’s working in their workplace and they see an injustice, they see some conditions that are not right. We would all hope that they would act, whether that’s a whistleblower or a labor organizer. And so, this work here is an iteration of that in this other workplace, which is the University. And so, another claim that universities make is that they solve the most difficult problems facing the world.

That’s a part of their calling card. And so, for me, taking that logic to its conclusion, why wouldn’t I require, inquire, implore higher education to solve the problems in its own backyard, the problems that it has a hand in creating? And so, I just want to put that out there first of all. But because I’m a University or College Professor, a lot of this is just so obvious, and it’s sitting in the background.

It’s kind of like water is wet. It’s an obviousness to it all. But when you pull back and I deploy the skills that I’ve learned from higher education, it’s something to confront the fact that colleges and universities are the biggest employers, real estate holders, health care providers, and even policing agents in major cities and towns all across the country.

The University of Southern California is the largest private employer in Los Angeles County. NYU and Columbia are two of the biggest landholders in New York City. Just a couple of years ago, they were one and two, only behind the Catholic Church and the University of Chicago fields one of the largest private security forces in the world, in the world, only behind the Vatican.

With jurisdiction over 50,000 non-student residents on the city’s south side. Now, to be fair, the trade off of this kind of influence is the possibility that universities make cities and towns more vibrant places to work, visit and live. We call them a version of the anchor institution. And today, with the fall of factories, we look to higher education as a sort of an economic engine that it can bring people in.

It can train them. It can develop research and development that can go into the market. It can raise up the tax base of the urban environment or the College towns where it sits. So to be sure, colleges and universities, they bring ideas and people together, and they can generate new innovations. We can think of things like U Chicago redesign Harper Court or USC Village in south central Los Angeles, or new amenities provided by areas like the shops at Yale.

We can also expect newly constructed facilities like the glittering glass and steel that we see in the proposed partnership between Virginia Tech and Amazon in Northern Virginia to generate innovation. So in this, we have seen higher education growing control over the economic development and urban governance in America, or what I call the rise of universe-cities. But in that there’s a cost, there’s a cost to those who live in the shadows of these Ivory towers. And that’s where my book takes off.

[:

Something you just said. I know this is a bit of a Sidebar, so you don’t have to stay here. But I want to make this point because it really jumped out at me. So much of our education is about getting a job, and the jobs are now coming to the educators to say, let’s partner together. And so as these educators are now becoming kind of a wing of training, education and development of the corporate class.

What we’re dealing with is you are in non dischargeable debt for a generation, maybe the rest of your life. I’m bearing $122,000 in student debt myself. And I subsidized the entire training, education and development system for every Corporation I work for, and I’m left as a sole individual carrying the weight and the debt burden. That is another layer of parasitic behavior.

[:

You raise an amazing point, and it happens at multiple levels and different layers. So, for example, the partnerships between universities and their private partners, the fact that many corporate partners sit on the board of trustees of the University. And they retrofit the curriculum and the system of learning at the schools in ways that reflect their own corporate ideas and interests.

So the key word here is career development. Every school today has either a whole unit or division or an orientation that’s organized around career development. You have the people like the Koch brothers and other corporate entities in the country that are funding innovation centers and entrepreneurial institutes that shape the curriculum and organize it around certain metrics that make advancement in higher education retrofitted in ways that fit the needs of corporate interest and partners. But the irony is that then when you graduate, there aren’t jobs available.

[:

Yeah.

[:

So the key here is the debt matrix that we know right now that student debt is at an all time high at approximately $1.7 trillion. And so, what does it mean when you have partnerships between loan companies, when students opt out or they no longer are eligible for subsidized or federal loans, and then they’re laid privy to the predatory interest of for profit loan corporations, many who have interest in relationships with universities.

And so there is this relationship. And then on another level, because schools are competing with each other, not about education, because education is education. You have great teachers, you have great classrooms. But the distinctive natures in which higher education is competing with each other is based on the amenities portfolio of these different campuses, rock climbing walls, gourmet food services, luxury dormitories.

And so, for schools to build out all of these amenities, they, too, are overwhelmed by a debt structure. And so, there are ways in which higher education has been totally reorganized in ways to both manufacture and profit from, debt. And then another layer is overcertification that many of the jobs in the world that we live today decades ago didn’t require this level of education.

And so, with overcertification , this requires students to go back to school for training. That should be happening, as you mentioned before, on the job. But it’s happening through higher education, which puts them further in debt. And it’s this vicious cycle of relationships whereby these nonprofit entities become these powerful managers of capital in ways that benefit themselves and benefit their private partners.

[:

Let me paint an ugly picture for you. I envision a black hole, and student debt is going into that hole, local community services being depleted, the real resources of people equipment, services, in general, our energy pollution. And in the middle of it is this beautiful Ivory tower that is whatever that University is, and it’s sucking it in and the magnetic pole; it’s irresistible because you don’t want to be left behind.

So you’re going to do whatever you have to. And it doesn’t matter if tomorrow is going to kill you, because you can’t get out of this horrible debt burden. You’re going to do it because that’s the only way you can get into the entry way of employment. The American dream truly is an American nightmare, terrifying.

[:

And I think another point about this is that in the popular media, we’ve created this ridiculous narrative around College campuses as being these repositories for tenured radicals and snowflakes and lefties and this leftist indoctrination. But when you look at the economic portfolio and the physical footprint of higher education, we see a very different story.

These are not tenured radicals and lefty snowflakes that are running these institutions and that are shaping the curriculum model. So it’s easy to kind of attack these institutions as being, oh, leftist elitist. Hardly. This is the bastion of the corporate class and the developer class, and they are running the orientations, the paradigms and the frameworks of these institutions in ways that people just are not fully aware of.

And so in this book, I’m trying to sketch out what this actually looks like. The powerful thing about higher education is the myth of the schoolhouse that it’s just a place where we conduct classes and conduct pure research and teaching classes has become a side business in higher education. There’s so much more here that goes on in ways that either generate or manage capital that have nothing to do with teaching classes. And I hope that the listeners can begin to understand the actual dynamics of how higher education works today.

[:

Wow. Let’s go through your overall analysis. The book itself talks about Yale. Take us through that beginning phase of the book.

[:

Sure. So when I spent time in New Haven, Connecticut, where there was a profound disparity between what was $31 billion. But now during the pandemic $41 billion endowment of Yale University that sits in stark contrast to the predominantly black, brown and poor city that is New Haven. The property tax resource starved city that is New Haven. So it really is a tale of two cities.

And so when you look at this dynamic, there’s always this amazing and horrifying joke that people make and it says, what would New Haven be without Yale? And then they joke and say, New Britain or some other poor brown city in Connecticut, and laugh. Because the suggestion here is that because of the way in which Yale generates and draws investors for related research and development that are tied to the University because of the economic prosperity, the multibillion dollar endowment, the way in which students come and shop and live in New Haven because of Yale, that New Haven would be a black and brown ghetto without Yale.

mayors for at least since the:

And that is fine on the surface level. But when we think about higher education institutions as being nonprofits and what comes with that is that as 501C3 institutions on the tax code, it means that their properties are tax exempt. So former mayors have realized, wait a minute. There’s this property tax Gray area whereby these institutions are partnering with private entities in pharmaceuticals and military defense weaponry and software design.

They are partnered with private entities, and they’re conducting this research and development that they’re sending out to market and then receiving millions of dollars in royalties from the intellectual property that they produce, all that’s being done on tax exempt land. So these entities become tax shelters for these public private partnerships.

And as the University’s footprint extends into the city, this tax dynamic, this financial dynamic impacts the city in profound ways because it’s profoundly and primarily property taxes that pays for things like what, public schools, snow removal, and trash removal, roads, pensions, electrical grids; think about Texas a few months ago.

[:

Wow. Yes.

[:

Infrastructure. So there’s this dynamic relationship between the wealth that is being generated on these campuses and the degree to which a large portion of it is being directly extracted from the capital that these institutions are not paying into the whole cities where they sit. And then on another level, imagine a pharmaceutical company that is partnered with Yale and a pharmaceutical company in New Haven that’s not partnered with Yale.

The one partner with Yale because of the tax abatement, has lower overhead costs so they can sell their goods on the market at a lower cost. This dynamic is profound at the land level. Princeton University residents of the historically black neighborhood of Witherspoon Jackson in Princeton, New Jersey, when they discovered a similar dynamic with Princeton.

ided to sue Princeton, and in:

[:

It’s accurate.

[:

Another example, this is not just a private, elite school entity. Arizona State University, a public school in Go, go, go real estate, heavy real estate oriented, deregulation oriented Arizona. The public universities, they sit on tax exempt, state-owned land by the board of trustees of the state, and they realized that wait a minute, States are not contributing a significant amount or the same amount of money to higher education.

We have to figure out ways to be entrepreneurial ways to generate different revenue streams. So what Arizona State decided to do is they started to lease out their land to private companies that had nothing to do with education. So to this day, the largest development in the state of Arizona, which is a State Farm Insurance regional headquarters. It sits on Arizona State University tax exempt land.

And that entity is tax exempt. The University charges State Farm a slightly lower fee, and they take that money. And what do they do with it? They build a football Stadium, another amenity to compete on the market, and they are able to hire Herm Edwards, a former New York Jets football coach. They are able to hire him at a higher rate because they have this money based on this leasing deal.

And of course, the power of this is that because this is based on the tax exemption and the tax abatement, it doesn’t have to go through state political review. This money gets funneled directly to the University to engage in whatever amenities projects that it wants to engage in without any public oversight.

This is a public University. So these are examples that happen both public and private state schools. Big, small. This is a phenomenon whereby universities have become this powerful capital management and extraction regime.

[:

Wow. Yes. What jumps out at me is I am a believer in nonprofits at some level. I am the CEO of two nonprofits, a 501C3 and a C4. But we don’t get any of that. And we offer all of our media for free because people are giving us donations. And we feel the reason why we’re in business, so to speak, is to disseminate this information that we feel is vital.

So why would we put it behind a paywall? I think putting it behind a paywall is very selfish, self seeking. Everybody is entitled to a wage. But in the case of what we’re doing, this is too vital. What they’re doing should be an investment in American human capital. It should be absolutely an investment in all of us, the public purpose.

[:

That’s right.

[:

We should be reinvigorating the public purpose instead, even though it’s, quote, unquote public, it’s anything but. And I want to say one more thing. And this is another slight departure from the subject. But I think you’ll see a tie-in. We have the military that breeds a certain mindset when it comes back to the private sector.

When it leaves the military, you have mentally been trained and it’s been drilled into you to where you are fundamentally a different person. When you walk in than when you walk out, you have the military that has a propaganda agenda of its own. And now the school system is doing it the other direction with corporations fueling the intent.

So we are being programmed from the military to the University system and the capitalist class that is controlling both. Well, what exactly is it that they’re doing to us with our institutions? Again, I am surrounded by academics. We talk to academics all the time. This is not a slight on them.

[:

Exactly.

[:

But you understand, when I got my MBA, I was being taught by a former CFO of United Airlines, and he was an absolute capitalist. And that was what I walked away from. It was only in calamity that I ended up having an epiphany that brought me out of an MBA mindset and put me into an activist chair. So what is your take on that? What do you think about that?

[:

I think it happens both at the teaching level and also at the faculty curriculum level. So, for example, in terms of what happens in the classroom, the economics departments are skyrocketing business programs and schools like you said, MBAs are skyrocketing, and this impacts not just what you’re being taught, but how you learn what you think, what is a higher education for.

And you mentioned before, and I want to just second the point. I’m not against nonprofits, either. The nonprofit system and corporate partners and the fact that a number of University administrators now are coming from corporate America with a certain mentality and certain orientation. The boards of trustees of higher education institutions are filled with corporate partners.

And the idea here is that the free market is a self regulatory function, and that is not just an economic system, that it’s a political system, and that we all should be indoctrinated with that belief system in terms of how we teach, how we learn, how we socially interact. And so the idea here pervades so many aspects of our lives, especially in higher education.

And so when we are teaching, we are basically being taught. Every class is a teaching unit. And when you teach in a certain way, you’re supposed to take on a consumer ethos, you’re supposed to fill the classroom with as many students as possible. The Pandemic demonstrated this in a powerful way. I teach at an elite Liberal arts institution. We charge over $70,000 a year for our educational training.

But in the last decade or so bigger state schools just said, Wait a minute. We can do the same thing for a third of the price, because with the thing that we sell is intimate contact, University campus experiences, you can know, get to learn your professors, you have interaction with them. So state schools that we can create honors colleges.

So a school within the school and do the same thing at a third of the price. So our school is like, how do we compete with our identity? And so we’re still pushing for this idea of the campus experience. So during the pandemic, when we all went into social distancing and remote, one of our huge anxiety was, well, that’s our brand, our brand is being on campus.

So in the last few months, in the last six months, we are putting our faculty at danger of exposure in certain ways simply to get everyone back on campus. So we can continue to reproduce the value of this brand distinction. There’s very little that goes on differently in our classrooms and other schools across the country. But in order to be on campus, it’s a concierge system where students can be served.

They can get their laundry done for them. We have a laundry service. We can be intimately available to them at all times. They can engage in the amenities of parties on the weekends and luxury housing and gym access and nightlife and all these things, the beautiful campus, the long walk. They can have this amenities package and continue to believe that that distinction that’s distinct enough to pay $70,000 a year for their education.

We have to be on campus. We have to be put in danger in harm’s way. We have to put our families in harm’s way for this economic orientation. And the students come out with that same expectation that the job here for school is about career development, and parents have the same expectation that when they graduate, the education they get here is supposed to put them in a job.

But when you talk to employers all across the country, they’re saying the basic education in schools is not a direct route to job training. We still have to do some training to a certain level or the majors you take in the school are not a direct one to one ratio to the kind of job you’re going to have. It’s supposed to teach you an orientation of thinking, a way of thinking.

But because universities are organized around the system, and part of the problem was the way in which the federal loan system was set up in ’65, the Higher Education Act of 65 gave money to individual students as consumers instead of funding institutions that put higher education on the consumer orientation path, whereby schools are competing with each other to generate consumers or to capture consumers instead of underwriting higher education as a general system.

And so this is why now schools are trying to beef up their international student yield and their out of state tuition student yield because we charge out of state students a higher rate. And so because of this consumer system that was unintentionally set up by the Higher Education Act of 65, this creates this consumer ethic, and it’s deadly.

You can go to admissions offices all across the country, and they are figuring out all types of economic strategies and marketing strategies to compete with each other to increase their yield. And that’s the way they talk about students and student families. So it’s important to understand that.

[:

This neoliberal mindset of making us all individual gods in a world that really requires cooperation has created a sickness in each of us an alienation from our true selves, from our purpose as people to gather, to produce together and to thrive.

[:

And just to be fair as well. In my state of Massachusetts, the city of Boston for the last few years has instituted a voluntary system, especially in Northeast. Some universities are older than the States themselves, so their tax exemption is actually written into the Constitution, for example, Yale and Harvard.

And in Boston, they have instituted a voluntary system whereby if a higher education institution had property valued at over $15 million, it asked them, Would you please pay 25% of the value of that property if it was assessed, not one school would even do that. Some pay a fraction, but not even one would pay 25% of the assessed value of their properties.

I think it was over $15 million, and it just shows you the callousness of these institutions in the face of claiming to offer a public good. And that’s a powerful thing. In the book I call the public good paradox, whereby we presume that higher education is a public good simply by its own presence, that because we think of it as a teaching agent providing services, that the state doesn’t have to provide education, that it’s a public good.

But it’s precisely that public good status that allows it to extract public resources to generate and to fulfill its private interests. And so these institutions in Massachusetts and Boston wouldn’t even volunteer 25% of the assessed value of their property, and only the one that makes more than $15 million. So during the pandemic, residents are outraged.

So there’s a bill right now in the state house that is saying, Wait a minute. We need to make this not just mandatory, but we need to apply it to the entire state of Massachusetts. And so that’s a pressure to higher education. If you continue to hide behind this public good veil this framework while you’re engaging in private wealth hoarding, the people are going to be pissed.

And there’s going to be an uprising. And we’re starting to see that now around these institutions, instead of having a partner, as you mentioned before, having a partnership whereby residents and municipalities will say, okay, let’s work together. We want you to thrive, and we want you to help us thrive too in real ways, we could do that.

But these schools just turn their backs on their city, they turn their backs on the residents, and the response is going to be a full on attack in ways that the University system is not going to be able to control the narrative. And so they need to get on board and have these conversations to figure out more collaborative partnerships than just simply sitting in, as you mentioned, the Ivory Tower and just Grabbing money under the guise of being a public good entity.

[:

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[:

We have no problem seizing property through eminent domain, capturing people’s property to allow pipelines to go through it. Why are we not willing to seize that property in the name of the public good and then say, you’re welcome to rent it from the state. I think that that is possibly something that we should be talking about.

[:

Yeah, that’s a great point.

[:

We don’t want to destroy the essence of nonprofits, but the minute you engage in for profit behavior, you need to set up an affiliate that is a tax based affiliate. You can’t operate that under the C3.

[:

That’s right. Yeah, that’s a great point. Actually, there are a few people out there in the world who are arguing that we need to enact eminent domain on this property tax exemption. People are actually talking about that right now. And it’s an important point I think you’re making.

Also, I’m working with a group of residents in Eastern Massachusetts around Somerville and Tufts University to argue for and call for a true assessment of the land. Right now because these are tax exempt entities, they don’t even have to report how much of the land is being used for for-profit interest. Right.

[:

Okay, so let me bring some criminology I’ve learned from the great Bill Black onto this. If you create a banking system and you don’t create the enforcement apparatus to be big enough and funded enough to actually regulate the entity it’s being built to regulate, it’s a sham.

[:

Right.

[:

Same with regulating the nonprofits. If you’re going to do this, you must have the countervailing agency to be able to regulate those agreements.

[:

That’s right.

[:

The average person isn’t going to have the resources or the wherewithal to fight that battle. It takes something that has an equal standing or a greater standing to be able to manage that. And they have clearly ignored the regulatory framework. And this is why people think government doesn’t work, that these regulations are just a burden. They don’t realize these regulations are a protection against the predatory nature of unfettered capitalism.

[:

Well, the irony here is that you have these neoliberal entities and these for-profit orientations in higher education and corporate America that gut the public infrastructure and then point to the state and point to government, say, look, it doesn’t work, which is ridiculous. And so then we turn our backs on government. But it is working. It’s working to funnel public dollars and resources into these private interests.

So it’s working precisely in the way that those who hold the levers of power design it to work. And so I think we need to be clear about that. And I’ll just give you another example with the higher education piece. I’m working with residents in Berkeley, California, which we think of as bastion of radicalism and lefty thought. But the University tells a very different story.

So right now, Berkeley has one of the strongest rent control systems in the country. The rent control is covered over many of the apartments and housing venues in the city. Well, in the state Constitution, it states that if a University purchases the land, purchase the property, that its power overrides any municipal authority that was once covering that property.

w, this property in Berkeley,:

And so one of the main takeaways that I got from the residents who live in that property said, who do we appeal to when it comes to universities? To your point, there is no regulatory system. There is no form of appeal to universities. There are these semi independent entities. The only way that we can make an appeal is lawsuits, costly lawsuits, there is no agency within the state, there is no institution, there’s no oversight Commission by which to appeal to universities plundering and their misdeeds and misuses under the public good nonprofit cover. There’s no place to go just to reinforce your point.

[:

We work with a lot of the whistle blowers that were around during the Countrywide fraud. Bill Black was instrumental in pointing all this stuff out. And one of the things that jumped out was the appraisal system of the valuation of each piece of property and how states being so cash strapped have either implicitly or explicitly cosigned the inflating of property values because the tax is based on the evaluation of property.

[:

Right.

[:

So if you can elevate those values for the people that are stuck paying taxes. Again, another sucking job on the regular people while these universities are buying the properties up and then sitting on them or turning them into money making things, I think there’s a connection there.

[:

Oh, for sure.

[:

If the University system can help inflate property values and can help bolster the tax receipts for the other properties.

[:

Right?

[:

That’s a big deal.

[:

Well, this is what happened precisely in Phoenix, Arizona, when I was out there. That when the small business owners assessments that go out every year to determine how much property taxes will be levied to pay for infrastructure. They found directly that because they were surrounded by University properties, that their property taxes were increased and they were forced to, as you mentioned, carry the bag for things like schools.

And that’s precisely what they assess. And the important point here is that the universities, when I asked them about this whole assessment of what goes on in the buildings, what happens, you’re hiding behind the cover of educational purposes within the tax code. And yet you’re conducting for profit research, or you have a travel agency for your alumni that you charge them money for, and they will say, yeah, okay, that’s fine.

But it’s up to the assessor. It’s up to this county assessor to do the work. What a horrible punt. You know, you are flouting tax laws that you are living under a shelter, and when you directly ask you are saying, well it’s up to the assessor? And when I mentioned this to tax advocates in Arizona, which is very, actually anti tax state. But even in Arizona, when I relayed the story to them, they were outraged.

It was, how dare you make that claim while we struggle? And on top of that, sometimes we look at things just purely from effect of like, I’m a homeowner and kind of homeowner’s citizenship. But this phenomenon also raises the cost for renters for rental property.

And when universities move into these areas and they bring a whole army of off campus students, it encourages rental property owners to retrofit their properties to meet the needs of students that will cluster five or six into a two bedroom, which then phases out the needs and the interests of small, struggling families, they can’t pay, because the students will put five or six in a two bedroom. An actual single working family. They can’t compete with that marketplace.

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It’s a form of gentrification.

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It’s definitely displacement. It’s definitely a form of informal displacement. And on top of that, we’ve been talking about land for a while when we delve deeper into what I’m calling these campuses as basically as workshops, as profitable workshops. We also got to talk about the labor side. So graduate students who do the science, the research and development, particularly on the science side and the tech side and the computer science side.

If they had their bachelor’s degree and they went off to work for Bombardier or General Motors or Pfizer or Lyrica or some other company, they would probably start out making about $60,000 a year, conduct some good research in about five years, make $100,000 doing that work. Well, if they end up going to graduate school, the same training, the same skillset, doing the same research, they might get a $25,000 stipend.

They conduct some profitable research that comes back to the school and royalties. And five years later, they’re still getting that $25,000 stipend. So this arrangement works great for the private donor, the private company, because they dump some money into the school to get top notch research and development, and they write it off as an educational cost as an educational contribution.

The school takes that money and they’re able to pay for the principal investigator and their graduate student to do this work. And then a bunch of the money gets dumped into this category of overhead costs, where they do whatever they want with it. But then the students get screwed. And that’s just the research side.

Think about all the support staff, primarily black and brown women who do the food service, the landscaping, the support staff work they get below living wages. There are University workers that are eligible for public aid. They are full time workers on University campus. They’re still eligible for public aid. One of the reasons is because schools quote, unquote close for the three months in the summer.

And so if you’re a low wage worker at a University, your children’s dental costs don’t stop in the summer. Your health benefits needs don’t stop in the summer. But the schools can stop paying them. And so all these conditions, underwrite the wealth and the prosperity that we see with universities, in the gleaming towers of glass and steel and the bubbling and bulging endowments, all that’s underwritten by what they don’t pay in taxes, what they don’t pay in wages for graduate students and low wage workers. All this helps generate edify, the wealth regime that is higher education.

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They keep pushing reconstruction further and further to the right.

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Great point.

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And now, instead of having a plantation system, we’ve got a University system where the kids are producing wealth and value for corporations and for for profit entities, and they’re receiving none of the benefit. And these kids before they’ve gotten married, are already carrying a house payment on their back.

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That’s right.

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I want to say one more thing.

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Sure.

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Blackrock is buying up residential houses, commercial properties across the country as the economy implodes, these Titans of the rentier class have bought up America. It’s so stacked against us.

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Right?

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I can certainly see why people might feel it’s hopeless.

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Yeah, but there are some things that we can do, and I don’t want people to end the story on hopelessness. I want to end it on hope, because it’s important to understand that because the degree to which higher education pervades our lives in so many ways have nothing to do with classes and has nothing to do with people who actually go to school because they are the biggest employers in cities.

They set the wage ceiling for whole cities. If they raise their wages, it would raise the wages for whole cities because they have to compete to keep their labor force. This is a tide that can be turned. And so, for example, with the endowment piece in order to maintain their tax exemption on their endowments, they’re required to spend 5% of their endowment. But just imagine if schools were required or we made schools spend just 3% more.

But ensure that that 3% is directed towards community development, housing, affordable housing, economic infrastructure projects in the cities where they sit, that would be millions of dollars, even for a lesson, you don’t have to have a $40 billion endowment to make a huge impact on 3% of your endowment, you could have a half a billion dollars.

So 500 million dollar endowment. And if you require to spend 3% on community projects that would be transformative for these property tax dollar communities, that’s one thing, pilots payments in lieu of taxes make them mandatory, because, again, we’re not against University development and expansion, but we want it to be equitable distribution of the resources of the wealth that come from that phenomenon.

So, for example, in Harlem, New York, when Colombia was trying to expand what’s now it’s Manhattanville campus into West Harlem, the residents that we want you to come, but we want it to be a mixture of University buildings, light industry, affordable housing, recreation. And the University said, no, we want the whole thing to be a campus.

So if you are going to expand into a neighborhood, we need to have community benefits agreements tied to any project that universities move into campuses. That could include things like zip code specific jobs and job training. It could include requirements for affordable housing built into any infrastructure that’s built with the expansion. It could include things like recreational facilities that are open to residents, healthcare facilities that are open to residents at a low cost rate or at a free rate.

It could include things like a community charter could be placed on all common areas and this actually happens in places like University of Winnipeg. They have a community charter whereby the recreational facilities that are created by the University, they are required based on the charter to have access for the community to those spaces at peak hours, not at midnight or at five in the morning, but at peak hours for community use.

And also any University expansion that goes into the cities must be governed by a community based planning and zoning board so that these expansions can only be approved if they gain the approval and oversight of community based boards. That’s something that could happen. These are things that are real that could happen.

And what’s happening right now is you’ve seen the ramping up of collective bargaining on University campus on the part of low wage workers. What universities are doing is they’re shifting their labor force from direct employment to subcontractors. And so we argue that based on the so called mission of higher education to serve the public good, that’s the condition for the tax exemption.

We say a part of that mission must be to say that any employee, whether directly employed or subcontracted, must be protected by the same rights and conditions, which includes equitable wages. The fight for 15 should be included here. And there also should be no requirements to report on your prior convictions or your credit scores as a precondition for employment.

So these are the things that can happen. Also, a piece that we have talked about yet is the policing apparatus. So 75% of public and private schools have police departments, not public safety units. Police departments, nine of ten are armed, and about 85% of these police departments have jurisdiction beyond the main campus. They police regular residents.

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Wow.

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And so the irony of this phenomena is that the biggest crimes on campus, sexual violence and substance abuse are not policed. They do a horrible job. Why some people might say capacity. I say intent, because schools predominantly white schools, I’m going to be clear, are not going to want to say that they have a campus full of white criminals.

This undermines their brand. So the policing is all outward facing into the poor, black and brown neighborhoods around the campuses, to say to investors, to say to students, to say to families and to say to everyone else that we are open for business and we are safe. These police units, their job is to protect the brand.

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To protect capital.

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And so we call for campus police abolition to be replaced with trauma and preventative care units that actually could serve the needs of public safety needs of both students on campus and communities around them. A Senator in Baltimore when Johns Hopkins, with the backing of their alum, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, dumped millions of dollars into pushing forward a Johns Hopkins private police force.

And she said, Wait a minute. This is not serving the campus, and this is not serving the communities around the campus. Johns Hopkins has the most reputable, highest rated medical community in the world. Sheiks from the Middle East come here to get health care.

What would it mean if, instead of putting out police units that we took the professionals from Johns Hopkins Medical Center and had them in the community doing preventative care, trauma care, real public safety in ways that would eliminate the need at the same rates for armed surveillance forces that do nothing but protect the Hopkins of the University brand.

So these are solutions that are real. These are not pie in the sky. These are not rainbows and unicorns. These are solutions that I’m developing in my Smart Cities lab that are based on the actual economic infrastructure of higher education and figuring out how to leverage it in ways to actually serve communities instead of plundering them.

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So at SUNY Portland, Bob Hockett of Cornell University and Ben Wilson up at SUNY Portland, they’re working on this thing called the uni, which is like an alternative currency or complementary currency that can be used within the University system.

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Oh, yeah, I’ve heard about this.

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And this is a way of giving back in lieu of tax. And since the University has gobbled up the entire city, right, why wouldn’t they help them use this for going to the movies or buying local produce for the poor in the neighborhoods? There’s so many opportunities there. I don’t like the idea of, quote, unquote charity or here’s a stipend.

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I agree. And it’s also a tax write off.

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We need to find a way to serve the people directly. And I think that what you’re talking about with these solutions and approaches to solutions is a powerful message that we are not trapped, that there are opportunities there. And I stray into the reform or revolution place in this country as bad as things are. Sadly, we’re closer to the wrong kind of revolution. We’re closer to the white nationalist

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January 6

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reactionary. The pain ain’t great enough. And I don’t know whether that’s a direct case of phenomenal propaganda or whether that’s a direct case of maybe they’re keeping the frogs just beyond dying in the boiling water. But somehow or another, with all the stuff we just discussed in this podcast has been happening nonstop. In fact, they doubled down on it while we’re in lockdown.

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And they profited from it.

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And there’s still not enough rage. So we’re getting to the end here. So I would like to get your take on. We got some hope there. We got some solutions you put forward. How might an activist or how might we, as a nonprofit, even be a warrior in the space?

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Well, you’re right. Number one, spread the information, because what I found in talking to people is that most people that I know in the country, whether you’re in a small town or a big city, this phenomenon that I’m describing resonates with you, but they didn’t have the language or the framework or the ability to articulate what they were seeing.

And they tell me they appreciate what this book and what my orientation offers them because it just gives words to what they already know and experience. Like I said, I don’t think I’m being revolutionary here in the sense of what I’m saying. I think most of what I’m saying here is coming from conversations with actual people living it.

And so I’m just trying to give a frame and a language to what I’m seeing, what people are telling me. So they appreciate that and the problem is that they feel isolated. They feel disconnected from other people thinking the same. Am I crazy, or are they thinking the same way? So I just want to name a couple of organizations and groups.

For example, New Haven Rising in New Haven is a collection of labor organizations, residents and students that are saying, if we’re going to try to alter the relationship between Yale and New Haven, it can’t just be students. It can’t be isolated campaigns. The problem is comprehensive. Our response is got to be comprehensive, so they’re engaging in rallies and collective organization.

Blackbottom community in the:

And now we’re working with politicians like Council person Jamie Gautier to say that schools and private investors ramp up their investments in these neighborhoods that were pillaged by universities in the 60s. There must be protections on affordability on the communities that live there. And we’re trying to put forward legislation to protect these communities as they’re being pushed out of their neighborhoods.

Working with people in Berkeley with the Save Berkeley Neighborhoods, as I mentioned earlier, as a University buys up properties and converts into luxury housing, that the protections that cities have are being usurped. So we’re trying to figure out ways to fight against that. And right now, there’s a New York City Racial Justice Commission that’s trying to rewrite the city charter that takes into account that New York City is the biggest College town in terms of student population in the country.

And how can we write into protections to save New York City residents, working class residents working poor residents from being run over as universities gain more and more control and become the friendly face of finance and real estate developers in a city like New York. So these are just a couple of examples to say to people out there that people are trying to figure out new ways to work, and we need to collectively collaborate with each other and share stories and swap solutions and identify shared problems.

Because these institutions talk to each other. They have national meetings where University presidents and their donor class get together and talk about how to resource share, how to compare notes. We need to be doing the same thing, but we need to be pushing our state representatives, our city representatives, to look into these issues.

We need to actually knock on the doors of our county assessors and make them assess these properties appropriately. We need to join labor organizing right now. Columbia, NYU, Brown, schools all over the country, graduate students are engaging in labor organizing, but the problem in some ways that all these campaigns right now are isolated events.

What I hope my book does. And I think this happening is to show how these seemingly isolated events of labor organizing, of land, assessment of police abolition are actually connected. The problems are part of a larger University infrastructure. And so we need to offer an equally comprehensive response. And so that’s what I would say just to start.

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That’s amazing. I’m officially asking you. I want to stay connected. I think this is so important. If we can weave a web of connecting adjacent issues that don’t steal this focus that are directly impacting of this, I think there’s a way to build an even stronger movement. This is corruption at the highest level. Maybe we can collaborate because it is such a massive problem.

The control fraud, all these bending of the rules and twisting words to make unacceptable things acceptable. We got to bring it into it. And so I love your solutions. Every one of them sounds like a step in the right direction.

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And I just want to tell your listeners that when I use the word abolition, it doesn’t mean tear it all down. It doesn’t mean the end to the higher education. What it means is a reconstruction of the current condition because these are our resources, our money, our blood, our labor. It underwrites these towers. It underwrites these campuses. It underwrites these endowment wealth.

We’re just saying we want to reconstruct it, so we can also benefit from it, too. We’re not saying we want to be equally as selfish as universities currently are. We talking about sharing resources, about making beloved communities for everyone involved, including universities.

And I just want to make sure people understand that this is about reconstruction, as you mentioned early, the historic reconstruction, but a new reconstruction. This is about an abolition of our current conditions to make something new, to turn universities into a Commons.

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Yes.

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If that makes sense, right. It should be an extension of our lives, not a brick wall to our lives, not a roadblock to our lives. It should be a pathway to a better life. And that’s what it claims. And we want to live up to the claims.

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This is amazing. You’re a brilliant guy. I’m so happy we were able to pull this off, so let everyone know. How do we find you? I know we’ve got your book that we’re talking about “In The Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities.” Where can we follow you? What are some good things that we can attach to?

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Yeah, so follow me at @DavarianBaldwin on Twitter. That’s the easiest way to get a hold of me again at D-A-V-A-R-I-A-N-B-A-L-D-W-I-N on Twitter. But also follow organizations like New Deal for Higher Education, which I’m a part of. They’re the ones, if you know about the attempts to end student debt or to put a chunk in student debt to Bernie Sanders bill that became the Biden bill that got nixed.

This is a group of labor organizers and faculty and community members that got together with New Deal for Higher Education. They are the ones who help push that bill. I’m also affiliated with Scholars for Social Justice, which is another amazing organization. And those are the things that I would say. Join up on.

Follow me on Twitter. Follow those two organizations to start and they will lead you to other organizations. But be aware of Save Berkeley Neighborhoods. Be aware of the Black Bottom tribe in Philadelphia. Stay aware of New Haven Rising in New Haven. And there are others. But just to start and follow Cops Off Campus, which is a national network of University affiliates who are trying to get armed police off of University campuses. These are just a couple of things. Please join us.

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That’s fantastic. Debt Collective. Take a look at them. They’ve been doing some really good work.

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My former mentor, Andrew Ross, is one of the architects of Debt Collective. That’s another great group.

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Yeah, very good. All right. Well, with that, you are a gentleman, a scholar, and you are brilliant. And I appreciate your book. I’m so glad I had you on here. I look forward to talking to you again in the future.

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Steve, thanks so much. I appreciate your time.

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Not a problem. I’m Steve Grumbine, Davarian Baldwin, Macro N Cheese. We’re out of here.

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Macro N Cheese is produced by Andy Kennedy, descriptive writing by Virginia Cotts and promotional artwork by Mindy Donham. Macro N Cheese is publicly funded by our Real Progressives Patreon account. If you would like to donate to Macro N Cheese please visit Patreon.com/realprogressives.

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