It has slowly dawned on me that a huge number of universities came by their premises, by which I don’t mean their philosophical axioms but their physical environments, in exceedingly peculiar ways. Some of what follows below is hearsay and I don’t really have time to do historical research. But there’s more odd variation here than one might have predicted.
- The Danish School of Education occupies a building that, I’m told, was during World War II the Nazi museum of Scandinavian folk cultures. (This apparently had something to do with creating an Aryan heritage, though I gather that Germans at the time were hard pressed to pass themselves off as more Aryan than the Scandinavians!)
- Cornell University: Was once a farm (albeit financed by the massive business success of Western Union’s telegraph operation in the 1850s). University of Connecticut: likewise was once a farm.
- The University of Paris-8 used to be in Vincennes but was forced to move to Saint-Denis in 1980, and all its original buildings were demolished on the government’s pretext that it was a den of drug dealers (according to a film I saw).
- Columbia University: founded in 1754 by royal charter of King George II. It originally met in a schoolhouse with eight students; now owns $2 billion in New York real estate assets. Has suffered recent controversy about potentially displacing Harlem residents in a campus expansion. (NYU, founded in 1831, also now owns about $2 billion in NYC property.)
- The University of Paris-Dauphine is housed in the former NATO headquarters. These were left vacant when Charles de Gaulle decided to withdraw France from NATO in 1966.
- The University of Illinois-Chicago was built just next to an interstate highway exchange that had already destroyed much of Chicago’s Greektown neighborhood. The new campus, built over local protests, displaced 8000 people and 630 businesses, according to the university’s own historical documents. According to this article, the university’s development also effectively destroyed nearby Little Italy and Maxwell Street.
- The University of Chicago was built on some surplus real estate bought from the business tycoon Marshall Field. Now has expanded to $2.4 billion in land, buildings and books. Controversial involvement in 1950s “slum clearings” that demolished some 193 acres and displaced as much as 30,000 people (if you believe this source; I haven’t found a better one).
- According to many rumors, various post-60s campuses (possibly including Syracuse Univ, UC-Irvine, University of Texas, and/or certain French campuses), were built or remodeled to prevent student radicals from gathering in threatening crowds.
If per French myth little boys come from cabbages and little girls from roses, then here I suppose we might conclude that little universities come from farmlands and slum demolitions while little colleges come from royal charters and spare military headquarters… which are delivered from the sky by storks, no doubt. Seriously, though, just this little sample suggests that many universities come to exist through absurd and somewhat disturbing circumstances, ones that don’t make it sufficiently into our theories of the university. Can one find in any existing philosophical concept of the university – Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties, for instance – the merest hint that universities would be involved in sometimes surprisingly massive projects of urban dislocation, in urban destruction that can only so very optimistically be called “creative“?
These historical absurdities in the origins of academic institutions aren’t to be sloughed off; they can teach us something important about the irrational kernel that lies at the core of seemingly neat institutional teleologies. My point is not, mind you, that universities are to be understood as pure historical accidents, purely random organizational conglomerates. Kant’s aforementioned book starts out by saying: “Whenever a man-made institution is based on an Idea of reason (such as that of a government) which is to prove itself practical in an object of experience (such as the entire field of learning at the time), we can take it for granted that the experiment was made according to some principle contained in reason, even if only obscurely, and some plan based on it–not by merely contingent collections and arbitrary collections of cases that have occurred.” And indeed, it’s true that there are always principles of organization, “ideas of reason” if you’re inclined to call them that, at work in university organization. The purpose of looking at the oddly arbitrary origins of universities is hence not to discount university structure, but to show how this structure is constantly hiding and appropriating the little historical mistakes (or sometimes calamities) that set it in motion.
The picture I started out with is an empty lot a mile to the west of the University of Chicago. Did you guess that this scrubby patch of worn snow is adjacent to one of the nation’s richest institutions of higher learning?