The origins of university real estate

A friend of mine recently asked if I knew anything about the history of the college quad as a place of free speech and debate. I didn’t, but I’ve done a tiny bit of research in the last couple of days and the results are interesting. Among other things, I observe something of a historical transformation in the scholarly literature: an older era’s work concentrated mainly on college architecture as an aesthetic form in itself, tracing the origins of campus buildings and the progress of architectural styles. Many campuses have their own histories; they are often adapted to the rhetorical needs of campus self-promotion and self-consecration, the sort of thing written by loyal emeritus professors to please the president. On the other hand, a more recent, more modern, more critical literature takes up a different problem, that of the university’s relation to its town, to its broader environment, to its social context; this research tends to be darker, looking at university’s sometimes problematic involvement in urban development, in racial exclusion, in slum clearance, in gentrification. I’ve posted before about Gordon Lafer’s history of Yale urban development and about Kate Eichhorn’s paper on the “abject zone” of copyshops around the University of Toronto — typical examples of this more recent literature.

I have a bunch of photographs of university quads to look at here, and some more recent articles from the U.S. context to think about, but to start off this new set of posts I wanted to begin with this extract from a History of the University in Europe. It offers a very suggestive picture of how universities began to acquire real estate in the first place:

“In the late Middle Ages, as student populations grew and universities ceased to migrate, universities acquired buildings and movable property. For a long time time in Paris and Bologna the administration had not needed to take care of buildings, because there were none. Lectures were held in houses rented by the masters, examinations and meetings in churches and convents. In Paris, however, both the theological faculty and the nations began renting property as early as the fourteenth century, and acquiring it in the fifteenth century. With lecture halls in the rue de Fouarre and many other places, with colleges and lodgings, and with churches (all of them on the left bank of the river), the Quartier Latin became the university quarter of Paris. The young Bologna studium, too, contented itself with private houses and religious or public buildings for lectures, meetings, and ceremonies.

Growing numbers of students, some of them very young and needy, made housing facilities more necessary as time passed. College buildings arose everywhere, but especially in universities with large faculties of arts, such as Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and later on the German universities. Italian studia also looked for lodgings for their students. The comparatively few colleges in northern Italy were founded in and after the fourteenth century, at first in converted private homes. After 1420 a special type of building appeared, the domus sapientiae (house of wisdom) or sapienza, a teaching college modelled on the Collegio de Spagna in Bologna, built in 1365-7. The rooms were grouped around an arcaded courtyard. Gradually the sapienza ceased to be dwellings and in early modern times became the official university buildings with lecture rooms, discussion rooms, a library, rooms for accommodation and administration, archives, and a graduation room. The palazzo della sapienza became the current name for these sumptuous university buildings. (136-7)

[It goes on to describe 14th-century quadrangles built at Oxford and Cambridge, funded by donations and university funds.]

… By 1500 old and new universities alike possessed proper academic buildings — lecture rooms, assembly rooms, a chapel, one or more libraries, lodgings for students and teachers – and many articles of value. Throughout Europe, faculty buildings, and particularly college buildings with libraries combining functional needs with a show of magnificence, were visible signs that the masters in the late medieval university were no longer footloose. No longer could universities threaten to migrate, no longer could public authorities tolerate strikes or secessions; the monumental disposition and architecture of the late medieval university showed how completely it had become a part of society. University towns had acquired a character of their own. (139)

The back story here is that the early medieval universities (composed after all mainly of a bunch of masters teaching in rented rooms) were capable of wholesale mobility. If the local authorities ceased to be congenial, scholars could threaten to leave town, taking the university with them. (As in Bologna in 1211-20 or Prague in 1409; the former was only a threat, the latter involved doctrinal dissenters leaving to found a new university in Leipzig.) The acquisition of campus real estate spelled the end of this mobility and thus the loss of a major political option. Not that I really know anything about medieval society, but I imagine this moment as being the end of the powerful rootlessness that American hobos celebrated in song.

At any rate, acquiring real estate obviously had logistical advantages. We see in this passage that there was a real need for student housing and classroom space, and later libraries, offices, and so on. Universities entered into a regime of private property and ownership. And, the last paragraph tells us here, these buildings came to confer social legitimacy, “combining functional needs with a show of magnificence” that must have been equally a show of significance. The overly schematic reading of this passage would be that early universities acquired social legitimacy in the moment of their entrance into regimes of conspicuous consumption of private property.

It’s overly schematic because, even without really knowing the historical or institutional detail, it’s obvious that there were more complicated forms of political recognition at work; a quick glance at the book reminds us that there were real political tensions between kings, local authorities, the Pope, the local Church authorities, the local townspeople… social recognition of universities in such circumstances was obviously not one-dimensional. Nonetheless, the basic link between property and legitimacy seems clear. Such a link appears self-reinforcing: the more a university is legitimate, the more it can acquire property; and the more property it has, the more legitimate it is. It’s no coincidence that the richest universities today are the wealthiest; Thorstein Veblen noted a hundred years ago that money confers prestige. It’s interesting to note, however, that according to the passage above, functionality came first in the acquisition of campus real estate, while the ostentatious magnificence of the buildings came second. As if social distinction was patterned first of all on functional utility? That seems somehow a very American notion.

At any rate, even today university mobility is not entirely dead, even in spite of the long-strengthening equation between universities and their physical presence, i.e., their campuses, i.e., their property. One of my fieldsites, the University of Paris-8, was forced to move to a new campus at the hands of a hostile government in the early 80s. (I won’t get into the story just now.) This year, an American case is very interesting: Antioch College in Ohio was closed by a hostile board of trustees, but in an itinerant fashion worthy of the Middle Ages, some of its faculty moved into new makeshift lodgings, kept teaching, and lobbied to be given back their campus buildings. They had to change their name, because apparently they had no legal right to the old one, and are now the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute. There are a lot of documents online about the closing, but it sounds like there might be a new college opening before long, after a great deal of struggle by alumni. Hearing a presentation about this last spring, I had the sense that these Antioch activists were themselves deeply attached to the physical space of their prior campus buildings. Paradoxically, then, even as they demonstrated that actually a university can detach from its real estate even now, their desire for their lost physical premises evinced something of an ideological attachment to the historically emergent equation of a university with its physical place.

I won’t get further into the details. I’ll just note for now that the birth of university real estate was the prerequisite for the enclosure of university space and the making of what’s now considered (in America) the college quad. More historical fragments of this political history in future posts.