Universities on strange premises

engelwood vacant lot

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The new campus, built over local protests, displaced 8000 people and 630 businesses, according to the university’s own historical documents.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?

12 thoughts on “Universities on strange premises

  1. I’m not sure if this counts as odd or not, but NYU’s main academic building was built with convict labor in the 1830s, setting off riots among the city’s non-incarcerated laborers.

    1. Yeah, that sounds pretty weird to me, Zach. I’m actually not sure what to make intellectually of this set of freakshow tales, in spite of my first stab at the end of the post, but do you have any thoughts about their significance as a whole? I mean, of course most or all social institutions have these kind of arbitrary moments somewhere in their historical trajectories, but in the case of the university, which is ostensibly the institution of pure thought and rationality, somehow these contradictions between institutional telos and actual nutty historical contingency seem exacerbated.

      I’m increasingly struck by the theoretical significance of rich private American universities’ sheer ownership of capital, urban real estate in particular. Have you read much about this? I heard that there’s a book called “the university as urban developer,” though it looked anodyne when I skimmed it in google books. Funny, because I always find it annoyingly simplistic when people say that universities just *are* corporations, but these histories really seem to point in that direction. Though there’s a difference I guess between a corporation as a large entity that’s driven to accumulate capital by the profit motive, and an elite private university which accumulates capital less I think for the sake of profit per se, and more as a means of amplifying its status as a privileged node in elite social reproduction. Money is after all rather a major academic status symbol, as paradoxical as that is…

  2. Very interesting blog.

    You have to get a lot of real estate while it’s cheap and available so you can expand later when you need to but the land is already encumbered. Or sell it if you need to keep the institution going in bad times.

    I think university presidents think about these things.

    “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.” This is pretty true … does it make the origins of universities more modern/modernizing?

    And yes, I knew exactly where your picture was, because it looks Chicagoan and the U of C is famous for being rich in the middle of non richness.

  3. I haven’t seen that particular volume, but there are a bunch of 1990s neoliberal texts on how universities should do more for their cities by engaging with empowerment zone apparatuses, using biotech as a means to stimulate job growth and their own endowments, subsidizing employee housing as a means to direct gentrification, etc. “The Promise and the Betrayal” has a nifty introduction ot that effect by none other than former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros. What might be of more interest is work like Gordon Lafer’s 2003 article “Land and Labor In The post-industrial University Ton: Remaking Social Geography” (in Political Geography 22) which tries to put the academic labor movement in dialogue with critical geography, or a lot of the endowment research material that’s been floating around since the late 60’s – “How Harvard Rules,” “Who Rules Columbia,” “Go To School, Learn To Rule: The Yale Method,” the work the Yale Unions and HarvardWatch and UTWatch were doing in the early part of this decade, the campaign UNITE-HERE’s currently involved in around university investments in the hotel ownership group HEI…

    I mean, I think the fact that universities have messy histories is significant in itself, both interms of institutional mythologies and for unerstanding the specificities of the history of the long interrelationships between universities, industrial capitalism, and U.S. empire as ongoing and constantly changing. I too don’t have much patience for the “universities are corporations” trope, both because it sounds more exculpatory than anything else, and because it kinda precludes the historical specificity and theoretical rigor and elaboration of the relationship between universities and neoliberal biopolitics demands. I kinda like Andrew Ross’s suggestion that this isn’t so much about the “corporatization of the university” as it is about the emergence of a new mode of production structured around the convergence of academic neoliberalism and the knowledge corporation, but it seems pretty clear to me that universities have been “corporate” in one way or another since the 1890s and we need more precise language to talk about what that really means…

  4. Hi Zach,

    It’s super interesting to know that that literature exists, and I hadn’t heard of most of those endowment research groups either (though I had just seen the UT Watch site in looking up stuff about ostensibly anti-activist architecture for this post). Will definitely read Lafer’s piece.

    About universities and corporations, my major thought about trying to improve the specificity of our analyses of this phenomenon is to say that we need to look more closely at the historical specificity of American private universities, as opposed to other segments of american higher ed (community colleges are more vocational but not as corporatized, perhaps?) and opposed to other national contexts. Certainly, the University of Chicago, if you believe Veblen, has been fairly involved with the corporate world since its inception. (By the way, did you read Veblen’s book about uchicago? It’s one of my favorite ever books about universities, and one of the funniest academic books I’ve ever read. Marshall Sahlins just published something about it in Critical Inquiry (“the conflicts of the faculty”) that you might like too.)

    But my major qualification to your remark about “‘corporate’ in some sense since the 1890s” is that that seems to be a very uniquely American phenomenon. In France, the 1890s were the moment when the French public university system really was developed, and it was not remotely corporate — it was run nationally — and it didn’t even have much in the way of local university governance, it seems, until after the 1960s. And French universities (leaving aside the elite grandes écoles, which are a separate system) even now are only beginning (like since the 1990s) to have the autonomous presidents, the corporate connections, the neoliberal state divestment that has characterized American universities for far longer. So I think we have to be diligent about doing international comparison in talking about these kinds of corporate involvements! It would be great to have a global summary of the differential progress of neoliberalism around the world, because though many of the same trends obtain, the details and dates seem to vary substantially. I don’t think anyone has written such an essay so far, though.

    What’s the Andrew Ross place where he talks about corporatization of the university? And btw, if you would be interested in doing some kind of impromptu online reading group, I’ve been collecting a bunch of articles about different national university systems, but haven’t really had time to read them yet. Maybe it would be neat to read like one paper a week and blog about them?

  5. Here’s a quick bibliography of national comparison cases that I pulled from my endnote database. I haven’t read most of these; some are better than others no doubt, but I suspect that reading a random sample of these would already give a pretty interesting comparative perspective.

    Bernasconi, Andrés. “Is There a Latin American Model of the University?” Comparative Education Review 52, no. 1 (2008): 27-52.
    Shore, Cris. “‘after Neoliberalism’? The Reform of New Zealand´S University System.” In Working Papers on University Reform, edited by Susan Wright. Copenhagen: University of Aarhus School of Education, 2007.
    Tiplic, Dijana, and Anne Welle-Stranda. “Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Higher Education System.” European Education 38, no. 1 (2006): 16-29.
    Stojanov, Georgi, and Natasha Angeloska-Galevska. “The Higher Education System in Macedonia.” European Education 38, no. 1 (2006): 44-59.
    Pritchard, Rosalind. “Trends in the Restructuring of German Universities.” Comparative Education Review 50, no. 1 (2006): 90-112.
    Prichard, Craig. “A Warm Embrace? New Zealand, Universities and The “Knowledge-Based Economy”.” Social Epistemology 20, no. 3 (2006): 283 – 97.
    Ørberg, Jakob Williams. “Setting Universities Free? The Background to the Self-Ownership of Danish Universities.” In Working Papers on University Reform, edited by Susan Wright. Copenhagen: University of Aarhus School of Education, 2006.
    Greenberg, Jessica. “Noc Reklamozdera: Democracy, Consumption, and the Contradictions of Representation in Post-Socialist Serbia.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 29, no. 2 (2006): 181-207.
    Erdreich, Lauren, and Tamar Rapoport. “Reading the Power of Spaces: Palestinian Israeli Women at the Hebrew University.” City & Society 18, no. 1 (2006): 116-50.
    Burtscher, Christian, Pier-Paolo Pasqualoni, and Alan Scott. “Universities and the Regulatory Framework: The Austrian University System in Transition.” Social Epistemology 20, no. 3 (2006): 241 – 58.
    Barry, Jim, Elisabeth Berg, and John Chandler. “Academic Shape Shifting: Gender, Management and Identities in Sweden and England.” Organization 13, no. 2 (2006): 275-98.
    Larner, Wendy, and Richard Le Heron. “Neo-Liberalizing Spaces and Subjectivities: Reinventing New Zealand Universities.” Organization 12, no. 6 (2005): 843-62.
    Pritchard, Rosalind. “Humboldtian Values in a Changing World: Staff and Students in German Universities.” Oxford Review of Education 30, no. 4 (2004): 509-28.
    Ntshoe, Isaac M. “The Politics and Economics of Post-Apartheid Higher Education Transformation.” Comparative Education Review 48, no. 2 (2004): 202-21.
    Musselin, Christine. “Towards a European Academic Labour Market? Some Lessons Drawn from Empirical Studies on Academic Mobility.” Higher Education 48, no. 1 (2004): 55-78.
    Rhoads, Robert A., and Gary Rhoades. “The Public Discourse of U.S. Graduate Employee Unions: Social Movement Identities, Ideologies, and Strategies.” Review of Higher Education 26, no. 2 (2003): 163-86.
    Ordorika, Imanol. “The Limits of University Autonomy: Power and Politics at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma De Mexico.” Higher Education 46, no. 3 (2003): 361-88.
    Mattheou, Dimitrios. “The Reform of the Greek University.” European Education 35, no. 3 (2003): 31-43.
    Julius, Daniel J., and Patricia J. Gumport. “Graduate Student Unionization: Catalysts and Consequences.” Review of Higher Education 26, no. 2 (2003): 187-216.
    Corbett, Anne. “Ideas, Institutions and Policy Entrepreneurs: Towards a New History of Higher Education in the European Community.” European Journal of Education 38, no. 3 (2003): 315.
    Webler, Wolff-Dietrich. “Evaluation and Accreditation of Higher Education Establishments in Ukraine.” European Education 34, no. 1 (2002): 5.
    Ogawa, Yoshikazu. “Challenging the Traditional Organization of Japanese Universities.” Higher Education 43, no. 1 (2002): 85-108.
    Milleret, Margo. “Lessons from Students About the Brazilian Dictatorship.” Hispania 85, no. 3 (2002): 658-64.
    Konings, Piet. “University Students’ Revolt, Ethnic Militia, and Violence During Political Liberalization in Cameroon.” African Studies Review 45, no. 2 (2002): 179-204.
    Amutabi, Maurice N. “Crisis and Student Protest in Universities in Kenya: Examining the Role of Students in National Leadership and the Democratization Process.” African Studies Review 45, no. 2 (2002): 157-77.
    Rhoads, Robert A., and Liliana Mina. “The Student Strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico: A Political Analysis.” Comparative Education Review 45, no. 3 (2001): 334-53.
    Gantman, Ernesto, and Mauricio Contreras. “Argentine Universities in the Age of the Knowledge Society.” Organization 8, no. 2 (2001).
    Bock, Ulla. “The Institutionalization of Women’s Studies at German Universities at the End of the Century.” European Education 32, no. 4 (2000): 14.
    Eismon, Thomas Owen, Ioan Mihailescu, Lazar Vlasceanu, Catalin Zamfir, John Sheehan, and Charles H. Davis. “Higher Education Reform in Romania.” European Education 31, no. 2 (1999): 39.
    Rahman, Tariq. “Transforming the Colonial Legacy: The Future of the Pakistani University.” Futures 30, no. 7 (1998): 669-80.
    Mojab, Shahrzad. “The State, University, and the Construction of Civil Society in the Middle East.” Futures 30, no. 7 (1998): 657-67.
    Chevaillier, Thierry. “Moving Away from Central Planning: Using Contracts to Steer Higher Education in France.” European Journal of Education 33, no. 1 (1998): 65.
    Eicher, Jean-Claude. “The Recent Evolution of Higher Education in France: Growth and Dilemmas.” European Journal of Education 32, no. 2 (1997): 185.
    Lamoure, Jean, and Jeanne Lamoure Rontopoulou. “The Vocationalisation of Higher Education in France: Continuity and Change.” European Journal of Education 27, no. 1/2 (1992): 45-55.
    Nkinyangi, John A. “Student Protests in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Higher Education 22, no. 2 (1991): 157-73.
    Levy, Daniel C. “The Decline of Latin American Student Activism.” Higher Education 22, no. 2 (1991): 145-55.
    Guin, Jacques. “The Reawakening of Higher Education in France.” European Journal of Education 25, no. 2 (1990): 123.
    Altbach, Philip G., and Robert Cohen. “American Student Activism: The Post-Sixties Transformation.” Journal of Higher Education 61, no. 1 (1990): 32-49.
    Altbach, Philip G. “Student Politics in the Third World.” Higher Education 13, no. 6 (1984): 635-55.
    Kowalewski, David. “Student and Non-Student Protest in Japan and the Ussr: Some Uniformities.” Higher Education 11, no. 1 (1982): 51-65.
    Meyer, John W., and Richard Rubinson. “Structural Determinants of Student Political Activity: A Comparative Interpretation.” Sociology of Education 45, no. 1 (1972): 23-46.
    Shimbori, Michiya. “Student Radicals in Japan.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 395 (1971): 150-58.
    Lutz, Jessie G. “The Chinese Student Movement of 1945-1949.” Journal of Asian Studies 31, no. 1 (1971): 89-110.
    Altbach, Philip G., and Patti Peterson. “Before Berkeley: Historical Perspectives on American Student Activism.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 395 (1971): 1-14.
    Weinberg, Ian, and Kenneth N. Walker. “Student Politics and Political Systems: Toward a Typology.” American Journal of Sociology 75, no. 1 (1969): 77-96.
    Clark, Priscilla P., and Terry Nichols Clark. “Writers, Literature, and Student Movements in France.” Sociology of Education 42, no. 4 (1969): 293-314.

  6. The University of Texas itself isn’t a post-60s campus, but some areas were remodeled in the 60s and 70s as a response to protesting. The current main building and surrounding malls were built in 1937, and before that, there was another main building in the same location from 1882-1934. In the 60s, the West Mall was commonly used as a place for student protests and gatherings. Several large planters and a fountain were put straight up through the middle of the mall to break up the space and a new undergraduate library replaced the patio of the Texas Union building, where students used to meet.

    This is a very true story, not just a rumor. The board of regents went through with it despite the heavy opposition from students, faculty, and state and local lawmakers. The UT regents have a history of being total A-holes.

    When I was a student at UT, part of one of my summer jobs was giving campus tours to students and parents. I’m full of all kinds of random facts and stories about the campus. 🙂

  7. Hey Eli,

    Yeah, I guess i was being kind of unintentionally nationalist there. Haven’t read the Veblen book – it was on one of my exam lists, but i never got to it. I should someday. The Ross essay i’m thinking of has appeared in a couple places – his essay in The University Against Itself is one, his contribution to the first round of the edu-factory discussion is another.

    I’d be down for the impromptu online reading group…

  8. also re: community colleges – what about the proliferation of for profit ventures on a local and national scale that are basically trying to occupy the same social niche?

  9. I have one. I’m an anthro student at Rice, and our founding was a pretty insane story. (My second favorite is Vassar’s history).

    An excerpt from here

    “Rice died on Sept. 23, 1900, but not of natural causes. Albert T. Patrick, an unscrupulous lawyer, was in cahoots with Rice’s valet, Charles Jones. They had concocted a plot to steal his fortune by means of a forged will. Impatient for Rice to die, the crooked lawyer and greedy valet suffocated him. They might have gotten away with their scheme; however, the next day, they tried to cash a check written out to the lawyer by the valet. In their rush, the valet misspelled the lawyer’s name. An alert bank clerk noticed the discrepancy, and the bank president called Rice’s apartment for verification. With Capt. Baker pressing the investigation, the plot soon unraveled. The valet confessed, the lawyer was sent to Sing Sing, and Rice’s fortune was saved. A counterclaim to much of the estate, based on Rice’s second wife’s will, was settled in 1904, and the funds became available to fulfill the intentions of the 1891 charter.”

  10. Hi Elizabeth and Katie, thanks for the new stories!

    Katie, very sorry to take so long to respond; this slipped by me for some reason. I’m glad to have confirmation that these tales about anti-activist architecture aren’t false. (I had always heard these tales about campus fortifications, but in writing this post I suddenly realized they were major hearsay, so I called them rumors…)

    Elizabeth, that story is indeed pretty strange! I had been thinking here mostly of strange stories about the origins of the physical buildings and grounds of universities, but certainly there are a lot of strange machinations involved in the organizational and financial origins of new universities as well. Material for a new post there, I think… by the way, your website has great design. Oh wait, you are a graphic designer…

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