By Dean Franco
Director, Humanities Institute
Winifred W. Palmer Professor in Literature
On September 29th, 4pm the UN seminar convened at Wake Forest Downtown to discuss the introduction and first two chapters of Davarian Baldwin’s new book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Towers. Baldwin, a professor of American Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, has written several books and articles about urban development and race, and the present book is a focused examination of how universities bear on racial inequities in the cities in which they operate. Baldwin focuses on elite, private universities, including Yale, the University of Chicago, NYU, Columbia, and his own Trinity College. The basic argument is that these universities leverage their non-profit status and a range of local and federal tax and real estate policies and programs to purchase and control enormous amounts of real estate. In some cases, that real estate development is a form of academic colonialism, as in the case of Columbia which bought and developed property in Harlem, with an ostensible allowance for broader community use, but an effective imposition of hierarchy and privelge for Columbia faculty and students. Similarly, schools like NYU, Yale, and Trinity don’t even have to develop property to influence a neighborhood. Simply purchasing the property drives up real estate prices in the neighborhood. Meanwhile trustees, donors, and others in the university’s elite network can donate to, lease from, or partner with the university and reap the benefits of the non-profit status. This is something like money laundering, especially for those elite affiliates who operate industry in university towns, and find their own real estate holdings increasing in value.
Notably, our discussion occurred in the shadow of the brick towers—the repurposed tobacco processing facilities that now comprise Wake Downtown. That property was developed and is own by Wexford, a corporation mentioned in Baldwin’s book. Wexford is a leading developer of “univer-cities” (Baldwin’s coinage) and have put a particular brand on the towns they develop, including Winston Salem. There’s no need to review all the ways WFU has impacted downtown, but it is important to point out there is currently a housing crisis in this city, with low-income housing in especially short supply. Housing justice advocates have observed that WFU’s property holdings, along with its real estate development helps drive up costs of housing in W-S. Meanwhile, WFU owns properties near the hospital, and over the past year it has evicted at least five tenants during the pandemic. Needless to say, this circumstance informed our conversation.
At the same time, the seminar is reluctant to center WFU in all of our conversations, which would simply replicate its dominance in the city. We observed the obvious, that WSSU and UNCSA have far fewer real estate assets and far less of an impact on the city in that regard. Still, for me that simply prompts another question: how did that happen? During the period when WFU moved to W-S, WSSU was (I think) undergoing growth and transition, adding a nursing school and developing curricular and accreditation to become a university (rather than a college). At the same time, city patriarchs were re-engineering the northern part of the city to make way for WFU (construction began in 1952 with new campus opening in 1956). Since then, increasing amounts of historic property have been deeded over to the university, and WFU’s network of reciprocal influence across the city has grown. Donors donated, political captains made the deals, and Wake now has a huge real estate and political footprint across the city, even as WSSU remains comparatively under-resourced by the city (I am aware that the State controls the budget for WSSU; But I’m thinking about the way the city itself does or does not regard each campus). Anyway, these are questions we will continue to pursue.