Published January 13, 2022

Davarian L. Baldwin (In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities) discusses how universities have become big business and the costs for those living in their shadows, with Jalane Schmidt, director of the UVA Democracy Initiative’s Memory Project and associate professor of Religious Studies.

Watch the recording of this event:

There is a Discussion Guide to accompany the book, which is AVAILABLE HERE. You can also explore some of the resources mentioned in the discussion here: 

In addition, there were two questions that we ran out of time to cover in the event, and Dr. Baldwin has kindly responded to them here: 

  • How do you make sense (emotionally) of your positionality as a member of the academy who ostensibly benefits from this exploitation of the surrounding community? I ask this as a fellow academic and a Black woman who is troubled by my relationship to the University but also sees this relationship as an opportunity for doing good work.

DLB: Yes, there is an emotional reality that cannot be confined by intellectual considerations. However, in the face of this challenge, of being in an institution that does exploit, my response cannot be inertia. I think the problem, is that most of us who exist in these institutions offer critique, are frustrated but fail to act. Of course, we have to act differently based on our levels of security. But with tenure and a public profile I wrote this book and followed up with a Smart Cities Lab to not just share information but to advocate on behalf of communities. Is this perfect, no? But my next step is to provide a model and build advocacy for other scholars to see different pathways for being in and not necessarily of these institutions, including my work with collective bodies like Scholars for Social Justice and Scholars for a New Deal in Higher Education, which means going from my individual advocacy to a collective mobilization. I hope this helps. 

  • Universities have lawyers to defend their interests. To what extent do public-interest lawyers and the media get involved to help protect public interests?

DLB: Oh yes, there is an incredible need for lawyers, media specialists and other professionals and advocates with skill sets. As you mention, these institutions are multi-layered and we need advocates with skillsets that match those capacities which includes accountants, engineers, scientists, real estate specialists, anyone that can match the capacity of higher education institutions but driven by a mission to liberate and democratize and not simply hoard and privatize, if that makes sense. To be specific, media specialists can interpret university press releases and distribute alternative documents. Lawyers can analyze contracts or even file lawsuits on behalf communities seeking redress from tax-abatement. We need accountants and real estate specialists who can assess the land use activities on campuses and make appeals to county assessors for tax compensation with regard to for-profit activity. These are just a few examples.


In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower takes readers from Hartford to Chicago and from Phoenix to Manhattan, revealing the increasingly parasitic relationship between universities and our cities. Through eye-opening conversations with city leaders, low-wage workers tending to students’ needs, and local activists fighting encroachment, scholar Davarian L. Baldwin makes clear who benefits from unchecked university power—and who is made vulnerable.

A wake-up call to the reality that higher education is no longer the ubiquitous public good it was once thought to be, Baldwin shows there is an alternative vision for urban life, one that necessitates a more equitable relationship between our cities and our universities.

“A well-informed and highly critical study of higher education’s “increasingly powerful hold” over U.S. cities… Combining in-depth research, practicable models of reform (e.g. the University of Winnipeg’s sustainable development program), and the lively voices of community organizers and college insiders, Baldwin makes a convincing case. This passionate call to hold universities more accountable resonates.”―Publishers Weekly

“A cogent analysis of an urban-growth phenomenon that is rarely done well or equitably.”―Kirkus Reviews

“Baldwin brings his incisive insights and analysis to bear in a devastating critique of our dated and quaint notions of universities and colleges as egalitarian sites of learning and cultural production. He unmasks ‘UniverCities’ as growth machines, unleashing gentrification, stewarding large police forces, cheating tax coffers while exploiting low wage Black and Brown labor throughout the campus.”―Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership

“Insightful, compelling, and timely. This book lays the groundwork for the role of universities in creating equitable and just cities.”―Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist

Community Partners

Thanks to New Humanities, our organizational co-host for this event. A project of Virginia Humanities, New Humanities is a community-driven media project designed to document and preserve the history of families in one of Charlottesville, Virginia’s historically Black neighborhoods. The project works closely with 10th and Page residents to digitize their physical materials and to record oral histories.

We also appreciate the support of our community partner, the University and Community Action for Racial Equity (UCARE), for helping share information about this event.

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