The Urban Academy and the ‘Actually Existing’ University

How might we think about the role of the university as a progressive urban actor and context for more socially just modes of urbanism?

Alex Schafran (2014, 2015) and David Madden’s (2015) recent debate in the journal CITY has foregrounded critical questions regarding the production and politics of urban knowledge, and the capacity of critical urban theory – and practice – to catalyze emancipatory and democratic social change. In particular, Schafran’s (2014, 327) call for “a different and partially separate urban academy” poses a provocative challenge to the calcified structures of knowledge production in the contemporary university. Urban complexity and the drive towards interdisciplinarity certainly necessitate new ways of teaching and refined educational goals (for individual academics and the universities in which they are based) if university-based engagement and training are to foster meaningful and progressive societal impacts. For Schafran (2015, 304) this involves ‘completely reprogramming’ and ‘radically transforming’ the urban university (understood as a site of urban knowledge production) to produce 21st century urban citizens.

Madden (2015, 299), by contrast, contends that our focus ought to be on empowering community groups, activists and marginalized city dwellers who are excluded from existing social and economic power structures, rather than building power within the elite spaces of the university. Here, he asserts the key political argument that academics have no privileged legitimacy arising from their institutional position since urban knowledge is a constituent field of broader contests over urban space itself. Rather than aspiring to a new, partially separate and possibly privileged urban academy, Madden encourages critical urbanists to ingrain themselves within the apparatus and institutions actually producing urban space.

Both Schafran and Madden seek to leverage the latent capacity of critical urbanism beyond ‘narrow’ academic debates and their insightful examinations of the political nature of the academy and urban knowledge production could not be timelier. Not only are universities (and urban academics) under increasing pressure to demonstrate their social utility and ‘impact’ in an age of austerity politics, but there is also a growing expectation that they function as analytic data factories developing smart solutions to the problems of the twenty-first century city. This may have prompted innovative modes of engagement and dissemination as academic research bleeds into urban policy, consultancy and community work, but critical questions regarding the nature of the urban knowledge being mobilized, and its relation to the politics of urbanization more broadly, have been conspicuously absent.

That this is the case reflects a number of key pragmatic and political difficulties for those looking to mobilize an impactful and progressive urbanism within the academy; issues either downplayed or overlooked by both Schafran and Madden. By decentering any perceived legitimacy bestowed upon academic urban expertise, Madden downplays the university as an interpolated authority, an actor producing urban space, and – importantly – the persistent institutional barriers and practical obstacles within the university itself. Faculty members pursuing community-based work, despite their passion, often struggle to align their strategic interests, tactics, and timelines with those of their community partners while developing new urban pedagogies on the fly. At the same time, the persistent failure to recognize community-based scholarship and work in tenure and promotion files remains as a major institutional barrier to restructuring the practice of urban higher education. Schafran (2015, 303) is therefore right to point out that transforming the urban academy “cannot be seen solely in terms of having impact outside of the academy”. Perhaps ironically though, the importance Schafran places on the inclusivity of the ‘urban academy’ – understood “as those parts of the university whose work is on or about the urban, defined broadly” (305) – deprives it of a cohesive politics capable of constructively informing social and policy interventions. Intervention and engagement, but to what ends?

In order to realize the potential of the urban academy (broadly considered), we need to confront the challenges presented by the entrenched institutional infrastructures, cultures and inertia of the ‘actually existing’ university. Any retooling of the urban academy needs to take seriously the challenges presented by internal relationships with other (non-critical) academics (including competition for resources and access to urban actors) and often confrontational engagements with university administrators who themselves are attempting to adapt to the changing landscapes of higher education (over internal management, evaluation and institutional missions etc.). Differences within and between universities and their urban environments have significant implications for the ability of higher education institutions to adjust their engagement strategies and broad ways of operating. These are pressing questions with no easy answers. Schafran and Madden’s provocative interventions, though, serves as a clear call for rigorous debate, institutional change, and social action.

  • Jean-Paul Addie


Madden, David. (2015). There is a Politics of Urban Knowledge because Urban Knowledge is Political. City, 19(2-3), 297-302.

Schafran, Alex. (2014). Debating Urban Studies in 23 Steps. City, 18(3), 321-330.

Schafran, Alex. (2015). The Future of the Urban Academy. City, 19(2-3), 303-305.


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