The impacts of neoliberalization and the global extension of urbanization processes demand a reappraisal of the urban university for the 21st century. The history of the modern urban university, and current calls for universities to assume proactive roles as economic drivers and civic leaders, disclose problematic tendencies, including: normalizing local/global binaries; focusing on a narrow set of university–city connections; and constructing the university and the city as monolithic rational agents. In response, this paper draws on Henri Lefebvre’s theory of urban society to mobilize mediation, centrality and difference as a mode of critique and strategic orientation for a ‘new urban university’.
Universities and cities have again reached an intersection where their interests strategically (if only partially) intersect. Yet universities and cities are involved in complex social and spatial relationships and tend to interact as self-interested actors. Sometimes their strategic goals align and sometimes they do not. Differences within and between universities – ranging from large multi-faculty and multi-campus comprehensive universities to niche, highly specialized colleges – and their urban environments further impact the ability of higher education institutions to assume the roles of civic leader, “local anchor”, or regional economic driver.
What, then, does it mean to (strive to) be an urban university at the current juncture?