A Theory of the 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?

Urban perspectives at Rutgers-Newark (photo by Jean-Paul Addie)

The idea of the urban university, of course, is not new. Cities and universities have a long and intertwined (if often far from harmonious) history (Bender, 1988; van der Wusten, 1998). The concept of the modern ‘urban university’ finds its origins in the United States during the 1960s as a higher education sector adapting to expanded enrollment during the postwar period came face-to-face with the travails of the unfolding ‘urban crisis’: urban decline, deindustrialization, social unrest, and the failures of high modernist urban planning (Haar, 2011). The (violently) changing landscape of American cities – alongside a growing political consciousness and activism both on the streets and in the classroom – both pressurized universities to be more responsive to the communities they were embedded in, and galvanized interest in the city as a pressing object of analysis and strategic area of engagement (Goodall, 1970; Klotsche, 1966). The resultant institutional restructuring opened the opportunity to reimagine urban universities as a locus for community-engaged and socially-conscious research intended to transform community participants, urban environments, and university researchers themselves (Angotti, et al., 2011). The legacy of this modern university persists today through networks including the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities in the United States (Johnson and Bell 1995) and the on-going practice of engaged urban research across the world (Alfaro d’Alençon et al., 2015).

However, the challenges of contemporary urbanization now unfurling at the global scale – from fiscal crises and enhanced socio-economic polarization to global pandemics and climate change – and the capacity of the academy to analyze and inform debates on competitiveness, sustainability, social inclusion, and resilience, demand a reapprasial of the urban university for the 21st century.

To this end, I propose we consider the implications of shifting from an epistemology of the city to one of urban society as an entry point to vigorously redefine a new urban university. As urban knowledge is a constituent field of broader contests over urban space, we need to go beyond negotiating well-worn ‘town-gown’ relations or critiquing universities’ spatial development plans and real estate speculations. We need to replace highly territorialized notions of the urban university (tied to the social and economic fortunes of its geographically proximate urban setting) with an alternative understanding of universities as actors and site of global urbanization.

One way of doing this is to mobilize the core categories of urban society – mediationcentrality, and difference (following Lefebvre, 2003 via Schmid, 2014) – at the heart of our thinking about the urban university.

Mediation compels the opening of cloister physical and mental spaces. With this, there is a clear opportunity – and responsibility – to critique and (re)claim the knowledge being produced and disseminated throughout the urban university, and render it legible for urban inhabitants both inside and outside the academy. A reconfigured urban university should not just act to facilitate a more just urbanization process. It should internalize the mediatory role of the urban itself by forging active, novel and inspiring strategies that relate and interconnect the abstract and concrete as they come together for different groups in urban space, urban politics, and urban society. The dialectic of centrality reveals the need to recognize and produce a polycentric politics of higher education and urban knowledge. It drives the imperative to open access across social space, but also constantly questions who and what is being excluded as the university pursue diverse modes of centralization. Finally, we have to negotiate the central contradiction between the university being a “monumental institution” that oppresses and colonizes the space organized around it (Lefebvre 2003, 21) and an emancipatory setting and stake of social struggle whose ability to accommodate difference enables us to identify and concretize a more socially just urban university and regime of urban knowledge production.

Although their content can only be known through empirical investigation and application (praxis) we can utilize these urban characteristics as: (1) a mode of critique (assessing universities’ urban knowledge production, spatial strategies and institutional structures); (2) strategic principles (imbuing the university with a clear political imperative); and (3) the basis to implement the concrete tactics that underpin a ‘new urban university’. The urban is a contradictory and contested process full of heterogeneous voices and interests. So is the university. Recognizing this has important implications for understanding where the urban academy stands in relation to broader process of urbanization, and the power relations and inequities inherent in the production and dissemination of urban knowledge. Mediation, centrality and difference are therefore not, of themselves the objectives of a new urban university, but rather serve to disclose key contradictions internalized with the dialectics of abstraction-social practice; centrality-peripherality; and institutionalization-difference that we must be attuned to.

  • Jean-Paul Addie


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