Before New York University was even built, it enraged
its neighbors. For its new building on Washington
Square, the university in 1833 purchased marble cut by
convicts at Sing Sing prison. New York workers,
seeing their jobs threatened by the use of prison labor,
marched on the contractor, smashing doors, windows and
Almost two centuries later, "town-gown" confrontations
continue - in West Harlem, which fears Columbia
University's ambitious expansion plans; in the Bronx
where Fordham and its neighbors fought for years over
the university's plans to build a 480-foot radio
antenna; and, as always, in Greenwich Village, where conflicts are as large as residents protesting against construction that they see threatening the very character of the neighborhood and as petty as neighborhood dog owners
threatening to block NYU's graduation from Washington
Square unless the university endorsed their
demand for better dog runs in the park.
The question of what role academic institutions should
play in their communities and in the city as a whole
has become more pronounced at a time when New York's
universities are thriving and looking to expand. What
in fact have they done for the culture and economy of
New York? What should they be doing?
GOOD TIMES FOR HIGHER EDUCATION
This is a good time in many ways for professional schools,
colleges, universities, and research institutions in
New York City:
- Enrollment at the City University of New York is at
its highest - 217,588 - since 1975 and the university says more
students at elite city high schools are applying to
- Columbia, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary, plans to build a new 18-acre campus north
of its main location on Morningside Heights, adding
science and arts facilities.
- Earlier this month, Cooper Union unveiled plans for
a new $105 million building for its engineering
school, part of a master plan for the
school's Astor Place campus.
- In a recent survey by the Princeton Review, a company that rates
schools and provides college-admissions services, high
school students selected NYU as the private college
that they would most like to attend. Perhaps as proof,
the Greenwich Village campus recently welcomed the
Olsen twins as
freshmen, though the celebrity teen actresses shunned the dorms
in favor of a $7.3 million condo.
- St. Johns University,
once a commuter school, has had such success
attracting out-of-town students that it has a severe
overcrowding problem in its dormitories.
"It's a remarkable and exciting time," said Neil
Scott Kleiman, the director of the Center for an Urban
Future who studies the role of universities in the New York
economy. He attributes much of the surge in higher
education in New York to three men: CUNY chancellor
Matthew Goldstein, Columbia president Lee Bollinger
and NYU president John Sexton. "All three of them are
visible, aggressive and entrepreneurial," Kleiman
The other colleges in the city, he added, are doing
well "by benefit of New York doing well."
The expansion and success represent a major change in
the last 30 years. In the 1970s, New York
University seemed on the verge of collapse, barely
staying alive by cutting staff, selling its Bronx
campus, closing its engineering school and later
selling off Mueller Macaroni company, which it owned.
Columbia was still reeling from the effects of the
student building occupations of 1968, which ended only
after the police came in, resulting in hundreds of
arrests and injuries. The City University saw its
budget slashed in the wake of the fiscal crisis, ended
free tuition and began sharply cutting back on the
number of full-time faculty.
All that seems long ago and far away -- at least at first glance.
A UNIVERSITY TOWN
New York has more colleges and universities than any
other city in the country -- 85, by one count, with a
total of more than 400,000 full and part time
students. More than 100,000 people work for
institutions of higher education in New York.
True, colleges and universities do not play as prominent a
role in New York as they do in other, smaller cities, notably
Boston and a corridor in California from San Francisco to San Jose. New York
is seen as a center of finance, culture and media - not
academia. "No one thinks of New York as a university
town," said Robert McCaughey, a professor at Barnard
College and author of "Stand Columbia, a History of
Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754 to 2004"
But having so many institutions of higher learning in the city has benefited New York in many ways. In the most concrete terms, universities give jobs to New Yorkers, buy
goods and services, train workers, bring
out-of-towners into the city who then spend their
money here, and make it easier here than in most places for local residents of varying skills and interests to get an education.
NYC College Kids (And Teachers) Who Made Good
--John Jay, the first chief justice of the United
States, and Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S.
secretary of the treasury, were among the earliest
graduates of what is now Columbia University.
--Samuel F. B. Morse, best known as the inventor of
the telegraph, was a noted painter who taught fine
arts at New York University in its early days.
--Seth Low, the president of Columbia University from
1890 to 1901, left that post when he was elected mayor
of New York on a reform platform.
--Bernard Baruch, who went on to advise President
Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman,
graduated from City College in 1889. Almost 60 years
later, Colin Powell, who is the current secretary of state, graduated from City
--Lionel Trilling, who taught at Columbia University
for decades starting in 1932, was generally regarded
as a great literary critic and one of the leading New
York intellectuals of his day.
--I.I. Rabi, a long-time professor at Columbia
University, won the Nobel Prize for his research into
the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei and was noted
for his work for peace during the Cold War.
--William Schuman, the first person ever to win the
Pulitzer Prize for music, was president of the
Julliard School from 1945 to 1961, and then
president of Lincoln Center.
--Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a graduate of Columbia Law
School who later taught at the school, is a U.S.
Supreme Court justice.
--Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, film directors both
known for their movies set in New York, both studied
film at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.
--Billy Collins, a distinguished professor of
literature at Lehman College, served as poet laureate
of the United States.
--Pedro Sanchez, the director of tropical agriculture
at Columbia University's Earth Institute, won a 2003
"genius award" from the MacArthur foundation. Sanchez
is known for his work helping farmers in Africa
produce more crops.
--Michael Cunningham, head of the MFA Writing Program
at Brooklyn College, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning
book The Hours, which was also made into a film that
received nine Oscar nominations.
--Anna Deavere Smith, whose one-woman play Fires in
the Mirror: Crown Heights portrayed racial conflict
in New York, now teaches at NYU.
Less measurable are the significant contribution the schools have made to New York as a center for ideas, innovation and culture. As Thomas Bender points out in his history of intellectual life in the city, "New York Intellect," universities assumed a central role in the intellectual and social life of New York starting about a century ago. This was at the same time (not coincidentally) when the three large campuses of Columbia University, City University and New York University were all built, within a decade of one another, "all on prominent heights, distinguished...from the street pattern,...thus giving higher education an uncommon visibility and emphasizing its special importance in the life of the city." (The NYU campus was the one in the Bronx, now the 55-acre home of Bronx Community College)
The many schools here draw people (both students and teachers) of talent and potential, transforming them as they help transform the city -- many remaining in New York to conduct research, publish books, create plays and paintings and poetry, run businesses, provide attentive audiences for high art and cultural experiments, and think up new approaches to urban problems: "It was in New York," Bender writes, "that advanced culture and learning first confronted modern urban conditions." (Academic involvement in urban life and culture, Bender believes, has recently been in retreat, to the detriment of both academia and the metropolis; see box near end of story)
The relationship between the university and the community is not free of tensions. Columbia's improved
relations with its neighbors threaten to unravel over
its expansion plans. Other schools in the city,
including NYU, Cooper Union and Fordham, have
attracted opposition to their new facilities. Critics
say research institutions could do more to lure new,
high-technology businesses to the city.
For their part universities, while thriving in New
York, encounter obstacles as well. They struggle to
find space, encounter complaints from faculty about
the high cost of living and can see their plans
derailed in the rough world of local politics.
NYC's LURES, DIFFICULTIES AND DISTRACTIONS
What New York City offers universities above all is itself.
The Chronicle of Higher
Education reported in 1997 that, after years during
which academics shunned New York, more leading scholars
chose to come here.
Some see the city, the nation's media capital (and headquarters of the publishing industry), as a good
place to reach a wider audience. Others like the cosmopolitan
world-view. "New York is extremely welcoming to people
who are on the misfit level of experience," Avital
Ronell, a German literature professor at NYU who
used to teach at Berkeley, told the Chronicle. "In New
York, you're never made to feel like a freak."
Urban life appeals to students as well. Of the five top
schools on Princeton Reviews list of those with a
"great college town," three are in New York City.
But for some students it may pose a problem. In the
past two years, NYU has been racked by five student
suicides. Staff and students have wondered whether
there is a common thread. A report issued by the
school last year questioned whether New York City
could be a contributing factor. "New York City is an
important educational and cultural resource, but it
can also be a distraction," the paper reportedly said.
"These same factors can contribute to students'
feeling overwhelmed and less able to make connections
with one another."
The city presents college with more concrete
difficulties as well. A major problem is how expensive the city is, especially for starting faculty, who at
City University may make $40,000 a year. Faculty also worry about the
quality of the public school system, a concern that prompted Columbia
to open its own school for faculty children.
And like everyone else in New York, universities do
not have enough space. In its efforts to expand,
Columbia often notes that it has far less space per
student than any of its Ivy League counterparts. "If
college and university rankings were based on
creativity per square foot, Columbia would surpass
everyone," university president Lee Bollinger said in
a 2002 speech.
Universities also feel the effects of tight government
budgets. Like most states, New York has cut back on
its funding for education in recent years, a move that
has had a great impact on the City University. After
being adjusted for inflation, state and city funding
for CUNY has dropped by 40 percent since 1990,
according to Barbara Bowen of the faculty union, the
Professional Staff Congress.
"The lack of funding for City University is impeding
the progress of students in City University," Agnes
M. Abraham, a Medgar Evers students and chairperson of
the CUNY student senate said at a recent City Council
hearing. [See related story on funding for higher
AN EDUCATION FOR ALL -- CITY UNIVERSITY
Whatever its financial woes, no college has as great
an effect on New York as its public university, City
University. Some critics question whether new
standards and higher tuition at CUNY have detracted
from the university's mission to educate all New
Yorkers [see related story]. But
45 percent of all college students in the city attend
one of the schools in the City University system, according to the university.
The overwhelming majority of them are New Yorkers -
all city high school graduates are guaranteed
admission to at least one school (though not all schools) within the City University system - and most of them remain in
the city after finishing their education.
The schools in City University also offer very specialized job
training - particularly for city agencies, according
recent report (in pdf format). For example, John Jay College
provides the police with courses on how to meet the
requirements of the federal Patriot Act, and the
public school system and the teachers union have looked to
the university to help teachers learn what they need to know to
teach the new public school curriculum.
City University of New York does a number of other tasks for the city as
well. It was, for example, key to Mayor Michael
Bloomberg's launch of the city's 311 non-emergency
hotline. And it has allowed the Department of
Education to set up high schools on its campuses and
lets high school students take college classes.
"Many city agencies are accustomed to turning to
CUNY," said Kleiman. "CUNY is really open to doing it.
That's not a role any of the private institutions have
signed up for."
LOCAL CONFLICT -- COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
But the private universities do other things.
Columbia's plans for expansion in Manhattanville provide
a good example of how universities can affect the city
as a whole and the neighborhood in particular.
The Purpose Of Higher Education
In 1753, a year before the creation of King's College, the oldest of New York's educational institutions (since renamed Columbia University), William Livingston wrote in a local newspaper why such a college was important:
"The true use of education is to qualify men for the different employments of life to which it may please God to call them. It is to improve their hearts and understandings; to infuse a public spirit and love of their country; to inspire them with the principles of honor and probity, with a fervent zeal for liberty, and a diffusive benevolence for mankind; and, in a word, to make them the more extensively serviceable to the Commonwealth....[U]nless the education we propose be calculated to render our youth better members of society and useful to the public in proportion to its expense, we had better be without it."
The 1968 riots, which were sparked by Columbia's plans
to build a university gym in nearby public Morningside
Park, highlighted years of tensions between the
university and its neighbors. Since then, Columbia
has, by virtually all accounts, tried to repair its
relations with its neighbors. And many believe it has
succeeded." Columbia now is a more important part of
New York than it's been at other points in its
history," McCaughey said.
The university's plan to build a new campus in West
Harlem -- in an area roughly bounded by Broadway, 12th
Avenue, 125th and 133rd street - may put the new
relationship to a test.
Columbia says it needs the space to provide new
laboratories and performance spaces as well as
classrooms. "The need for more space exists in
virtually every academic discipline," it says on its
Construction will put $4 billion into the city
economy, and, when the campus is complete it will
generate a billion in new city revenues. But said
Jeremiah Stoldt, director of campus plan for facilities
management, "it's not just about jobs and research and
revenue generated, it's also a source of intellectual
capital for the city."
And the community will come out ahead too, Columbia
says. When the project is complete - decades from now
- it will provide 9,200 new jobs, according to an
estimate prepared for the university. An additional
5,500 jobs will be produced by businesses serving the
facility and the people who work on it. Some 1,224
jobs exist in the area now. Stoldt said the university
will try to hire area residents for construction and
permanent jobs, an effort he said is foreshadowed by
Columbia's having moved its employment office to 125th
Street and Broadway.
And the university foresees an inviting environment,
complete with green spaces, cafes, retail businesses
and other amenities. While the existing main campus on
Morningside Heights feels, in many ways, cut off from
its surroundings, the new campus will "emphasize the
idea of embracing the community," Stoldt said. The east-
west streets will be preserved to provide community
access to a planned waterfront park and the
ground floors of many buildings will include retail
services that Stoldt says are now in short supply in
"Right now, Manhattanville is contributing little to
the economy of West Harlem," Ester Fuchs, a Columbia
and Barnard professor and adviser to Mayor Michael
Bloomberg, has been quoted as saying. "The plan will replace blighted abandoned
industrial sites with productive uses. It will
regenerate the area....No urban site is perfectly
empty but this comes close."
Some residents and business owners emphatically
disagree. As in the debate over development of the Far
West Side, one person's blight is another one's home.
Columbia's opponents say that the plan would eliminate
about 140 apartments -- most affordable -- and jobs
for neighborhood residents. According to Marita Dunn
of the Manhattanville Area Consortium of Businesses,
more than 95 percent of the people employed in the
area -- which feature moving and storage companies and
car repair shops as well as a bus depot - are
minorities. "There is no way in the world a
biotechnology lab is going to be able to absorb all
those workers," she said.
Beyond that, they worry about Columbia changing a
piece of West Harlem already threatened by
gentrification. "Our fear is that a dramatic
displacement will occur," said Tom DiMott, a member of
the steering community of the Coalition to Preserve
the Community. "We want to be able to have a C-Town, a
99-cent store, an area where people who do not have a
Columbia education can get a decent job."
If residents consented to the plan "we would be giving
away a community and its future," said Dunn. "This
community would have no voice in what happens."
To try to address some fears, the university appointed
a community advisory committee.
According to one member, Professor Joseph Wilson of
Brooklyn College, its final report calls for a diverse
workforce in construction and for jobs to go to
community residents. It also says the project should
be "not only environmentally sound but at the leading
edge" and for Columbia to insure no residents are
displaced by providing affordable housing. Wilson
believes Columbia could "go a long way to assuage
community concerns by accepting the proposal. Stoldt
said the university is still reviewing the
Meanwhile, business owners and residents worry that
Columbia will try to use eminent domain -- the
process by which the government condemns a property
for the public good -- to get rights to any property
it cannot buy. "We certainly understand the concern,"
Stoldt said. "We aim to negotiate with owners in a way
that we think could satisfy our mutual needs."
"The talk of eminent domain is sending shock waves
through the community," said Wilson. "The more talk
there is of eminent domain, the more opposition there
is in the community."
OTHER CONFLICTS -- NYU, COOPER UNION, FORDHAM
In recent years NYU has sought to rival Columbia in terms of academic quality. To help achieve this, the school has now embarked on a multmimillion campaign to hire new professors and provide them with better facilities -- part of a drive to enhance its undergraduate and graduate liberal arts programs, the New York Time reports
As NYU has sought to compete with Columbia for students, faculty and prestige, it has also, less happily for the university, become its competitor in community conflict. As it has transformed itself, NYU
has also transformed much of Washington Square and
blocks to the east of the university. With more
students from out of town
-- two thirds of last year's approximately 4,200 freshmen were
from outside New York state -- it has had to build
dormitories and other facilities for them, angering
some of its neighbors.
Academia Needs New York
In his 1987 book, "New York Intellect," Thomas Bender worries about what he calls the "academicization of intellectual and artistic life," with writers, artists and intellectuals who in the past would have been deeply immersed in the city now instead employed by universities, and focusing increasingly on insular campus concerns, thus weakening their work "in subtle and insidious ways." He quotes Lionel Abel:
"The sad fact is that New York City...is today almost as bankrupt intellectually as are the provincial cities of this country, for ideas no longer hit the center of city life, but go directly to the campuses, where they are academicized."
Bender then concludes: "If cities need universities, so the academy, if it is to avoid the fate of the dinosaur, desperately needs the intellectual, artistic, and political provocations of a vibrant metropolitan culture."
"NYU's aggressive transformation into a residential
campus. . .has thus far meant unloading some
ornamentally starved structure onto the streetscape of
downtown New York," Lenora Todaro wrote in
the Village Voice in 1999. "NYU has deep pockets, a
wandering eye and a shocking lack of aesthetic
ingenuity when it comes to building new structures."
Several years ago, the university clashed with some of its neighbors, preservationists and fans of Edgar Allan Poe when NYU’s plans for a new law school building threatened the home where some maintained Poe wrote “The Raven.” Dispute flared over what Poe wrote in the house and whether he even lived there. Tour leader Marilyn Stults reportedly called it “one of the few places where the author had any pleasure.” The university countered that Poe’s connection to the house was tenuous at best. "It’s pretty clear Poe didn’t write or edit â€the Raven’ at the house," NYU spokesman John Beckman told The Villager. "He may have read it there," Beckman joked.
Eventually NYU and preservations seeking to save the Poe house and a row of other historic houses agreed that the buildings would be torn down but their faĂ§ades would be rebuilt and incorporated into the law school. At the time, the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore called the solution “preferable to the only realistic alternative, which was the loss of [the] buildings.”
But it provides scant comfort. Today, wrote Robert Cross in the Chicago Tribune, the poet’s old home is “so different from the original that Poe's ghost would never find it.”
NYU also faced opposition to the Kimmel Center, a new student center on Washington Square South, that critics said would obstruct the view of Lower Manhattan through the Washington Square Arch and cast shadows over the park. Again, the university basically got its way.
A few blocks away, Cooper Union’s plans for three new buildings have sparked some community opposition. Critics charge the new development, including a residence and a commercial building, threatens their neighborhood, objecting to the size of the new structure and worrying about increased traffic in the Astor Place area.
In the Bronx, Fordham University and some of its neighbors fought for years over the university’s plans to build a transmitter for its radio station near the New York Botanical Garden, which borders the campus. In 1994, the city halted construction of the 480-foot tower at 260 feet, but supporters of the garden said the tower loomed over the garden, damaging the view and the mood. Fordham officials countered that, without the tower, its acclaimed WFUV station would go off the air.
Years of acrimony finally came to a peaceful end
last year when Montefiore Hospital offered space on its roof for Fordham to place the antenna. Last heard, all parties appeared satisfied â€“ a rare outcome in town-gown disputes.
CREATING NEW BUSINESSES
Universities can affect the economy of the city far
beyond their neighborhoods by spurring the creation of
new jobs in industries such as high technology or biotechnology.
Many believe that New York universities could do more
in this area.
New York City universities fared poorly in a 2000
survey of research expenditures by the Partnership for
New York City, a
group of business leaders. The city came in a distant
second to Boston in total expenditures. And when
expenditures were examined on a per capita basis, New
York came in last of the five areas considered:
Raleigh-Durham (which ranked number one), Boston, San
Jose and Austin.
In a discussion last
Alper of the New York City Economic Development
Corporation cited New
York's assets in life sciences, including fundamental
science programs and schools that train many of the
country's doctors. "Great strengths," he said. "Very
bad ratio of strengths to realized commercial
Columbia has reportedly generated about 65 start-up
businesses in the last 15 years -- and SUNY Downstate
has launched a biotech park near its Brooklyn medical center. But said Ron Cohen,
chair of the New York Biotechnology Association, at the last spring's panel,
other New York college and universities have not
The panelists offered a number of theories as to why.
Some cited the high cost of doing business in the
city. One blamed the shortage of top engineering
schools in the city. Eve Cramer, vice president for
biotechnology and scientific affairs at SUNY
Downstate, criticized attitudes. "The culture is not
that you should do your research and then
commercialize it," she said. "For us to have our
research institutions really start to spin off
companies, the whole culture in these institutions has
Of course, some would argue that the existing
culture protects science, letting researchers focus
on what is scientifically valuable whatever its cash
Others say that city officials must take their share of the blame -- that they underestimate the impact and importance to the city's economy of the many, varied centers of learning and research in its midst. For starters, Kleiman said, the mayor could invite the leaders of New York's colleges and university to lunch.
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