Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


New York As College Town

• Educating All New Yorkers at CUNY
• The Permanent Recession in Higher Education

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 marble mantles.

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?


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 CUNY.
  • 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 said. 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.


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 College.

--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.


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 education]


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 to a 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."


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 web site.

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 the area.

"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 recommendations.

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."


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 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 ‘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 façades 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 – a rare outcome in town-gown disputes.


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 spring, Andrew 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 activity."

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 followed suit.

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 to change."

Of course, some would argue that the existing culture protects science, letting researchers focus on what is scientifically valuable whatever its cash potential.

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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