Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Columbia Comparisons

There's a very good piece on the Columbia expansion in an edition of USA Today that ran last week. The article focuses on the conflict between the university and good portions of the community, but we think that the most important aspect of the piece lies in the contrast that the paper makes between Columbia and some of its Ivy League competitors.

What emerges here is that urban universities are more and more coming out from "behind the fortresses." Faced with the contiguous challenges of crime and economic disadvantage, universities see that they need to become proactive-and many are in ways that we believe puts the Columbia effort to shame. As one keen observer points out,
"Universities have come out from behind the fortresses," says Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. A rise in homelessness and crime starting in the late 1980s prompted schools to get more engaged, he says. "Many university presidents are really a part of that small network of big employers who have an enormous amount of influence on how cities grow and evolve," Katz says. "So they've taken on more of a civic responsibility."

The University of Pennsylvania (with Rachele Lipsky as one of its esteemed graduates) leads the way in this regard. As the university's former president told USA Today:
"Universities have both the resources and appetite to expand and historically have done it by displacing local residents, many of whom were poor and minorities," says Judith Rodin, the former Penn president who spearheaded the initiatives. Penn recognized that it shared the community's problems. "Universities are trying to teach their students about civic engagement," Rodin says. "And I'm not sure you can do that responsibly without being a good role model of civic engagement as an institution."

How does this stance compare with Columbia's? Can anyone really say that CU is acting as a good role model in the pursuit of its own "God's little acres"? Or how about the Yale example? "Yale University in New Haven, Conn., has helped develop more than 1,000 units of affordable housing and made physical improvements to downtown, says Michael Morand, a Yale associate vice president. Such efforts have helped strengthen the relationship between the 250-acre downtown campus and adjoining neighborhoods, says Jerry Tureck, who has lived nearby for 25 years."

Where are Columbia's affordable housing units? Instead, its policy appears to be a search and destroy mission as it pursues its own version of lebensraum-with Scott Stringer as the Rumpkowski of the local Judenrat. And as far as the 6,000 jobs-always a questionable number that developers frequently use with no independent verification-how many in the surrounding neighborhoods will be able to qualify? As CB9 Chair Reyes-Montblanc points out: "He also says the jobs at the university will be beyond the educational or skill level of many in the neighborhood."

The sad fact here is that much could be accomplished if the university simply altered its bogarting philosophy and engaged its critics directly. Perhaps this is simply something that its chief consultant desperately wants to avoid.