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The Community Engagement Racket

How universities stiff their neighbors and get even richer

The ivory tower has gone out of style. Lofty aloofness is categorically not the vibe that most modern universities want to sell these days, much less cultivate. The modern university, rather, wants you to know that it is service-oriented and community-minded—engaged with, not isolated from, the people. The new university encourages its faculty and students to venture out of their definitely-not-exclusionary campuses and into the noticeably integrated and mutually beneficial outside world, creating lasting social impact and positive learning outcomes for all. Everyone’s interests, as the university’s website copy often attests, are aligned and coordinated.

What these engaged universities actually do for their communities isn’t entirely clear, but they have plenty of terms for it, like “authentic engagement” and “place-based strategy” and “positive behavioral changes” and “synergy.” There are entire offices devoted to developing the relationship between universities and their surrounding communities, variously called: the Office of Community Engagement, the Office of Community Partnership, the Office of Civic Engagement, the Office of Community-Based Learning, the Public Service Center, the Service Learning Center, Neighborhood Commitments (?), the Civic Engagement Center, the Center for Community Engagement and Career Competitiveness (!), the Center for Leadership and Service, and so on. Some act like start-up incubators for local businesses. Others are university-owned malls for public services. Despite the fact that many of these universities are funded by the state, most of the community engagement offices behave like public-private partnerships, optimistically fusing businesses valued in the billions with underfunded public projects. There’s one major difference: at least PPPs are open about being primarily opportunities for profit.

And there’s a lot of money out there for a university with the potential to engage its community. The Department of Housing and Urban Development funded the creation of many of these offices through its Community Outreach Partnerships Centers Program—it provided at least $7.5 million to fifty-nine centers—and schools can also pick from a buffet of scholarships, grants, and nonprofits that support and fund engagement efforts. The recipients of these rewards are telling. In 2018, for example, the research team that helped the Flint community study its water crisis was a finalist for the C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Scholarship Award. But it was not the grand prize winner. That $20,000 prize went to a program at Ball State University that teaches teachers about community engagement, called, no joke, “Schools Within the Context of Community.”

There’s a lot of money out there for a university with the potential to engage its community.

Here’s what the Ball State program does, in its entirety: it pairs student-teachers with community mentors and places them in a low-income extended day and summer program for young schoolchildren once a week, so that they might understand “the child’s community, their environment, their culture.” What earned the prize was not the after-school program itself, but the teacher placement program—at its core, an effort to train teachers to be “culturally responsive.” Muncie, the Indiana school district where Ball State students were placed, was more than $10 million in debt at the end of 2017, when it was declared an “official distressed unit,” requiring emergency management. Of course, a $20,000 grand prize was never going to solve that crisis—nor is the amount, in the scheme of university spoils, all that much—but it does signal a wild distortion of priorities. Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning that the $5,000 the Flint water team received as finalists went entirely to the researchers, based at Virginia Tech, a school over five hundred miles away from Flint, and not the members of the Flint community, who, if we’re talking about engagement, were the active party here—the engagers, so to speak. They sought out the researchers, not the other way around.

While it’s true that the community engagement industry helps feed the nonprofit industrial complex, whatever financial debris they pick up from that firestorm isn’t ultimately the point. The real profit motive lies in how much money a public university can save by miming the kind of community-minded behavior you would expect from an institution owned by the state, while eliding any real financial (or social) accountability to the communities it more or less feeds off.

On their face, these offices and initiatives are well intentioned. They purport to redirect the labor and expertise that universities attract back out into surrounding communities. If you squint a little, in their efforts to form equitable relationships with the communities from which they’re harvesting land and public services—which they call, seemingly unselfconsciously, “host” cities—it’s apparent that schools are at least aware of a kind of debt owed. Universities hold outsized power and influence in their cities, receive tax breaks, often boast of endowments in the billions, and they’re frequently the biggest employers in town, making or breaking the lives of thousands of workers. They should be beholden to their communities. 

But their intentions are meaningless if they fail to address the fundamental power disparity between town and gown. “Community engagement” often presumes an alliance of equal power between the groups involved—at least, that’s what calling the relationships “partnerships” and “collaborations” implies—and that’s simply not the case. More often than not, universities are parasites.

The more people universities attract, the more strain they put on the resources they’re avoiding paying for.

For one, they don’t pay property taxes. Universities, by virtue of their nonprofit status, are frequently exempt from them, a longstanding issue that many states have tried to mitigate with systems called PILOTs—payment in lieu of taxes. Through PILOTs programs, cities recommend an amount of money that universities should pay to make up for the lost tax revenue, with no real consequences if they don’t. (They frequently don’t.) In Washington, D.C. alone, universities were estimated to have avoided $111 million in taxes in 2016. Meanwhile, they are buying up and developing property at unprecedented rates. The huge swathes of property they remove from the tax rolls are then developed into things like STEM “innovation hubs” and student housing developments, or even leased out to local businesses through deals that, in Arizona, prompted the state attorney general to question their constitutionality. In one case, a West Virginia building company got out of paying property taxes on a joint student housing and commercial space by passing the lease back and forth between itself and West Virginia University. The lost tax revenue, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported, would have gone toward funding pre-K through 12th-grade public schools. The extent to which universities abdicate their responsibility on this front makes initiatives like Ball State’s award-winning cultural diversity program look less laughable than cruel.

Campus sprawl also drives up rent prices, displacing community members whose lives these universities’ service-oriented brands claim to be “dedicated to improving.” (“It’s simply the free marketplace taking place out there,” the city of Clemson’s director of the department of planning and codes said about the repercussions of student-housing demand.) While community engagement offices host talks on the impacts of gentrification, the schools they report to are acting as engines of it: university towns are among some of the most unequal and economically segregated in the country.

And how about the public resources universities suck from their host cities as they act as—or just straight up use—tax havens. Universities hoard massive amounts of untaxed endowments and property—money that could help maintain things like roads, fire departments, storm water, social services, utilities, trash pickup—while benefiting from these services all the same. The more people universities attract, the more strain they put on the resources they’re avoiding paying for.

Cities, it would seem, get in the way of the university as an investment venture.

Meanwhile, as you’d expect from a business, universities want growth, and over the past decade, they’ve gotten it: from 2000 to 2017, undergraduate enrollment in universities in the United States increased by 27 percent. But how this growth affects the communities they repeatedly claim to be a part of, and say they want to improve, is rarely discussed. The Bay Area, allegedly the crown jewel of town and gown success, is witnessing a homelessness crisis so severe that a UN report called it a human rights violation. This year, the city of Berkeley, California, filed a lawsuit against the UC Berkeley for the untold pressure its student population increase is putting on the city. The lawsuit came after the Board of Regents voted, without substantive citizen input, to move forward with a development project that estimated an increase of 30 percent in the student population, reneging on a significantly lower population cap that the university had previously committed to. Since 2003, the estimated cost of providing public services to the university has gone up from $11 million per year to over $21 million. The Berkeley lawsuit mentions the housing crisis that the student population has already exacerbated five separate times; a 30 percent increase would only amplify it.

Santa Clara County is in a similar dispute with Stanford over a proposal to increase its undergraduate enrollment by nearly 25 percent and graduate enrollment by 13 percent. Earlier this year, the City of San Diego responded with thirty-six pages of comments and revisions to an environmental impact report issued by San Diego State University about a planned development project that would include a new satellite campus and a 35,000-person-capacity stadium; most of their concerns addressed a severe underestimation of the development’s impacts on city roads. Back in 2016, a Minneapolis suburb imposed a yearlong moratorium on Bethel University and the University of Northwestern[*] over potential expansion, and that same year, Princeton University paid $18 million to settle a lawsuit filed by Princeton, New Jersey, residents over the university’s property tax exemption. Cities, it would seem, get in the way of the university as an investment venture.

“Education is a right, and we believe UC must continue to open its doors to all,” Berkeley’s mayor, Jesse Arreguin, wrote in a statement regarding the lawsuit. “However, that doesn’t mean the University should ignore the impacts that increasing growth brings on our city. The impacts are felt by everyone.”

What the community engagement industry does, though, is worse than just provide good PR opportunities, or a way for universities to convince the public that they are thinking about them, worried about them, and want to give them the resources they need. Aside from imparting a beneficent glow to institutions valued in the billions, “community engagement” smothers the kinds of town-gown relationships that have the potential to actually change this dynamic.

It is noteworthy that community engagement offices aren’t run by students, or teachers, or—this probably goes without saying—community members. They’re run by administrators. These offices, even ones with estimable mission statements, are part of the expanding administrative bloat in universities nationwide that loots from students and non-tenure faculty alike. The administrator class is notorious for allocating money in ways that have screwed over students, grad workers, and adjuncts. Grad student fees, soaring health care premiums (if students and adjuncts are eligible at all), and debt are all backbreaking. Low-paid grad students, adjunct faculty, and many students are also more likely to face homelessness than administrators: one quarter of part-time college faculty and their families were enrolled in at least one federal assistance program in 2015. They’re more likely to experience food scarcity, or work second and third jobs, or get hit with crippling medical fees. All of this is to say that, materially speaking, students and non-tenure faculty often have more in common with community members than with the revenue-generating operations that their universities ultimately are.

An office of community engagement, however, silos these potentially disaffected students and faculty into a monitored and regulated system that is dressed up in the vague (extremely, extremely vague) language of goodwill and—crucially—award-winning, paper-publishing, and resume-building officialdom. In this way, the office cleverly redirects solidarity that might be built outside its purview back through it, which inevitably results in hierarchical relationships. Working with one of these offices means you’re going to be primarily a representative of the university, which is immensely unhelpful when the university is precisely what is screwing everyone, except your boss.

For obvious reasons, an activated student body sharing grievances with community members and discovering they share a common enemy is the last thing university administrators want.

Baltimore provides an example of the kind of solidarity that is possible outside of these official channels. Like many cities, poverty in Baltimore is attended by a heightened police presence, which has been a scourge on its residents for decades; the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 and resulting unrest was just the latest chapter in the city’s long history of rampant inequality and police brutality. Then, in 2018, Johns Hopkins University proposed the creation of its own private police force, which the Maryland legislature authorized in a bill that passed this April. 

In response, students at Johns Hopkins University flooded their main administrative building and occupied it for over a month in protest before police removed them. Their demands included ending the university’s contracts with ICE and providing justice for Baltimore residents killed by police violence—specifically Tyrone West, a man who was killed by a combination of Baltimore and Morgan State University police officers. “Some people, perhaps, don’t see our justice fight for Tyrone West as the responsibility of the university,” Mariam Banahi, a JHU PhD student and one of the sit-in’s organizers, told me. “But what we’ve heard community members who are supporters say quite often is, ‘What Hopkins wants, Hopkins gets,’ and that kind of business-as-usual in Baltimore City and Maryland needs to change. We’re holding our university accountable and recognizing that police brutality is something that concerns our community.”

Banahi told me that, despite research conducted by graduates and faculty at the university themselves that demonstrated increased police presence does not protect communities—findings that were echoed by the advice of experts the university employs at the school of public health—Johns Hopkins continued to push for the private police force. “I don’t know what definition of democracy [JHU President] Ron Daniels has,” said Erini Lambrides, a PhD student and another organizer of the sit-in. “But almost every single governing body on this campus and in the surrounding area has said, ‘No.’”

Hundreds of students supporting the sit-in joined community members for weekly Justice for Tyrone marches, which had been going on long before their campus protest and continue today. They did not allow administrators into the student center, but they did bring community groups into the occupied space, where they were invited to lead teach-ins and workshops. Hundreds of community members stopped by, bringing the students and faculty food and snacks. “There’s this dynamic in Baltimore of Hopkins being this wealthy, majority-white institution in a poor city. And Hopkins has a history of being violent toward communities in Baltimore. Community members feel that and understand that,” said Cyril Creque-Sarbinowski, a grad student and fellow organizer. “People are coming in every day. We’re continuously growing and building relationships. And we hope that, even after this, it permanently changes that dynamic.”

Students, in some cases for the first time, were able to meet their neighbors, and hear from them directly just how the university was making it harder and harder to live in their city. Standing in solidarity this way made students feel even more committed to preventing the creation of a private police force, which would not only bring potential violence and harm to the marginalized among themselves, but to the whole Baltimore community.

“I think what’s interesting is that the university administration is so alienated from its students,” Banahi told me. “If leadership is not recognizing that the student body is ready to act, and is ready to put our bodies on the line for this, then we need new leadership. They need to understand—Ron Daniels needs to understand—that this is not the same campus that he thinks he joined what, ten years ago? It’s not the same campus. It’s not the same student body. And he and the administration need to realize that we will no longer be complicit in the university’s violence.”

While the sit-in hasn’t stopped plans for the private police force, the twinned powers of community and student body-faculty do have wins to prove the efficacy of this strategy: just look at the resignation of UNC Chapel Hill’s chancellor earlier this year after community members and students and faculty organized together to take down Silent Sam, the campus’s Confederate statue. After pushing unsuccessfully for its removal for years, one evening at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester, community members, students, grad workers, and faculty alike gathered to cheer and chant “Pull!” as protesters tore the statue down with ropes.

For obvious reasons, an activated student body sharing grievances with community members and discovering they share a common enemy is the last thing university administrators want. They understand the stakes, which is why, if they notice you’re interested in the people at the foot of the ivory tower, they’ll encourage you to contact the office of community engagement. There, you’ll find opportunities to “facilitate and coordinate collaborative scholarly engagement activities” and “strengthen the internal alignment and coordination of the University’s public engagement activities to foster and promote more collective community impact and capacity building,” and they won’t, not ever, tell you what that means.


[*] Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a Chicago suburb imposed a yearlong moratorium on Bethel University and Northwestern University over potential expansion. Actually, it was the Minneapolis, Minnesota, suburb of Arden Hills that imposed a moratorium on Bethel University and the University of Northwestern.