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How Universities Exploit the Tax-Exempt Status of Campus Land


Davarian L. Baldwin (@DavarianBaldwin) is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College and the founding director of the Smart Cities Research Lab.

This post is part of a series looking at the law and political economy of higher education.

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In recent years, the image of the university as a bastion of educational access, academic freedom, and upward mobility has come under severe strain. Shrinking admissions rates and skyrocketing costs have replaced access with selectivity. The rise of contingency has converted university instructors into glorified gig workers, with profound consequences for any sense of academic freedom that requires job security. Mounting student debt reveals a captive market of students caught between the contradictory grip of over-certification demands and the de-skilling of labor. Even in just this past year, a series of events—from the right-wing takeover of New College in Florida to the campus struggles over safety, free speech, and surveillance surrounding pro-Palestine protests—have made clear that higher education, increasingly under threat, has become a bellwether for the future of democracy.

And yet, this conventional focus on students and teachers doesn’t even begin to grapple with the place of higher education in in our broader political economy—which reaches far beyond classes and career choices.

As I point out in my latest work, right before our eyes, colleges, universities, and their medical centers have become the biggest employers, real estate holders, health care providers, and even policing agents in major cities and small towns all across the country. The implications of such influence are profound. Campus expansions can raise housing costs and displace longtime residents from the neighborhoods that sit just beyond the gates. Higher education’s broad control over labor can lower wage ceilings and suppress collective bargaining efforts. Supposedly non-profit university medical centers can prioritize profitable boutique services, high-profile research, or student services, to the detriment of indigent care that secures their tax-exemption. Finally, campus police, many times armed and with legal jurisdiction over community residents, can engage in the profiling and surveillance of “locals” while rarely being held to public account. And yet these functions are hardly acknowledged when discussing the implications of higher education for our democracy.

Each of these areas of convergence between higher education and political economy deserves attention. But in this brief post, I want to focus on land, and how universities exert a profound (and often detrimental) influence on the democratic possibilities of urban development. Consider, for instance, the research triangle of Raleigh Durham, North Carolina. The area is anchored by three major universities and their medical centers (UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, and NC State), whose research facilities and educated workforce have served as a magnet to high-technology firms. While this local knowledge economy has been a boon to residents, the recent surge in population (an 18.1% increase between 2000 and 2017) has also brought transportation challenges. In response, local stakeholders put forward a proposal to install a light rail system, which, in 2016, Duke agreed would be permitted to run along the edge of its Durham campus.

Beyond reducing the regional carbon footprint, the light rail system was also positioned as an act of racial justice. Rising costs had displaced a significant Black population from urban cores to the now under-invested peripheries of this growing knowledge-based prosperity. Boosters proposed affordable housing requirements near transit hubs, which would help connect the largely African American workforce to their jobs cooking and cleaning in the many cafeterias, dorms, offices, and laboratories throughout the Research Triangle.

In February 2019, however, Duke reversed course and refused to offer the use of its land for the project, unilaterally killing the effort to build a transformative transportation system. On what grounds did Duke reject the proposal? The school argued that construction vibrations could affect delicate eye surgeries, while magnetic interference might alter diagnostic and research equipment. Ironically, the planned rail path had been moved to campus at Duke’s request, as a “Campus Gateway.” Rail advocates also pointed to the many dense city environments where trains rumble past sensitive medical equipment and offered to adjust the Durham proposal to minimize the likelihood of such consequences. The university still said no.

Many speculated that powerful segments of the university worried about the implications of making the campus too accessible. Others were more pointed, suggesting that Duke’s refusal of the light rail resurrected older references to the school as “the plantation,” a campus disconnected from the Black community that surrounds it, an uneven relationship the school wanted to maintain. Then-city councilor Charlie Reece tweeted that Duke’s decision “sadly reinforces the worst fears of many Durham residents—that Duke university is an arrogant and elitist enclave with little interest in being the kind of partner this city needs.”

But to focus narrowly on the question of why Duke made this horrific decision risks obscuring perhaps a more fundamental question: how does a school become such a powerful force over the political economy? One of the key answers is the monetization of “non-profit” campus land.

Because higher education institutions provide the public good of education, they are designated 501(c) (3) charitable organizations by the Internal Revenue Service, and most of their property holdings are exempt from taxation. And in today’s knowledge economy of pharmaceutical research, software production, and innovation communities, the tax-exempt status of campus land serves as a lucrative financial shelter for schools and their private investors. The multi-national pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, parks its research in Princeton labs to take advantage of both property-tax free infrastructure and the suppressed wages of graduate researchers. In 2016, residents realized that the costs of this “innovation” had been passed on to them through increased taxes, without any improvements to the public infrastructure, and they won an $18 million lawsuit against Princeton. One resident was so disgusted he dismissed the school as a “hedge fund that conducts classes.” But this isn’t just a private school story.

Arizona State University leases its land to the highest bidder without even the deceptive cloak of “educational purposes.” A State Farm Insurance regional headquarters, which is the biggest development in the state, is exempt from property tax because it sits on ASU land. The school charges these noneducational tenants a slightly lower rate (essentially arbitraging its tax-exempt status) and then uses the income for things like football stadiums and other costly amenities without the public oversight of state lawmakers. Meanwhile, in Berkeley, the university purchased a 112-year-old rent-controlled apartment building, used its status as a state agent to override the city’s rent protections, then built upscale student housing on the property—further displacing both housing insecure students and campus workers, neither of whom can afford to live in the area.

These examples vividly demonstrate the pernicious influence that many institutions of higher education exert on their broader communities. And yet such grand encroachments also plant the seeds for their own destruction. As a university worker and student of urban political economies, I have been able to use the research from my book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, to develop the Smart Cities Research Lab. We research and consult on best practices for building equitable urban communities, with a special emphasis on university-driven urban development. The notion of “smart” here goes beyond current obsessions with technological innovation and sustainable design to focus on the human scale and knowledge of those subjected to urban development and “innovation.”

One of the core sites of struggle centers on the contradictions of campus property tax-exemption. The predominant community response has been a call for PILOTs (Payments in Lieu of Taxes), which seek to ensure that universities pay their fair share for public services that come from property taxes, while also encouraging greater financial responsibility from private investors that camp their capital and labor on campus land. Working with the political coalition New Haven Rising, we helped bring Yale University to the table in 2021, which resulted in Yale agreeing to pay an additional $52 million in tax compensation over the next six years. Since then, we have fought similar battles everywhere from Berkeley to Baltimore. There is talk that the Massachusetts Action for PILOTs coalition will work with the national NAACP to adopt this struggle as a critical Civil Rights issue of the 21st century.

The lab has also partnered with the Humanities Action Lab at Rutgers University-Newark and Minnesota Transform to create The Renewal Project. Over the past two decades, many institutions have come to acknowledge the degree to which higher education was built on the U.S. Slave economy. But few understand higher education’s national role in the devastating history of demolition and displacement of stable communities during the Urban Renewal period following World War II. With teams of students, staff, and residents across the country, we are reconstructing the local archives of this university-driven devastation to assemble archives, teach classes, develop creative placemaking, and build out campaigns for repair. We recently partnered with a ProPublica team investigating the devastation of the Shoe Lane community in Newport News, Virginia to make way for Christopher Newport University. The news reports and short documentary that came from this work compelled state lawmaker, Delores McQuinn, to call for a commission to study and build a pathway to reparations for Black communities displaced by state universities.

The various tax compensation campaigns and The Renewal Project are important in their own right, but they are also part of a broader materialist analysis that identifies higher education’s central role within the nation’s political economy. As schools reach their tentacles into greater facets of social life, they must reckon with increasing harms. Alongside PILOTS, we call for reparations from university collusion with slave labor, indigenous land seizure, and both Jim Crow and Urban Renewal practices. We call for Community Benefits Agreements on all projects of campus expansion, which can include everything from zip-code specific job training and procurement contracts to affordable housing land trusts and community use of recreational, classroom, common spaces. We call for community-based zoning and planning boards with the enforcement powers to govern campus master plans that target neighborhood areas. We call for the public assessment of campus land valuation and taxation based on educational vs. non-educational uses. And these are just some of the land-related solutions that we have created to ensure that both public and private universities actually reach their state-chartered mandate to serve the public good.

As we like to say, the quaint notion of the ivory tower is dead. Non-profit land has become a vital site of struggle within today’s dominant knowledge economy over public resource distribution, labor conditions, housing rights, and even policing practices. We fail to apply a materialist analysis to the rise of UniverCities at our own peril.