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Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century

reviewed by John L. Rury - May 07, 2018

coverTitle: Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century
Author(s): LaDale C. Winling
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 0812249682, Pages: 264, Year: 2017
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This book opens with a rather expansive title but offers a somewhat narrower focus in the end. It examines universities' relationships with their immediate metropolitan environments, but it deals rather little with larger questions of metropolitan development. Instead, it dwells largely on how certain universities have worked to transform the urban settings they found themselves in, especially in ways that worked to their advantage. This is certainly a worthy topic, and Winling provides detailed case studies of the ways that particular institutions have done this in the past. But it is unclear whether the universities profiled in the book are representative of urban institutions of higher education at large, and the manner in which they have interacted with their larger metropolitan settings.

In short, this is not a general history of urban higher education. Chapters consider different institutions in regionally distinctive urban contexts, exploring development with respect to local real estate and business interests and politics. With one exception, all are well known and highly regarded research institutions. In this respect, the book hardly offers a representative sampling of urban universities, or settings where such institutions have shaped or were shaped by urban change. And in most of these cases there is scant consideration of how each of these institutions interacted with metropolitan development, at least with respect to matters beyond their proximate environs. In the end, consequently, the book offers an informative and interesting account of certain schools, but many questions about the relationship between universities and metropolitan development remain unanswered.


The profiled institutions are Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, the University of Texas in Austin, the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. These are rather surprising cases to examine, as most do not spring to mind as examples of urban universities. Muncie and Austin hardly qualify historically as major metropolitan areas, although Chicago, Boston and the Bay Area surely do. But most institutions labeled urban served large numbers of commuter students, and today count many thousands of local alums, including lawyers, doctors, accountants, teachers and other professionals, along with political figures. In these respects they responded directly to imperatives of their urban settings. This is certainly true of most members of the Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities (USU) and the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU), the national organizations that represent such institutions. The University of Chicago is a member of CUMU but not USU; the other institutions in the study belong to neither.


It’s a fair question to ask, in that case, whether the profiled schools consider themselves to be urban universities, and just how that may have affected their behavior regarding the urban environment. All were (and are) largely residential institutions, bringing thousands of students into their cities, many (perhaps most) of whom would leave upon graduation. This made them somewhat unique organizational actors in their metropolitan settings. And it is where much of the book’s attention resides. It was the exceptionality of these universities, after all, along with their superior resources and political influence, that empowered them to shape their immediate settings to better serve their interests. Consequently, in the first chapter we learn a great deal about how the Ball family in Muncie used political connections to gain approval for a state normal school in the city, and how the institution’s growth affected residential development in adjacent neighborhoods. But relatively little is revealed about how the city’s economy and workforce were affected by the university’s presence there, especially with respect to questions of social diversity and equity, or how the city affected the school’s development. The same can be said of subsequent chapters as well.


Winling’s examinations of Texas, Chicago, Berkeley, and Harvard/MIT provide detailed accounts of how these institutions worked assiduously to make adjacent neighborhoods more palatable settings for their relatively affluent student bodies, along with their resident faculty and research enterprises. This typically meant moving poor people out, especially African Americans, and replacing them with residents more amenable to university aspirations. His treatment of Chicago’s secretive approach to property acquisition and campus expansion is especially revealing, and he documents its influence as a model for similarly situated institutions to follow. Some universities made creative use of federal incentives for urban renewal and local political interest in redevelopment of “blighted” neighborhoods, not to mention campus expansion. But change would not have occurred without key institutional resources as well. The oil wealth and political fortunes of Texas, Harvard’s massive endowment, and the political clout of Berkeley and MIT all proved critically important as they faced imperatives of expansion amidst rapidly changing urban conditions.

The strength of the book lies in the thoughtful attention devoted to these developments, in quite different regional settings and concerning institutions with dissimilar historical trajectories. To accomplish this in five chapters and fewer than 200 hundred pages of narrative is a noteworthy accomplishment, and testimony to Winling’s skills as an urban and institutional historian. But the matter of whether he has written a more generally applicable account of how universities have interacted with the urban environment is far less certain.

Historians of higher education will doubtless find points to quibble with here and there, such as Winlin’s rather breezy account of the Berkeley Free Speech movement. And urban historians may wonder about the University of Texas’s role in the rapid ascendancy of Austin as a metropolitan area during the latter decades of the 20th century, which he does not address (indeed, his accounts of Austin and UT run parallel, often with little clear connection). In other words, this book represents a promising start to addressing the important questions that it raises, but much work remains to be done. Additional research and analysis will be necessary to determine if the patterns of development it has identified have characterized other post-secondary institutions in urban settings as well.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 07, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22359, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 3:16:42 AM

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About the Author
  • John Rury
    University of Kansas
    E-mail Author
    JOHN L. RURY is professor of education and (by courtesy) history and African & African American Studies at the University of Kansas. He is a social historian and has written about educational inequality, metropolitan development and related policy questions in the past.
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