Looking out the window of a plane flying over Boulder, Colorado, recently, I was reminded how much American universities stick out from their surroundings.
I’d never been to Boulder, or visited the University of Colorado’s flagship campus there, but even from 30,000 feet, I could tell exactly where it started and ended. The red-tile roofs and quadrangles of the campus formed a little self-contained world, totally distinct from the grid of single-family homes that surrounded it.
In urban universities, the dividing line between the campus and the community can be even starker. At the University of Southern California, for example, students must check in with security officers when entering the gates of the university at night. At Yale, castle-like architecture makes the campus feel like a fortified enclave.
The elite American university today is a paradox: Even as concerns about social justice continue to preoccupy students and administrations, these universities often seem to be out of touch with the society they claim to care so much about. Many on the right and in the centre believe universities have become ideological echo chambers. Some on the left see them as “sepulchres for radical thought.”
These critiques aren’t new — for generations people have thought of American universities as ivory towers, walled off from reality — but they’ve taken on new urgency as public debate over the state of higher education has intensified in recent years. Ideology and institutional culture get frequent attention, but a key factor is often ignored: geography.
The campus is a uniquely American invention. (The term originated in the late 1700s to describe Princeton.) Efforts to create separate environments for scholars came about at a time when elite American opinion was convinced that cities were hotbeds of moral corruption. Keeping students in rural areas and on self-contained campuses, it was thought, would protect their virtue.
Though such ideas have lost their appeal in recent years, to this day American universities are radically more isolated from their surrounding communities than their European counterparts are. And being situated around a strongly defined central campus, often featuring trademark Gothic-style architecture, remains a point of pride for elite American universities.
But what students and faculty gain in the enhanced sense of academic community that comes from campus life, they can lose in regular interaction with people who don’t dwell in the world of the academy. The campus, by design, restricts opportunities to encounter people from a wider range of professions, education levels and class backgrounds.
Of course, students like to spend time with other students, and scholars associate with other scholars. And that’s good for education and research. But there’s no need to enforce a geographical separation from society on top of it.
We all instinctively extrapolate insights from our own communities and day-to-day interactions, imagining they are true about the nation at large. Inevitably, that means our view of the country is a little distorted — but for those in the university, the distortions can be extreme. Stuck on campus, academics risk limiting their knowledge and toleration of a wider sweep of American society.
To put it another way, what’s most dangerous for the health of America’s intellectual elite is not that most professors have similar cultural tastes and similar liberal politics. That will probably always be the case. It’s that the campus setup makes it easy for them to forget that reasonable people often don’t share their outlook.
Student bodies and faculties have grown more diverse in recent decades, but that shouldn’t fool us into thinking elite universities have become microcosms of society: the highly educated are far more liberal than average Americans. The divide isn’t just political: whatever their socioeconomic backgrounds, students and professors have daily routines that are very different from those of lawyers, shopkeepers or manual labourers — and that shapes their worldviews.
Life at a university with a dominant central campus can also narrow students’ views on the world, especially at colleges where most undergraduates live on campus. Letting the university take care of all of students’ needs — food, housing, health care, policing, punishing misbehaviour — can be infantilising for young adults. Worse, it warps students’ political thinking to eat food that simply materialises in front of them and live in residence halls that others keep clean.
It also takes away the chance to encounter people with different roles in society, from retail workers to landlords — interactions that would remind them they won’t be students forever and open questions about the social relevance of the ideas they encounter in the university.
Community outreach programs can help broaden students’ outlook, but the better approach would be to configure the physical footprint of universities in a way that makes interactions with surrounding communities natural.
By and large, urban state universities like Rutgers University’s Newark campus have done a much better job integrating with their environments than elite private universities — with the possible exception of NYU. But colleges in smaller cities, towns and suburbs could also do more to integrate their physical presences more seamlessly with the surrounding environment. Both university and community have a lot to gain.
Some have already started breaking down the boundaries between town and gown out of financial necessity. After reopening in 2011 after three years of closure, Antioch College, a small liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio (population 3972 in 2020), built new residential buildings on disused parts of its campus, offering residents access to college events and the library.
Housing fewer undergraduates on campus would be a good start to encourage more overlap between university and society. If universities had less totalising control over their students’ lives, they could do without quite so many administrators — potentially cutting the runaway cost of tuition. It could reverse a trend toward college crackdowns on independent student life.
It also might make student activism both more grounded and more effective. More interaction with surrounding communities would encourage more student advocacy for issues that have material impacts for society (housing rights, say) and less for those that don’t (such as whether certain public figures should be allowed to speak on campus).
Of course, students will likely still cluster in certain areas off campus — some of that is inevitable and isn’t a bad thing. But universities and local governments should try to prevent students from dominating neighbourhoods like Westwood, which is adjacent to UCLA, or else they will come to function as extensions of the campus, defeating the point of these efforts to integrate the student population into surrounding communities.
Bringing American universities into closer contact with society would reinvigorate academic inquiry and produce graduates with broader minds and more social awareness. How to go about it? One option is political. The federal government has massive influence over higher education through its funding powers and could provide additional funds for colleges that configure their physical footprints in a less centralised way.
There’s a cultural change that needs to happen, too: Americans need to stop associating the central campus with prestige and looking down — often tacitly — on so-called commuter schools, where most don’t live in campus accommodations. Finally, there’s room for an upstart university to demonstrate that higher learning can be a success even when it’s not oriented around a campus. A university that does not fortify itself against its surrounding community can make much better use of its cultural resources.
Reacquainting the university with society is also a chance to redouble our attention to American urbanism. For urban universities to be able to blend into their surroundings, cities must be safe, affordable and pleasant. Colleges should work with local governments to address problems like homelessness, crime and cost of living. Wealthier universities could take a first step by using their full coffers and extensive real-estate holdings to build homeless shelters and affordable housing — then reap benefits from the improved health of their host cities.
The university shouldn’t be made indistinguishable from other institutions. That would mean replacing its much-needed critical instinct with conformism and commercialisation. But it badly needs more integration with society, and the best way to do that is to knock down some of the many barriers that separate it from the world outside.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Nick Burns is an editor at Americas Quarterly.