On Wednesday evening, students packed into the Solomon Center’s DECI auditorium to participate in “A Conversation with Davarian Baldwin,” an event organized by Students for Educational Equity at Brown, Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere and the 2023 Class Coordinating Board.
The event aimed to foster conversation about the University and “the role it plays in the surrounding Providence community: what it helps, what it harms, and what it owes,” according to a description of the event on Facebook.
The discussion, which was moderated by Gabe Mernoff ‘22.5, Advocacy Coordinator for HOPE, and Carina Sandoval ’23, Community Outreach Manager for SEE, opened with an acknowledgment of University lands.
“This conversation is one that we believe is long overdue,” Mernoff said. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to finally engage with this subject of academic responsibility.”
What makes this topic “particularly important right now in Providence (is that) the payment in lieu of taxes agreement – also known as PILOT – between Brown and Providence ends in 2023,” said Sandoval. “While this deal Brown currently pays $4.3 million each year, … (this) is significantly less than the estimated $49 million Brown would pay each year in property taxes” if he paid full taxes on all its properties, an estimate that was provided by a Providence finance department report released in January.
University spokesman Brian Clark previously told the Herald that the university planned to negotiate a new agreement with the city on voluntary contributions in order “to have a positive economic impact at the local level”.
Brown’s commercial properties are not tax-exempt, The Herald previously reported.
Rhode Island state lawmakers have introduced several bills aimed at making the city and state pay more Brown — one of which would limit the amount of tax-exempt property that private nonprofit schools lucrative as the University can hold and another that would enact an endowment tax.
Baldwin, who is a distinguished professor of American Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut and spoke at the event via Zoom, opened the discussion by explaining the inspiration behind his book “In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower : How Universities are Plundering Our Cities”, which explores the relationship between universities and their surrounding communities.
Baldwin first learned of the problem when he witnessed protests outside the University of Chicago administration buildings. Residents of Chicago’s South Side — which he said is a “historically black and increasingly Latinx community” — were protesting the relocation of the Checkerboard Lounge, a blues club frequented by both UChicago students and South Side residents, in a building owned by UChicago.
When he began to consider the role of other urban universities across the country, Baldwin “realized that this was a national story,” he said. It’s “a question about the broader issues around urban democracy”.
Baldwin explained that institutions such as Brown are exempt from certain taxes by the state based on “the idea that the institution will serve the state in a particular way.”
The 1990s saw the development of what Baldwin calls the “knowledge economy”, in which higher education institutions began to be “deployed to create profitable goods and patents” rather than simply providing services educational.
Now, “economic viability becomes another way of talking about public good,” Baldwin added. In other words, because universities seek to stimulate their own economic growth which contributes to greater economic growth, they are seen as contributing to the public good.
But Baldwin said universities often don’t contribute to the public good of those directly adjacent to them, looking instead “beyond the community that surrounds the campus.” He argued that higher education institutions can serve as better neighbors by providing the community beyond educational services.
“Higher education (institutions) have become the largest employers, real estate owners, police officers and health care providers in big cities and small towns” across the country, Baldwin said. The public good “must be discussed in alignment with the range of ways in which higher education permeates our lives”.
When higher education institutions began to purchase more surrounding properties, they simultaneously increased property values for those in surrounding neighborhoods while remaining exempt from (most) property taxes under the “presumption… (of ) public good,” according to Baldwin.
These taxes would generally go to “public schools, snow removal, destruction (and) maintenance of infrastructure,” he added. Universities must pay taxes “to the extent that (they) contribute to the community” and must “be properly assessed and taxed”.
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Clark previously told the Herald that, apart from its voluntary payments to the city, the University helps Providence by stimulating economic activity, investing in the jewelry district, running its own police department and medical services in – which reduces pressure on municipal first responders – and maintain a $10 million endowment to support the Providence Public School District.
Baldwin believes PILOT programs are the right step forward for higher education institutions — citing Yale’s renewed six-year commitment to the city of New Haven, which will bring the university’s contributions to New Haven to 52 million dollars over six years.
Yale “sets a precedent for a school finally recognizing that its tax cut has a direct impact on host communities and (that it) has a responsibility to that community,” Baldwin said. Yale’s contribution “is a fraction of their current endowment of $42 billion, … but it’s significant.”
The PILOT is “starting to gain momentum,” he said. But this can become a problem when “schools feel they can defend their ongoing relationship and responsibility to the surrounding community”.
Baldwin also pointed out that while it’s important to return to Brown’s “stories of dispossession and enslaved native servitude” by Brown, there are “more current reasons why these schools need to engage in…reparations.”
Baldwin suggested that one way Brown could address the legacy of racial injustices is to start viewing the campus “as a living room for the wider community” and begin a “reimagining of the relationship that will come with services.” social (and) redistribution of wealth as a greater sense of community.
As a result, universities must “divest from policing and invest in community safety, which includes safe housing,” food security, trauma care and other benefits that universities can use, added Baldwin.
“Another (version of a) university is possible when you reimagine the larger ecosystem of what universities do,” he added. “They don’t just teach (but) are those dominant political (and) economic drivers in our cities and towns.”
SEE member Yuna Shprecher ’24 credited the event with helping her learn “not just (about) Brown as an entity, but (about) universities in general…about the responsibility they have. to do better for the communities in which they find themselves. It really opened my eyes.
“I learned how much there is still to learn. … As a student at Brown, I don’t know Brown himself,” Camila Olander ’24 said. “It’s time to insert pressure from the internal aspects of the community as Brown students.”
Baldwin closed his speech by encouraging college students to rally around recent tax legislation, engage with the broader Providence community, and further investigate Brown’s real estate portfolio and community policing.
“We must…build values that can create classes, that can render services, that can extend the campus vision beyond the boundaries” of the University, Baldwin said. “Let’s make a new university.”