Quality History of Urban Universities

The former Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, Steven J. Diner, retired from administration to return to his roots as a faculty member. He celebrated the transition by writing a very solid book of history, Universities and Their Cities: Urban Higher Education in America. Uniquely qualified for the task, Diner had taught urban issues for years. His first book was about the relationship between University of Chicago and public policy in the progressive era, and in his administrative roles, he experienced first-hand the dynamics of universities in urban environments. Diner also served as president of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU), giving him an unusual perspective on the lengthy and complicated story of academia in the city.

Universities and Their Cities is a traditional, closely researched, historical monograph. Diner has no axes to grind and no controversial thesis to promote. Instead, he uses primary and secondary sources in a well-considered chronological framework to examine higher education and America’s traditional rural bias. After all, anti-city rhetoric has been a recurring trope in literature and popular culture for centuries: cities are amoral, immoral, alienating and corrupting influences. In the face of such discrimination, how could major institutions of research and teaching – the modern university – find a home and thrive in urban surroundings? Diner explains it and gives attention, too, to the various ways that public and private institutions have navigated these waters.

Central to the book is Diner’s work with the archives of the Association of Urban Universities. Founded in 1914, the AAU promoted discussion, analysis, and the shared progress of urban universities. The strength and vigor of the AAU mirrored that of cities in American life, gaining in influence through World War II but waning in the 1960s and 1970s. The AAU voted itself out of existence in 1977, just as many were proclaiming the end of urban life.

Diner’s primary narrative focus is the institution, not the trend or the issue of the period. Accordingly, the book at time underplays the massive importance that higher education has taken in defining urban issues and their proposed solutions. For example, while university presidents might seem to be in a position that shapes the institution’s relationship with a city, the ongoing work of scholars, professors and students often could have a longer-term, and more influential, impact. These tensions are most clear in the book’s analysis of universities in the age of urban crisis, from 1964-1980. Diner’s appreciation of context – historical, geographical and political – shapes the book’s narrative and larger argument, which returns to questions of what “urban university” really means.

Diner argues – compellingly – that we are now at a time and place where universities in cities increasingly recognize that institutions of higher education have responsibilities to the surroundings. Much of higher education is attuned to the need for academia to promote inclusion, access and engagement. What Diner also shows is that even with these positive and important changes, a long-standing reluctance to embrace the identity of “urban university” remains.

David Potash

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