A few years ago there was a special issue of LATISS about a noteworthy initiative at the University of Illinois, the Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI), which aims to support courses based on student research about their own university. Its virtue is precisely that it is not a traditional ethnographic research project, but a collective project that supports student ethnographic research. The special issue (from 2013) is a little older than most of what I write about here, but I wanted to post some quick excerpts from the issues, in guise of an introduction to the project, and an appreciation of the admirable reflexive research that it fostered. I might also note here that this project has also yielded an important ethnographic monograph, the late Nancy Abelmann’s The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation (which I previously reviewed in LATISS).
Steven Gregory recently published a paper in City & Society, “The Radiant University: Space, Urban Redevelopment, and the Public Good,” in which he analyzes Columbia University’s efforts to expand its Morningside Heights campus into West Harlem. The paper came out in 2013, so let’s call it “relatively recent” rather than brand new, but it makes a good contribution to the literature on universities and urban geography, and thus falls within Academography’s ambit. Gregory’s paper is more ethnographic than conceptual, but its significance lies precisely in the wealth of detail provided by its extended case study.
Gregory’s story is a tale of “David and Goliath”: it recounts how Columbia University fought to get the power to expand its campus into Manhattanville (an area in West Harlem just north of the historical Columbia campus in Morningside Heights) and how the community sought, unsuccessfully, to resist. It seems that Columbia would have preferred simply to have bought up all the property in the relevant area. However, since not all property owners wanted to sell, the university was obliged to resort to more complex legal and rhetorical tactics, which in turn elicited legal action and public protests from the community in question. The key weird premise here is that it would have been calamitous for Columbia to only mostly own the Manhattanville area, as if any amount of non-university-owned space was an intolerable form of contamination to campus space. The expansion plans were all or nothing. Thus when in 2009 all but two property owners had sold out to the university, the university still vehemently continued its efforts to acquire the last holdouts (48).
Bonnie Urciuoli teaches anthropology at Hamilton College.
Eli Thorkelson: I’ve known you and your work for quite a while, Bonnie, and we went to the same graduate program at Chicago (albeit 30 years apart), but I only just found out as part of this interview that your early work was on Puerto Rican speech communities, and then you gradually became more interested in American constructs of multiculturalism, race and class, right? And then a few years after you got tenure, you started working on higher education diversity discourse, focusing on your own institution, Hamilton College. How did that shift come about? Was there some moment when you decided that you had to write about where you worked?
Bonnie Urciuoli: I got to Hamilton in 1988, and within a year or two I noticed students, generally recruited through HEOP (Higher Education Opportunity Program), who came from the neighborhoods where I had done fieldwork or neighborhoods much like them, and who could easily have been younger members of the families I worked with on the Lower East Side (1978-79) or in the Bronx (1988). HEOP plays a key role. It was established and funded by the state to provide higher education assistance to academically and economically disadvantaged students who show academic promise. The decision to admit a student through HEOP takes place in the admissions process, and students are offered financial packages combining grants, loans, and work-study, some funding from the state, some from the college. Incoming cohorts are 30-40 per year. All participants attend a five-week summer program before their first year. This is a sort of college prep boot camp with classes in various subjects taught by college faculty. (The boot camp part is because of how the residential aspect of the program is run, not so much the academics.) HEOP cohorts include white students, often children of college plant or clerical employees, or sports (usually football, sometimes basketball) recruits but the white HEOP kids tend to disappear into the mass and HEOP is generally identified with Latino, Black, and Asian students. Those kids tend to become the core of the student ‘cultural’ organizations (LaVanguardia, Black Student Union, Asian Cultural Society). From 1972 through 2001 HEOP was the main source of ‘diversity’ for the college; in 2001 the college started partnering with the Posse Foundation to develop another ‘diversity’ source. But I am getting way ahead of my story. Also if you’re interested, I have a ms under review on this very topic. Not to mention a book chapter.