Universities and their cities: urban higher education in America, by Steven J. Diner, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017, ISBN 978-1-4214-2241-1

Review by Angela VanDijk, the University of Colorado Denver, 

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 Universities and Their Cities by Steven J. Diner provides readers with a history of urban universities and describes the symbiotic, yet sometimes problematic, relationships such institutions have with the cities in which they are located.  Through his account of the urban campuses’ evolution alongside various crises and social movements, Diner challenges his readers to think about the different roles universities play in the growth of a city  as well as the education of its economically, socially, and racially diverse populations.

Universities and Their Cities (Diner, 2017) begins by describing the collegiate ideal solidified in the early nineteenth century.  Diner introduces his readers to university founders and describes the founders’ predominant belief that the primary purpose of universities is to “build character and spiritual values” (p. 3).  Diner then proceeds to discuss how that mission evolved alongside the growth of urban universities.  Unlike their rural and suburban cousins, Diner argues that urban campuses should not only build character and spiritual values of those who attend, but also serve the city itself.  Edward Litchfield, former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, is quoted as saying such universities should not “regard themselves merely as educational institutions [but as] vehicles for doing things that wouldn’t otherwise be done [in cities]” (p. 66).

Tapping into the work of the Association of Urban Universities and similar organizations, Diner illustrates how critics have alleged that urban campuses sacrifice quality in their effort to provide access to marginalized and underrepresented learners.  Critics of urban higher education fear that the quality of education is in jeopardy when service is at the forefront of an educational mission.   He quotes Change Magazine’s, Colin Greer who wrote in 1969 that he was concerned about an institution that “fundamentally changes its traditional educative mission” to “immerse itself totally in the service of the foundering urban core” (p. 71).  Unfortunately, Diner doesn’t go far enough in unpacking the source of the tension in modern higher education.  He under-analyzes competing ideas about the purpose of education and how such disparate approaches serve as a source of conflict between urban and suburban/rural institutions. 

Despite this somewhat murky critical lens, Universities and Their Cities does give those who work on and with college campuses a strong introduction to the backdrop of urban higher education.  I am a student affairs practitioner and as a university-educated professional, my colleagues and I begin our work with preconceived notions about university life.  These notions often arise from our university experiences.  Our education creates lenses for which we view, critique, and guide the institutions in which we work.  However, we don’t always possess a full understanding of our institution’s unique histories.  Universities and their Cities serves as a charge for not only those of us who work in cities, but for all college staff and faculty to understand the role their institution plays within its community.  Knowledge of this history will, hopefully, provide institutional decision-makers and policy-makers a foundation on which to develop a unique mission that serves not only a university community, but the communities just outside a university’s campus borders.


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