Universities and Eminent Domain

In Kaur v. New York Urban Development Corporation, its recent decision upholding the condemnation of property for transfer to Columbia University, the New York Court of Appeals claimed that the use of eminent domain to transfer land to a private university is more defensible than its use to transfer land to commercial corporations, as in the Atlantic Yards case:

Unlike the [New Jersey] Nets basketball franchise [one of the key beneficiaries of the Atlantic Yards takings], Columbia University, though private, operates as a non-profit educational corporation. Thus, the concern that a private enterprise will be profiting through eminent domain is not present. Rather, the purpose of the Project is unquestionably to promote education and academic research while providing public benefits to the local community. Indeed, the advancement of higher education is the quintessential example of a “civic purpose”…. It is fundamental that education and the expansion of knowledge are pivotal government interests.

I think this line of argument is seriously flawed. I tried to explain why in one of my earliest posts on the Columbia University takings back in 2006:

…Columbia President Lee Bollinger and [others] defend the use of eminent domain to transfer property to universities on the ground that universities create “public benefits.” While universities do provide important benefits to society, this does not justify allowing them to condemn property.

Most of the benefits provided by universities are “private goods” that are fully captured by their students and faculty. For example, going to college greatly increases a student’s earning prospects, but that student will himself capture the benefits. Basic economics shows that there is no need for government subsidies for these kinds of private goods.

Universities do also provide some “public goods” – benefits to society that the university, its faculty, and its students cannot fully capture. Perhaps the most important is basic scientific research. Another might be educating underprivileged students, though this is less clearly a public good than basic research is, since most of the benefits are captured by the students themselves. However, both research and student tuition are already heavily subsidized by the government through a wide variety of programs… There is no reason to believe that they require the additional subsidy provided by the use of eminent domain. Even if additional public subsidy is warranted, the best way to provide it is to allocate additional funds earmarked for research or education, not allow universities to use eminent domain. Condemnation of property is rarely if ever actually useful for the purposes of advancing research or educating poor students. In general, research can be undertaken and students educated just as well on voluntarily purchased land. Education and research can be conducted in a wide variety of locations and thus are not vulnerable to the “holdout” problems usually cited as a justification for condemning property. Even if holdouts do become an issue, universities can and do use secret purchase and other market-based methods to get around them without resorting to eminent domain….

Obviously, students and faculty sometimes can benefit from acquiring land through condemnation. But the benefits in question (primarily esthetic and lifestyle-related) are not public goods that should be subsidized by the state. If universities wish to pursue these goals by acquiring additional land, they should do it by competing with other potential buyers in the real estate market.

Finally, a possible argument for allowing universities to use eminent domain is that they supposedly act only for the public interest. As President Bollinger puts it, “We are not a profit-making institution looking out for our own advantage… We are trying to do things that help the world more broadly.” Unfortunately, this claim is at best a half-truth. Universities do sometimes “help the world more broadly,” but their policies are also heavily influenced by the self-interest of faculty, administrators, and…. students. Anyone familiar with academic politics knows that self-interest plays a major role. The mere fact that a university is a nonprofit entity does not prove that it acts only out of altruism. Self-interested behavior by universities is often perfectly legitimate, but it does undercut claims that universities should be allowed to use eminent domain because they do not “look out for [their] own advantage” and only “do things that help the world more broadly.”

Given the Court of Appeals’ ultradeferential approach to blight condemnations, I have no doubt it would have reached the same result even if Columbia were a for-profit corporation. I just wanted to make the point that such judicial abdication does not become more defensible merely because the new owner of the condemned property is a university.

UPDATE: I have fixed what was previously an incorrect link to my 2006 post on this subject.

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