Town-Gown Conflicts over Property Use and Eminent Domain:

Notre Dame property law professor Nicole Garnett has an interesting post on the town-gown conflict over neighborhood redevelopment in her home base of South Bend, Indiana. Unlike Columbia, Notre Dame (as far as I know) is not threatening to use eminent domain. Nonetheless, the dispute illustrates the ways in which efforts by universities to transform local neighborhoods (as opposed to merely acquire individual property tracts) often stem from the self-interest of the academic community rather than from efforts to promote education and research, the major public goods provided by universities. In this case, the university people would like to turn the neighborhood into a "new-urbanist enclave," while the "mostly working class and African-American" townies tend to be opposed.

I like new urbanist enclaves as much as the next law professor and I have no objection to Notre Dame's plan as described by Nicole. Maybe that's why I'm an academic, not a townie! But I see no reason why university efforts to cater to the neighborhood lifestyle preferences of academics and students should be supported through the use of eminent domain. The case for eminent domain is especially weak in situations where university "elites" (to borrow Nicole's terminology) are trying to impose their preferences at the expense of communities far less affluent than they are themselves. Whatever the merits of using government power to redistribute wealth from rich to poor, I see no reason to support Robin Hood in Reverse condemnations.

To be sure, the opportunity to live in a "new urbanist enclave" may attract some professors to Notre Dame who might otherwise hesitate to take up residence in South Bend, and for that reason promote research and/or education. However, an academic good enough to be hired by Notre Dame is also likely to have offers elsewhere, and there is no reason to believe that the overall level of public good provision by universities will diminish if he goes to another school. It is also unlikely that any significant number of potential academics will choose nonacademic careers merely because some schools are unable to reshape the neighbohoods around them to the would-be professors' liking.