Do Colleges Owe BIPOC Communities for Displacing Them?

Colleges across the U.S. have uprooted BIPOC communities to build campuses, and some recently acknowledged their mistakes. Are they obligated to do more?
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D. (he/him), is a scholar, writer, and editor. Cobretti's research and writing focuses on the experiences of historically excluded students and faculty and staff in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal...
Published on October 31, 2023
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  • The act of colleges displacing BIPOC communities dates back to the 1800s.
  • Journalists recently exposed schools for the harm they've caused to the communities they've pushed out.
  • One college offered free tuition to students from the community it displaced.
  • Others have recognized their mistakes and are trying to rectify them, but whether it's enough to address long-term impact is doubtful.

Recently, the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO Public Media reported a story about how Christopher Newport College displaced a historically Black neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia, in the early 1960s.

Not only does the report acknowledge the harm Christopher Newport created by displacing this community, it also revealed it wasn't the only college guilty of impactful displacement practices.

In fact, there are colleges around the country, including Harvard University, that have been exposed for gentrification, the process by which a lower-income residential community is displaced to make room for new property development.

While seemingly a flash in the bucket in terms of the future challenges higher education faces, it does suggest an alarming, and historical, trend of colleges and universities displacing communities in an effort to expand the campus footprint — especially in communities that are predominantly populated by people of color who already experience systemic oppression and marginalization.

Do colleges owe Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities for displacing them? While the question is complicated by the benefits colleges bring to local communities, the impact of displacement is well-documented. And it's a long-term issue colleges will soon have to address.

The History of Gentrification by Colleges Is Longer Than You Think

Despite a lack of national data detailing the impact of displacement by colleges and universities, their history of displacement of the surrounding communities where the campuses sit is well-documented.

In the early 19th and 20th centuries, the Morrill Act of 1862 facilitated the sale of federally owned land to land-grant universities including the University of Nebraska, The Ohio State University, and Cornell University. However, the land that paved the way for the expansion of higher education was seized and taken from Native and Indigenous tribes — on which many campuses, like Northwestern University, still sit today.

Full List of NIFA Land-Grant Colleges and Universities (1862, 1890, and 1994)

Chevron Down


  • Alabama A&M University, Normal
  • Auburn University, Auburn
  • Tuskegee University, Tuskegee


  • Ilisagvik College, Barrow
  • University of Alaska, Fairbanks

American Samoa

  • American Samoa Community College, Pago Pago


  • Diné College, Tsaile
  • University of Arizona, Tucson
  • Tohono O’Odham Community College, Sells


  • University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
  • University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff


  • D-Q University, (Davis vicinity)
  • University of California System-Oakland as Headquarters, Oakland


  • Colorado State University, Fort Collins


  • University of Connecticut, Storrs


  • Delaware State University, Dover
  • University of Delaware, Newark

District of Columbia

  • University of the District of Columbia, Washington


  • Florida A&M University, Tallahassee
  • University of Florida, Gainesville


  • Fort Valley State University, Fort Valley
  • University of Georgia, Athens


  • University of Guam, Mangilao


  • University of Hawaii, Honolulu


  • University of Idaho, Moscow


  • University of Illinois, Urbana


  • Purdue University, West Lafayette


  • Iowa State University, Ames


  • Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence
  • Kansas State University, Manhattan


  • Kentucky State University, Frankfort
  • University of Kentucky, Lexington


  • Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
  • Southern University and A&M College, Baton Rouge


  • University of Maine, Orono


  • University of Maryland, College Park
  • University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Princess Anne


  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst


  • Bay Mills Community College, Brimely
  • Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College, Baraga
  • Michigan State University, East Lansing
  • Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College, Mount Pleasant


  • College of Micronesia, Kolonia, Pohnpei


  • Fond du Lac Tribal & Community College, Cloquet
  • Leech Lake Tribal College, Cass Lake
  • Red Lake Nation College, Red Lake
  • University of Minnesota, St. Paul
  • White Earth Tribal and Community College, Mahnomen


  • Alcorn State University, Lorman
  • Mississippi State University, Starkville


  • Lincoln University, Jefferson City
  • University of Missouri, Columbia


  • Blackfeet Community College, Browning
  • Chief Dull Knife College, Lame Deer
  • Aaniiih Nakoda College, Harlem
  • Fort Peck Community College, Poplar
  • Little Big Horn College, Crow Agency
  • Montana State University, Bozeman
  • Salish Kootenai College, Pablo
  • Stone Child College, Box Elder


  • Little Priest Tribal College, Winnebago
  • Nebraska Indian Community College, Winnebago
  • University of Nebraska, Lincoln


  • University of Nevada, Reno

New Hampshire

  • University of New Hampshire, Durham

New Jersey

  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick

New Mexico

  • Navajo Technical College, Crownpoint
  • Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development, Sante Fe
  • New Mexico State University, Las Cruces
  • Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, Albuquerque

New York

  • Cornell University, Ithaca

North Carolina

  • North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro
  • North Carolina State University, Raleigh

North Dakota

  • Fort Berthold Community College, New Town
  • Cankdeska Cikana Community College, Fort Totten
  • North Dakota State University, Fargo
  • Sitting Bull College, Fort Yates
  • Turtle Mountain Community College, Belcourt
  • United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck

Northern Marianas

  • Northern Marianas College, Saipan, CM


  • Central State University, Wilberforce
  • Ohio State University, Columbus


  • College of the Muscogee Nation, Okmulgee
  • Langston University, Langston
  • Oklahoma State University, Stillwater


  • Oregon State University, Corvallis


  • Pennsylvania State University, University Park

Puerto Rico

  • University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez

Rhode Island

  • University of Rhode Island, Kingston

South Carolina

  • Clemson University, Clemson
  • South Carolina State University, Orangeburg

South Dakota

  • Oglala Lakota College, Kyle
  • Sinte Gleska University, Rosebud
  • Sisseton Wahpeton College, Sisseton
  • South Dakota State University, Brookings


  • Tennessee State University, Nashville
  • University of Tennessee, Knoxville


  • Prairie View A&M University, Prairie View
  • Texas A&M University, College Station


  • Utah State University, Logan


  • University of Vermont, Burlington

Virgin Islands

  • University of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix


  • Virginia Tech, Blacksburg
  • Virginia State University, Petersburg


  • Northwest Indian College, Bellingham
  • Washington State University, Pullman

West Virginia

  • West Virginia State University, Institute
  • West Virginia University, Morgantown


  • College of Menominee Nation, Keshena
  • Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College, Hayward
  • University of Wisconsin, Madison


  • University of Wyoming, Laramie

By the mid-20th century, urban renewal became the primary mechanism by which low-income neighborhoods were gentrified and the communities of color that populated them were displaced. Soon, urban development would ignite the flame that would allow higher education institutions like the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania to move into more metropolitan cities and areas.

In each case, as the number of students and staff on college campuses grew, university leadership began to acquire property in the surrounding areas — whether it be off-campus housing for students, additional buildings for academic and student services, or even retail stores that could bring additional revenue to the university.

The Long-Term Impact on BIPOC Communities — and Students

Although it is fair to say many college and university campuses have thrived in their communities — and, in some cases, grew community development in these areas — there has been a notable long-term impact for communities of color.

American history documents the various ways in which low-income Black residents have been usurped from their communities and neighborhoods to make way for the development of affluent, White communities. Nowhere is this more prevalent than redlining practices that took place during the Jim Crow era of the United States.

Now, more news stories are being revealed that show how colleges and universities have also engaged in this mechanism of gentrifying surrounding neighborhoods and displacing communities — predominantly Black and Latino/a communities.

For example, at the University of Virginia (UVA), officials admitted that the university's rapid growth can be largely attributed to the displacement of residents in Vinegar Hill, a prominent African American community that existed in Charlottesville since the 1830s.

Between 1965 and 1975, when the university utilized eminent domain to acquire and raze the neighborhood, the student population had doubled, and the university began admitting women. Shortly thereafter in the 1980s, UVA would be regularly featured among the best college towns in America.

In their research study on neighborhood change, gentrification, and the urbanization of college graduates, Drs. Victor Couture and Jessie Handbury found that white college graduates have made up increasing shares of neighborhood residents close to city centers, while the Black college graduate populations increased in near-suburban neighborhoods.

As these examples show, the process of gentrification exacerbates social inequalities that existed prior to displacement, forcing communities to move farther away from city centers and the resources and essential services that being closer to the city center brings.

By colleges and universities expanding into these communities and displacing residents, they perpetuate inequality and the systemic oppression communities of color face in society.

The long-term impact of displacement and gentrification has been devastating for communities of color — and will inevitably have an impact on students in the future. In addition to a loss of cultural history and identity, forced displacement by way of gentrification often results in families moving to lower-income neighborhoods with less community and financial resources than they had before.

In a country where a child's ZIP code determines their quality of life and educational opportunities, the negative effects of displacement and gentrification are loud and clear.

For example, in the 1960s and '70s, members of the Auraria neighborhood in Denver, a predominantly Latino/a community, were displaced to make room for a new part of campus at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver).

To compensate for displacement, MSU Denver created a scholarship for the children of displaced Aurarians in 1995. Today, all living descendants of displaced Aurarians are eligible.

Arguably, MSU Denver was aware of the impact displacement and urban renewal can have on the surrounding communities, specifically the negative impact it has on a family's ability to accumulate generational wealth for their children.

The descendants of displaced Aurarians are also keenly aware that access to a scholarship allowing them to attend college would have a significant positive impact on their lives, so much that MSU Denver has awarded $1.4 million to 305 students since the start of the scholarship program.

Providing free college tuition to assist displaced families may offer an opportunity for students who otherwise may not be able to afford a college education. However, displacing an entire community of people to provide that financial support should not be a best practice for colleges and universities.

Colleges Want to Repair Harm, But Is It Enough?

Thankfully, community members, college students, and university leadership are more aware of the harm that displacement creates when universities expand their footprint, particularly in cases where a college or university sits on sacred, Indigenous lands.

In Maryland, three professors from the University of Maryland have joined forces to create the Urban Equity Collaborative, which assists local and regional community institutions with issues of urban inequality.

Similarly, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Toronto, and Portland State University have collaborated to create the Urban Displacement Project. Since the project's initiation, students and researchers involved have created reports and policy tool maps to visualize and learn more about displacement trends across 15 metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Students are on the front line of this issue as well.

In Chicago, Students Against Displacement, a student organization at the University of Chicago, is working with local community activists to demand the university give $1 billion in reparation to the South Side neighborhoods surrounding the campus for the harm caused by the Hyde Park urban renewal project in the 1960s.

These are good efforts that every college should be taking — whether or not it's good enough to repair the harm done is the remaining question.

It's also worth noting that more national research and data are needed to assess the long-term impact the expansion of American higher education and its campuses has on the communities it has displaced.

While there are notable studies and several stories of displaced communities in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, a nationwide study would be helpful to speak to the challenges and obstacles these communities have faced in the name of expanding access to higher education in the United States.

Without a concerted effort from colleges and universities to acknowledge how the establishment and expansion of campus communities has contributed and exploited the historic displacement of marginalized and underrepresented communities, higher education will continue to reiterate a system that benefits the wealthy and privileged at a time when students of color — and the communities they come from — continue to be pushed to the margins.