They’re Baaaaaack!

Boston’s fast-expanding colleges and universities are supposed to be one of the things that make the place special. So why are they letting their coddled students drain the lifeblood out of this town?

Autumn in Boston. The weather cools, turning the leaves a blazing postcard red. The ducks in the Public Garden, weary from a summer spent entertaining frolicsome and adorably attired children, at last direct their attention southward in anticipation of the long winter. And—on a good week—a half-dozen overstuffed U-Hauls get wedged beneath overpasses on Storrow Drive, sending sickening crunches reverberating through sidewalks already thick with moldy couches and awkward packs of perambulating freshmen. Just like that, hostilities between the citizens of Greater Boston and the invading horde of 265,000, the town and the gown, are renewed, ending a season of open parking spaces, vacant barstools, and general quietude.

The benefits of being America’s College Town are well documented. Beyond the estimated $7 billion they contribute to the local economy and the tens of thousands they employ, the area’s 75 centers of higher learning lend aid and expertise to underperforming public schools and help stimulate Boston’s right brain with museums, theater, concerts, and by far the best radio stations in town, such as Emerson’s excellent 88.9 FM. Plus, having so many prominent research universities lures quality minds to Boston and fosters a culture of innovation, which, we’re reminded, keeps us from becoming a smoking necropolis like Detroit.

But there’s also, of course, a downside. And it’s generally felt on a more personal level, manifesting itself every time students convert your street into their private vomitorium or scream like catamounts at 3:15 a.m. on a Tuesday, even as the morally indefensible amount of money they pay in tuition is invested in a 30-story megadorm complex slated to go next to your house, which is already abutted by a university-sponsored biochemical weapons lab. All that, thanks to institutions that don’t pay property taxes, costing Boston an estimated $100 million in lost revenue per year. It’s not like we have a say in the matter, but still, sometimes it’s enough to make you wonder whether being the Athens of America is worth it—not to mention whether the label is still deserved.

Heightening the age-old tensions is the astonishing pace at which our local colleges are expanding (or metastasizing, depending on your view). Boston University is planning a huge development on Comm. Ave. by the BU Bridge, a project likely to include cafés, stores, dorms, and a transit hub for the Green Line, commuter rail, and the fabled Urban Ring, that Godot of local mass-transit projects. Harvard, after using proxies to secretly buy up 52 acres in lower Allston, is intent on building a whole new neighborhood on the land, with stores, dorms, transit, and a stem cell research facility. MIT is spending three-quarters of a billion dollars on three new academic buildings and a grad student apartment building. Northeastern, Suffolk, BC, and Berklee have all embarked on large-scale dorm projects. And a Texas-based development team is looking to erect a massive for-profit dorm off Huntington Avenue, an idea that had the neighborhood’s already beleaguered residents rending their garments.

There’s a whiff of manifest destiny to the colleges’ building binge, matched by a sense among city leaders that as long as it’s going to happen, we may as well get as many shiny beads as possible in the bargain. Linda Kowalcky, Mayor Menino’s liaison to higher ed, sums up City Hall’s position when she says it doesn’t see the growth as a problem, but as “something that needs to be done very carefully and thoughtfully.” Certainly, the situation doesn’t leave the mayor many options. On one hand, he runs a city that has a symbiotic relationship with the colleges (even if it is unclear at times who’s the host); on the other, his core constituents in the neighborhoods despise the students, and, given the chance, would just as soon float them out into the Mystic River on a trash scow loaded with C4 and Jägermeister.

Stuck between competing agendas, Menino has pursued the targeted goal of making sure the universities’ growth includes putting up more on-campus housing (particularly after Northeastern students famously turned a 2004 Patriots victory celebration into something approximating a Hamas rally), the thinking being that getting students out of the neighborhoods will at least help universities better control them, and at the same time alleviate high rents. This approach, though, has proven only somewhat effective in improving relations—if no one wants to live between two houses inhabited by students, no one wants to live within bottle-throwing distance of a 30-story dorm, either.

So the city’s been revising its tactics lately. Kowalcky points to efforts to get the schools and the neighborhoods to end their decades of steamrolling over and ululating at each other, respectively, and get together on a strategy to build out in a way that not only doesn’t involve the residents’ getting buggered half to death, but may actually enrich their quality of life. Key to this initiative is a push by the city to get colleges to tap local businesses to fill the retail portions of their developments, instead of doing what Northeastern did with its Marino Center on Huntington and BU did with the Warren Towers, which is lard their retail space with banks and crappy chain stores. You might think this step wouldn’t be necessary, that urban schools would see the wisdom of providing a diverse array of retail and culinary options, but you’d be wrong. “I don’t think they would have thought about it on their own, frankly,” says Kowalcky. “I don’t think that’s what they do.”

The more Boston can get colleges to appreciate that a motley streetscape will help their students become fully realized adults, rather than the carriers of suburban consumerist wasting disease that they are now, the better off we’ll be. And anything that slows Boston’s inexorable decline into chain-choked Generica is something we should all cheer, especially with planned developments in Downtown Crossing and on the waterfront bringing two more malls’ worth of franchise stores to the city during the next 10 years.

But the fact is, it may be too late to turn the tide. To understand why, you only have to look at the glitzy new student centers that many local colleges are either eyeing or have already built, an emphasis on nonacademic perks that calls to mind Harry Lewis, the former Harvard dean who rebuked parents of coddled students who “expect the university to treat them like customers, not like acolytes in some temple they are privileged to enter.” While I can sympathize somewhat with the parents—if I were paying more than $200,000 to send my kid to some insipid diploma mill, I’d insist he be ferried from class to class in a golden bathtub filled with rose oil—Lewis’s grouse gets more relevant by the minute: Colleges can help us build transport hubs, fix our schools, diversify our retail sector, and basically function as our de facto city planners. But as long as tuition keeps lapping inflation, and competition among schools for top students keeps intensifying, they’ll continue to be forced to pander to what incoming freshmen want. And when what those kids want is the pampered, anodyne suburban existence they leave behind when they come here to go to college, the result is bad news for the city.

What’s needed is a reimagining of the town/gown relationship. Spe
cifically: We ought to start leaning on colleges to do something about the students themselves, beyond just storing them in luxe dorms so they don’t burn down our neighborhoods. Given that America’s high schools have proved themselves peerlessly adept at converting promising young people into bleary-eyed anthropoids unfit to fold cardboard for a living, this will be no small task. A 2006 study by the New England Board of Higher Education suggested that even as undergraduate enrollment rose in the region, fewer than half of our high school graduates could be considered “college ready.” Meanwhile, the National Center for Education Statistics has reported that basic literacy rates among Americans with bachelor degrees are actually plummeting. In other words, we’re now in a situation where many of our country’s matriculants can’t read properly both before and after going to college—a trend evidenced by a generational rejection of books, and the “like”-peppered subvocalizations that pass for speech in teen and twentysomething Americans.

That’s not to say it’s necessarily the kids’ fault, not when you consider they’ve been incubated in a culture bent on simultaneously narcotizing them, infantilizing them, and artificially ballooning their self-esteem to head off the sort of crippling, corrosive self-doubt that plagues their parents. But it does raise the question of to what extent colleges will choose to follow the rest of society down this bottomless, if extremely lucrative, well. For a high school to spit out graduates with a mental age of 13 is one thing. For a college, it’s a gross abrogation of duty—one keenly felt in a city whose population nine months out of the year is nearly a quarter students. The concern, then, isn’t whether all of Boston will become a college campus. It’s what that campus will look like when our schools finish turning themselves into glorified daycare centers. Now, there’s a vision that chills the blood.