Should a public university be allowed to seize private property from people who don’t want to sell?
That’s what Northeastern Illinois University is trying to do.
The school is located in a north side Chicago neighborhood with an eclectic offering of restaurants and mom-and-pop stores. Many of the small businesses in the area have been in the owners’ families for generations – but that’s not what university officials want on their campus. The university is suing to bulldoze those private businesses and turn over the property to a private developer instead.
The university’s actions have sparked outrage. Despite this, school officials are moving ahead, justifying their actions by stating student dorms and a different mix of businesses in a retail center are a better fit for the university’s expansion plan.
How can the university do this?
[sharequote align="center"]"Just because something is legal within our system, doesn't mean it's just or good."[/sharequote]
Through the use of a legal procedure called eminent domain, which is the ability of the government to take private property for public use, so long as it pays just compensation. A public university, as a unit of government, also has this power.
The university argues its plan would be good for economic development in the community, but the block they want to take is bustling with economic activity – every store front is filled with a business the community is supporting.
In reality, the plan is a significant gamble. The university only retains 64 percent of its student body after their freshman year, and only 20 percent of the student body graduates within six years. Beyond its struggle with declining enrollment, a study from consultants hired by the university showed only between 3 and 9 percent of students could afford to live in the new dorms – with no guarantee that those students would even choose to do so.
Given the real possibility the development may fail, one might think the university would be reluctant to destroy the livelihoods of its neighbors. If it wants to build dorms, that’s fine; it can do so on any part of the 67 acres of land it already owns, much of which is empty. Or it could buy the land from willing sellers. There’s no guarantee the school would attract more students simply by building more housing, but that’s a risk it could choose to take with its own property.
Public universities are turning to eminent domain all across the country. The ability to use eminent domain is one major advantage public schools have over private universities. It has been used by schools, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for development projects with varying success. Ball State University invoked the right against a printing company in Muncie, Indiana, but was driven back by public pressure – the only tool property owners can use to fight back against schools with eminent-domain powers.
There’s also no reason to think university bureaucrats spending other people’s money are experts in maximizing a community’s economic potential. It’s business owners, as people who have put their own money on the line, who are in the best position to determine what the community wants and how to provide it.
Unfortunately, since the organization responsible for the abuse is unelected, voters can’t mobilize to punish them at the ballot box. Public-university trustees are appointed by the governor. It is nearly impossible to hold them accountable.
None of this will change until voters push for reform in state laws to restrict universities’ ability to take private property.
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