Richmond City Nights: Part IV of the 2012 Policy History Conference

Welcome to ToM’s final installment on the 2012 Policy History Conference.  The life of graduate students and professors means that our correspondents sometimes lag a bit, like so many things in academia.  For our fourth post, anti-freeway movements and the role of the university in the economy and public life serve as PHC standard bearers.

If you missed our earlier installments they can be read here:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Margaret O’Mara, All the World’s a Campus: Master Planning, Politics, and the University as Model City, 1950-2012 

In this fascinating paper, Margaret O’Mara attempts to reframe the history of the so-called entrepreneurial university.  In her view, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 did not inaugurate the era when universities were viewed as engines of patentable innovation; it was, rather, an “endpoint, the culmination of a decade-long shift from political and geopolitical goals to technical, economic purpose.”  In other words, the 1970s had witnessed a subtle but profound shift in the way the university was seen by policymakers, business, and the public at large.  O’Mara links this shift to the emerging influence of Robert Solow and other economists, who argued that innovation could drive economic progress through “endogenous growth,” i.e. creating whole new sources of technology and productivity, which is something universities would soon be expected to provide.  (Solow’s 1956 paper “A Contribution to the Theory of Economic Growth” was an early and influential exploration of these ideas, though, as O’Mara points out, business leaders in the late 1960s were still skeptical of such novel ideas as Solow’s emphasis on a skilled workforce and new technology, seeing seeing the business firm itself as the source of growth.)

O’Mara charts the decline of American self-confidence, from its moment of unequaled prosperity and unchecked technological superiority to the soul-searching of the Seventies, when renewed competition overseas and economic angst at home called into question America’s presumed advantages.  A variety of factors converged to reshape how Americans thought about the role of the university: social and political protest on campus tarnished the reputation of the Ivory Tower in the eyes of many; the Nixon administration brought more businessmen into government, who sang the tune of “entrepreneurship”; and declining defense expenditures meant less support for research with the winding down of the Vietnam War, leading universities to place a greater emphasis on applied research and technology transfer.  Soon, rising stars such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak became symbols of a new, hip, entrepreneurial kind of science, just as the personal computer offered a stark contrast with the gigantic, intimidating mainframe computers of the 1950s and 1960s.  At the same time, Democrats such as Jimmy Carter hoped to shed the image of “big government,” while presidential aspirants Birch Bayh and Bob Dole sought to position themselves as foes of “big, lumbering bureaucracy.”  By 1980, the time was right for legislation that favored universities that placed science in the service of instrumental, profit-seeking ends.  O’Mara notes that technology transfer spiked between 1981 to 1990, though she suggests that this increase in patenting by universities had more to do with the boom in bioscience than the Bayh-Dole Act per se.  However, she argues that the BDA still played a pivotal by framing the larger discussion of what scientific research in the academy ought to be and what it ought to do for the larger economy.

Raymond A. Mohl, Freeway Revolts in Memphis and Nashville: Citizen Activism with Differential Outcomes

At mid-century, America lacked any real highway system.  As the nation expanded, federal, state, and municipal officials all viewed the nation’s anemic road system as problematic.   The rapid rise of the American automobile use, oil discoveries in the Middle East, and the United States’ rising superpower status demanded a national system of roads to encourage trade and economic growth while providing the nation with a real transportation infrastructure in times of emergency.

While the motives behind interstate highway construction were noteworthy, the execution of the 1956 Interstate Act, proved to be a double edged sword.  Unfortunately, route locations emerged as a divisive issue in the late 1950s and 1960s.  As Raymond A. Mohl demonstrates, the success of anti-freeway movements depended on a number of factors.  Organization, political reach, local government transparency, and timing combined to determine the parameters of interstate expansion in urban areas.  Citizen activism, as evidenced by the examples of Memphis and Nashville, Mohl argues, worked in some instances but not in others.

Business and political interests in 1950s Tennessee demanded an interstate corridor. Newspapers, business elites, and state road agencies all favored the construction of the I-40 corridor through the state.  In both Memphis and Nashville, anti-freeway movements organized to oppose the destruction of local communities, but the results proved very different.

Overton Park Plans, circa 1901

Mohl begins in Memphis with the George Kessler designed Overton Park.  Completed in 1906, Overton spanned over 300 acres, providing the city with an impressive downtown park space that today includes one of the last old growth forests in the state.  In 1964, the state courted controversy when the plans for I-40 consumed 26 of the park’s 342 acres for a route through the park that would quicken travel for suburban commuters. Opposition to the plans quickly emerged as a group known as Citizen’s to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) led by Anona Stoner rejected the proposed route. Rather than engage in protest marches or other acts of symbolic defiance, CPOP immediately delved into state and federal politics. Recognizing the simultaneous role of federal and local government in highway construction policy, CPOP lobbied congressmen, senators, and federal bureaucrats (notably those at the Dept of Transportation).  The group put forth alternative routes, moved for court repeals of state and local highway decisions, and generally engaged in several stalling tactics.  As the case wound its way to the Supreme Court, by July 1969, CPOP had earned an injunction against construction.

CPOP v Volpe proved a victory for citizen activism.  The Supreme Court ruled that federal highways could only be built through parkways if that remained the only “feasible”  and “prudent” route available.  Combined, the terminology required planners to issue reports regarding their lack of alternatives.  Planners had failed to do this, as result, the ruling gave parkland paramount importance, thus removing such properties from the debates in Memphis and elsewhere.

If Memphis demonstrates the success of citizen activism, Nashville provides a darker example.   In Nashville, planners knowingly shifted the route of I-40 through the local African American community’s historic Jefferson Street business district.   The route had originally been drawn one mile South.  Why shift the route’s direction?  State planners clamed the new route to be the only feasible alternative but others saw clear racial intent.

Unlike Memphis, no group formed in the early stages of planning to shed light on the machinations of I-40 planning.  The state operated with minimal transparency; publlc meetings were poorly if ever advertised.  Only when the state began purchasing properties along the North Nashville route did people realize the reality of the situation.  Opposition did form behind the leadership staff and faculty members at local educational and medical institution (faculty from HBC Fisk University played a central role in opposition).  An I-40 steering committee formed and hired NAACP lawyers who helped the opposition to submit a lawsuit imposing an injunction over construction.  Freeway opponents argued the 1957 public hearings failed to meet legal requirements and that the expressway was racially discriminatory.  Despite the fact the state never conducted any impact studies, local courts refuted the opposition’s arguments claiming that the public hearings had been adequate.

In general, the debate over the state’s role in highway construction focused more on the “wisdom not the legality” of highway department decisions.   Few observers questioned whether or not engineers had the right to dictate construction, but the anti-freeway movement doubted the soundness of such decisions. When the Supreme Court declined hearing their appeal, freeway construction commenced. Along the way, Nashville’s black population lost numerous homes, six churches, and endured noise pollution and community disruption.  Moreover, local black education institutions found themselves walled off from each other and the larger Nashville community.

Even though the state plans for I-40’s passage through Nashville and Memphis developed at the same time, Memphis’s anti-freeway movement successfully rerouted the I-40 corridor while Nashville’s efforts failed to stop or alter construction plans. Ultimately, the timing of activism helped to determine the success of the opposition.  In Memphis, CPOP emerged early and, due to the presence of the park, enjoyed a broader coalition of supporters.  The efforts of CPOP and others delayed construction, enabling the anti-freeway movement to take advantage of new legislation implemented between 1956 and 1970; the ruling in CPOP v Volpe most prominent among such examples. The state’s secrecy over I-40 construction in Nashville clearly retarded opposition efforts. Regrettably, one might also argue that it proved harder to marshal support for a historic black community than a turn of the century city park in mid century America.

In the end, the government did create some space for resistance to freeway construction.  Over time administrative and legislative changes enabled communities some redress, but their effectiveness depended on human agency.

Honorable Menschen

We unfortunately were not able to take sufficient notes to write up every great presentation we saw, and a few truly notable talks got by us.  We would like to highlight, however, several presentations that were particularly interesting.  Keep an eye out for these projects!

Nixon was bigger than Elvis at the PHC

Sean Vanatta, “Mapping State Deregulation onto the Federal Landscape: Citibank, South Dakota, and the Local Politics of National Consumer Credit Regulation”

Brent Cebul, “Conservative State Building From Nixon to Reagan: The Case of General Revenue Sharing”

Jennifer J. Armiger, “Sex, Business and the Political Economy of Equal Opportunity Policy: Shaping Limits in 1970’s America”