Eminent Domain

Public University Seeks Land Via Eminent Domain

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Writing at Insider Higher Ed, Kevin Kiley reports on Ball State University's recent announcement that it may use eminent domain to acquire land for a campus expansion. He writes:

At a time when public university leaders regularly point to the advantages that private institutions have enjoyed over them in recent years – such as freedom from most state regulations, freedom to raise tuition, and often significant financial resources—it's easy to forget that the public universities still have one significant advantage. They are parts of the state, and that comes with a lot of powers.

Earlier this month, Ball State University's board of trustees authorized the use of eminent domain – the power of the state to seize private property without the owner's consent so long as the owner is compensated – to take a piece of property on which it plans to construct a hotel, conference center, restaurants, and dormitory for hospitality students.

If the university does follow through with the plan – and administrators stress that they are trying to reach an agreement with property owners to avoid actually using the power – it will be a rare example of a public university invoking eminent domain, and it could generate controversy, particularly given that the property wouldn't be used for "traditional" educational purposes.

While public universities do enjoy an advantage on the eminent domain front by virtue of being part of the state, not every state government takes the public-private distinction as seriously as it should. New York, for example (as Kiley acknowledges in the story), happily wielded its eminent powers on behalf of Columbia University, an elite private institution, and the state's highest court ultimately rubber-stamped the deal. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court declined its opportunity to review the constitutionality of the Columbia land grab, which doesn't exactly discourage other states from taking property on behalf of their own prestigious private colleges.

Perhaps we should just be relieved to learn that eminent domain is rarely used by public universities. Here's hoping Ball State isn't spearheading an unfortunate new trend.