On the Campus Center

Gee, it’s nice to be in the news for something other than hate crimes or hoaxes thereof. This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education [subscription required] has a lovely consideration of the beauty and impracticality of our relatively new campus center. Designed by Robert A.M. Stern, the building is gorgeous but uninviting, somehow untouchable. It never ceases to remind its constituency that it is a “campus center,” not a “student center.”

“Conservative” is the perfect word for the campus center, and that may be the root of its difficulties. It’s easy to imagine trustees oohing and aahing as they walk through on tours, but not high-school students. It’s also easy to understand the dilemma facing the architects hired by colleges to plan buildings for their 19-year-olds: The people approving those plans are not regulars in game rooms or at parties with hip-hop and trance — they are deans and presidents, lawyers and bankers. The irony of the Smith Center is that it does have one room that would be perfect for late-night parties. It’s known as “201,” and it has vaulted ceilings and cozy niches. It would make a great club, if it weren’t the room reserved for trustees’ meetings.

One of the issues that has come up repeatedly in the discussions of campus “climate” over the last few weeks has been the near-total absence of a public sphere here at Pomona; our quads are generally deserted, and our students gather in atomized clusters rather than in public spaces. A colleague of mine has asked several times, and quite pointedly, whether there can be any viable political discourse in a place this devoid of real public centers for that discourse to take place.

It’s a challenge, I think, to make a campus designed by architects and administrators work for students whose interests might run counter to those of the powers that be. At my undergraduate institution, students had taken over an area in front of the student union and rechristened it “Free Speech Alley,” an area where political speechifying and public organizing of all varieties took place. The space didn’t seem amenable to such organizing — it was all concrete, with nowhere to sit. But it was in a heavily-trafficked pathway between the main academic quad and the union, and it became, gradually, because of the persistence of the organizers, a real public space.

I’m left, today, looking around our pristine campus, wondering where such gathering places might be, where students might begin spontaneously to create a culture of debate and discussion. It can’t be made for them; no amount of comfy furniture will make the space genuinely theirs. And it won’t happen overnight; such adoptions require the passing of time to become tradition. But I’m holding out hope that some group of students, motivated by our recent conversations, will seize upon a spot on this campus where they might create their own Free Speech Alley, outside the restrictive visions of architects and trustees.

2 thoughts on “On the Campus Center

  1. Thanks, DN. By the by, the Chronicle also has an article by Carol Christ [subscription still required] on more precisely this subject: “What Private Colleges Can Learn From Public Universities About Public Spaces.”

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