One Year of Emptiness at the Krach Leadership Center
May 4, 2015 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Fredrik deBoer reflects on disparities among university buildings and what they say about different approaches to higher education:
Look: nobody, nobody, in the humanities is naive about this stuff. None of us expect the kind of opulence that you find in the STEM buildings, or the alumni hall, or the massive ghost town that is Purdue’s research park, which is set to expand by 980 acres in the near future. None of us expect that stuff and most of us don’t want it. What we want– what I want– is a functional building where I can meet with students who are willing to learn, with some classrooms with a functioning HVAC system, some chairs and desks, and a whiteboard. A computer with a projector would be nice. We aren’t picky. But it is so dispiriting to come into a dilapidated space at a college which seems to build new buildings for no purpose.
posted by audi alteram partem (27 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
We have a similar space on our campus and it's wildly popular with students. I think 95% of the traffic is to the Chick Fil A inside.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:37 AM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Easy question: Which school at what university does the following describe? "A central atrium with light wells runs lengthwise through the 117,707-square-foot building with a unique focal point: a fourth-century Roman mosaic of the Greek sea goddess Tethys set into the floor inside the front entrance." Photos. (And yes, even the less wealthy schools at this university aren't poor, but there's still a big gap.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:49 AM on May 4, 2015


tl;dr from the article

I am grateful to the Krach family for their generous donation of $10 million to contribute to that cost. I just wish that more donors would give to the general fund, or to scholarship funds, or for hiring more tenure track faculty, or to simply fulfill the basic purpose of holding down tuition and thus debt. The need to build things that you can put people’s names on is a contagion in the contemporary university. We have more monuments and fountains than I can count, each with “Generously Donated by the Class of XXXX,” but there are fraying wires and black mold in buildings that host hundreds of classes and thousands of students.

posted by lalochezia at 7:54 AM on May 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


There was a lot of empty shiny glass enclosed well designed space at our local community college, so the trend isn't limited to top-tier schools, I don't think...
posted by mikelieman at 8:06 AM on May 4, 2015


de Boer is kind of missing the story here. yes, there is the big picture of trustees building out campuses as luxury resorts of high tuition students but, traditionally, university buildings were capstones on development campaigns; they essentially turned a profit once all the donations were added up. However, dollars to donuts the Krach Center was ultimately financed by bonds.

The question he should start with is really: who is on the boards of trustees of universities? The answer: the same sorts of business and finance "leaders" that run the rest of the economy on financial schemes and scams. Cooper Union isn't one bad apple, these building projects across the country are driven by financially well connected players generating financial instruments for their friends on Wall Street.

The story really is that this country is run by gangsters at every level.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:13 AM on May 4, 2015 [10 favorites]


Very interesting. I'm currently sitting inside the Hunt Library at NC State, a similar type of building, a third space, a library without books, built primarily for the function that this building at Purdue was, study, seating, and meeting space for students. NC State is a tech school like Purdue.

But it is wildly successful, I always say that it is the only building I've ever seen where architects' renderings of people using the space in various ways actually happens. There's a warmth to this building, welcoming furniture, colors, space. There are similar buildings on campus that are just a bit more austere, and I never go inside. There must be a very fickle balance that we perceive as to whether buildings are welcoming and useful or not. Perhaps the location isn't exactly convenient, or transportation, or there are not enough food options while there. Or perhaps it was a solution looking for a problem. Anyways, the Hunt might just be an anomaly. It's location is inconvenient, in the middle of a odd/generic innovation park, but it works somehow.
posted by Sreiny at 8:15 AM on May 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I realize that in today’s day and age, these things don’t sound as sexy as a hypothetical Jeff Jarvis Memorial Thinkfluencer ThirdSpace for Dynamically Innovative Synergistic Disruption...

Worth it for that alone.

I work in a crumbling and iconic administration building that will never get overhauled because nobody gives money to overhaul administration buildings. And, to some degree, that's as it should be, because there's nothing that smacks of ivory-tower elitism like refitting the president's office. But this also means that when I have to go to the bathroom, I either have to go outside and back in (unless it's after 4:30, because then it's locked) or go upstairs and down the loooong hall to wait with students, or up three flights and down THAT hall.

And don't even get me started on the accessibility. My poor coworker had to take two elevators to reach her car ten feet outside her window.
posted by St. Hubbins at 8:48 AM on May 4, 2015


I was going to mention that as well, St. Hubbins, but Jarvis is an easy target, and I still come away from this believing that de Boer wouldn't have written his rant if he'd gotten space in the nice new building, or even in the "gut rehab" next door.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:56 AM on May 4, 2015


Oh, I don't actually know who Jeff Jarvis is. Is this something i would have to have 1,000+ Twitter followers to understand? I'm just a person with two humanities degrees who gets the heebie jeebies every time things get all disruptioncore.
posted by St. Hubbins at 9:12 AM on May 4, 2015


Look: nobody, nobody, in the humanities is naive about this stuff. None of us expect the kind of opulence that you find in the STEM buildings

For the record, most of us in STEM don't need opulence. We need toys, and we need the kind of space where we can play with our toys, which generally means the cheaper the better.
posted by ocschwar at 9:28 AM on May 4, 2015


At my alma matter, which admittedly is not as rich as the schools discussed in this thread, we were *dying* for a "third space". A glut of new students meant that every common area and study space had been closed up with portable walls and converted into temporary classrooms. It wasn't until I got access to the upper-year computer labs that I had a place to conduct study groups with my classmates.

That said, there does seem to be a shady trend of building buildings for buildings sake (in Canada at least). Partially that's driven by government and private grants that want their name attached to capital projects, rather than boring old operating expenses. But a consequence is ever rising tuition, which is really morally shady, as the author points out. I'm not at all surprised to read the Humanities are given short shrift again - maybe they need better branding to attract richer patrons /snark.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:29 AM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


You know, if I was a cajillionaire and wanted to have a university legacy, it would be a trust to provide some basic amenities. I bet I would be remembered much more fondly than the people whose names are on buildings.

Cashier:

"You books will be $877, and applying your maxwelton Fuck That Trust's grant, they are $87.70."

Small plaque on back of stall door:

"Spare a moment to thank the excellent janitors who keep this area spotless and the maxwelton Throne Room Trust which pays them a living wage in perpetuity."

Etc., etc.
posted by maxwelton at 9:48 AM on May 4, 2015 [20 favorites]


For the record, most of us in STEM don't need opulence. We need toys, and we need the kind of space where we can play with our toys, which generally means the cheaper the better.

Indeed. Usually the opulence is reserved for the b-school, so that budding management consultants can get used to the vibe of the offices of the CxOs whom they will be advising.
posted by theorique at 9:54 AM on May 4, 2015


The disparity between university buildings is a darkly hilarious running theme of the book Dear Committee Members, which is constructed of recommendation letters from start to finish. The blurb is that it 'puts the pissed in epistolary novel.'

I think of this every time I walk to my office (at an R1) and see another asbestos floor tile that has come unglued but fixing it isn't even in the long-term bureaucratic pipeline.

Also, I don't know how many times I've heard that a particular university pot of money is off-limits for any sort of salaries. Somewhere in the donation process that ends up being assured.
posted by umbú at 9:58 AM on May 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


The same things happen at my university. It's a crying shame. Education is becoming a by-product of the university system and a shoddy one at that. My experience is that a student CAN become educated but they will have to do it DESPITE the best efforts of administrators.
What does one actually need? A good library and access to scholarly journals,some talented and decently compensated professors, a chance to meet other experts in their field of endeavor, etc.
For the most part, from my experience, the American university exists for the university. I become apoplectic when I contemplate the offices full of paper pushers that cost much more than any good that they produce. We have an office staffed with people who claim to support non-traditional students. When I re-enrolled in college, in my advanced stage of decrepitude, I was sent an e-mail extolling the wonders of the non-traditional student union, and that if I ever needed anything they would be there for me. So, I visited them on my first day back at school, thinking I would check it out. I walked in and more or less said "Here I am!" Their response was "Well? What do you want?" It was as if, when confronted with why they were there, they suddenly were at a loss.
Meanwhile, students mortgage their soul to get credentialed, and graduate with little more understanding than when they first walked in the door.
Sure, there are always exceptions to the rule. Sure, some universities do a fine job at teaching students. But what I am talking about is the general trend.
In the last five years my university has sunk millions of dollars into extravagant buildings that do little to ensure the education of students. They built, for example, an alumni center. What the fuck is that? After you graduate, do you go there, walk around admiring the fine modern architecture, then get back to the bus stop so you can get to your job at Starbucks? Meanwhile students carry a mill stone of debt around their necks and professors exist on food stamps.
posted by rankfreudlite at 10:06 AM on May 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


ocschwar: "most of us in STEM don't need opulence."

Speak for yourself, buddy. After close to a decade of Government-funded labs, I could use some opulence. Or at least some outlets that don't come out of the wall when I pull on a cord to unplug it.

I kid, of course. Every time I see a "research lab" on TV I laugh my ass off at the open, glass-walled, airy, space with the wall-size touchscreen displays. Sure. That looks JUST LIKE my drab, utilitarian lab with the air handler that is either on so high the doors won't shut or is so loud that I am afraid our lab tech will need hearing protection.

But even with all this, I know that I'm lucky because I'm in STEM. The poor bastards in the humanities? Might as well be living in an Occupy camp, made out of scavenged materials and held together with duct tape.

Actually that's a good idea. Humanities building is falling apart... New glitzy building is half empty... so, move in. Not like you'd be displacing anyone. Right?
posted by caution live frogs at 11:04 AM on May 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Spare a moment to thank the excellent janitors who keep this area spotless and the maxwelton Throne Room Trust which pays them a living wage in perpetuity."

This adjunct-free classroom brought to you by the Benevolent Rich People of Fantasyland Foundation

(The toilet idea ought to at least be good for a few "named chair" jokes, though.)
posted by RogerB at 11:21 AM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


P.S.
My previous comment was from the point of view of the humanities. I agree that those in STEM need to have the equipment necessary to properly do what they do. Otherwise it's like trying to teach carpentry without saws, hammers, nails, and wood.
posted by rankfreudlite at 11:24 AM on May 4, 2015


That's one nice thing about my community college. If I see an empty office, I just call the provost's assistant and ask to have my name plate moved there. Easy Peasy.

Also, our newest, fanciest, shiniest building is the new Performing Arts Hall. Before that we got a new library (but OK before that were two stem buildings). And the best classrooms are in the Humanities building.

Damn, every now and then it strikes me that I'm super lucky to have an apparently competent administration.
posted by oddman at 12:14 PM on May 4, 2015


In STEM and particularly biomedicine, there are actually perverse incentives for universities to continue to build new lavish workspaces, because of rules about how "overhead" from NIH grants (which goes to the university, not the specific person/project being funded) can be spent. This is also related to the overproliferation of "soft money" positions, in which a PI's salary must be paid from grants and teaching, and not by the university. Bruce Alberts summarizes this problem here [pdf] ("Overbuilding Research Capacity").
posted by en forme de poire at 12:17 PM on May 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Indeed. Usually the opulence is reserved for the b-school, so that budding management consultants can get used to the vibe of the offices of the CxOs whom they will be advising.

Truth. I went to business school at Purdue and those facilities were extremely well-appointed in comparison to both my undergraduate engineering degree as well as the other buildings on campus that we would occasionally field trip to for the odd simultaneous test that couldn't be accommodated by the more reasonably sized classrooms. In all fairness, the tuition to attend that school was a large multiple of what I would have paid as an English grad student (even an unfunded one).
posted by minedev at 12:22 PM on May 4, 2015


First of all, I think there's an important point about how money showers on certain disciplines instead of others, or how donors come along and want some sort of legacy.

But I really think the issue here -- what happened, as it were -- is simply a failure of placemaking. On my college campus, while I was there, the long-vacant science building (which had been replaced a decade-ish earlier by a dull modernist box containing smaller boxes structure, itself since superseded) was rehabbed beautifully and turned into a student union, cafeteria, mailroom, multi-functional space that -- admittedly on a smaller campus with fewer options -- seems to still fulfill that role very well today.

In short I agree with Sreiny, especially this:
There must be a very fickle balance that we perceive as to whether buildings are welcoming and useful or not. Perhaps the location isn't exactly convenient, or transportation, or there are not enough food options while there. Or perhaps it was a solution looking for a problem.

I don't think it's all that fickle if you actually go out and examine your campus needs and build something that is missing or needs something better. But like downtowns, you need reasons to be there before the place can thrive. If all you're interested in is plunking down a box with your name in it, and use a Field of Dreams philosophy, you're probably going to have a massive failure. This probably happens in large part because nobody was really accountable for the project's success, once the money was donated.

don't know how many times I've heard that a particular university pot of money is off-limits for any sort of salaries

Not that this will make you feel any better, but it's a basic rule of non-profit fiduciary responsibility that you don't depend on one-time or irregular donations, no matter how big, to fund ongoing expenses like salaries. It isn't sustainable, it gets you scrambling for money someday to keep someone (or many someones) job(s), and what probably matters most, isn't that sexy for donors to be supporting the "general fund", even if they don't know that it's a potential sign of weakening finances. You want tuition, governmental subsidy, or earnings from trusts and permanent funds to do that. But, yeah.
posted by dhartung at 12:49 PM on May 4, 2015


Not that this will make you feel any better, but it's a basic rule of non-profit fiduciary responsibility that you don't depend on one-time or irregular donations, no matter how big, to fund ongoing expenses like salaries. It isn't sustainable, it gets you scrambling for money someday to keep someone (or many someones) job(s), and what probably matters most, isn't that sexy for donors to be supporting the "general fund", even if they don't know that it's a potential sign of weakening finances. You want tuition, governmental subsidy, or earnings from trusts and permanent funds to do that. But, yeah.
Agreed. This is what I concluded. Even if a wealthy benefactor pays for the entire cost of building the structure, it will cost much to keep the building in use: property taxes, utilities, maintainance, staff, etc. Where will that money come from?
posted by rankfreudlite at 1:18 PM on May 4, 2015


Agreed. This is what I concluded. Even if a wealthy benefactor pays for the entire cost of building the structure, it will cost much to keep the building in use: property taxes, utilities, maintainance, staff, etc. Where will that money come from?

And if the benefactor doesn't understand what work is to be done in the building, here's how it plays out:

STEM: faculty and students are suddenly restricted from, well, actually performing the work their field involves, lest the precious gem of a building be marred or damaged.

Humanities: the beautiful marble chip flooring and fancy ceramic wall panels mean that every single conversation in the building comes RIGHT TO YOU AND YOU CAN'T EVEN HEAR YOURSELF THINK let along converse with the student whose essay you're critiquing.
posted by ocschwar at 4:50 PM on May 4, 2015


That does make sense in the abstract, dhartung. But, yeah, indeed. It contributes to the odd feeling of knowing that there is a lot of money being thrown around on campus, but none of it is getting anywhere near us (in the humanities/arts)—and I don't even mean anything opulent. I just mean the basic maintenance that prevents the building from looking like the sanitorium in that old Jack Nicholson movie.
posted by umbú at 9:43 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


One thing I really like about my university is that we humanities people get the beautiful historic buildings, including some of the oldest buildings in Australia (late 1700s). This is because STEM apparently needs fancy labs and such instead of normal sized rooms, and preservation orders prevent the university from being able to adapt the buildings to them. Sure, they get shiny new buildings instead, but it's Australia, so we aren't great at building shiny new buildings, so ours are still better.
posted by lollusc at 5:08 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


it's a basic rule of non-profit fiduciary responsibility that you don't depend on one-time or irregular donations, no matter how big, to fund ongoing expenses like salaries. It isn't sustainable, it gets you scrambling for money someday to keep someone (or many someones) job(s),

Okay, but at my last university, at the Same time they were letting more than 50 people go because of budget cuts, they were also building several multi million dollar buildings from a fund that, of course, couldn't be used for salaries because they are ongoing expenses blah blah blah.

For one thing, if they had invested that money somewhere with even a modest rate of return, they could have continued to fund a couple of salaries forever just off the interest. And for another, it's just offensive. Wait until after the people losing their jobs have gone elsewhere and psychologically recovered before you start splashing your building fund money around.
posted by lollusc at 7:06 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


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