Our University: A Home for Minds

This week you are reading a reflection from Jay Larson on the impact of the campus environment on the university experience.  A Murphysboro native and veteran, Jay has a BA and MA from SIUC in history, specializing in China/Asia and taught for eight years in Taiwan, China and Thailand. He is pursuing a PhD in Education Administration

Walter Wendler

Our University: A Home for Minds

It is Only in the World of Objects that We Have Time and Space and Selves.

                                                                                                                                                                   T.S. Eliot

From John Dewey to Frank Lloyd Wright, world-shapers have known that our environment reflects our lives. Our campus is more than arranged paraphernalia, but a landscape of inquiry, history, and daily life. One can see these in the lines of our buildings, tracing education, ideology, and identity in our daily undertakings and highest aspirations.

Functional design is the concrete stuff of education, rendering the environment a laboratory, a workshop, even a tool unto itself. When we construct we start asking ourselves questions. Is the difference between a classroom and a seminar room simply the difference between a large space with many desks versus a smaller area with a single table? Suddenly, we’re in dialogue with the environment, where physical function serves purposeful ideas. The glass-encased lushness of a botany department’s greenhouse, a wooded path behind the library, the wide accommodating student center halls – all are spaces sculpted for its purpose.

Walter Wendler once expressed mission through caring purpose during a job interview. “If I was touring the campus with my son, I would strongly suggest that he not consider coming here,” he told his host, “It looks like nobody cares!” Just as well he did not get the job. The school’s mission probably had a shaky foundation.   

Mission is one component of identity. Like personal character, university identity is the texture of cultivated traits, learning, and happenstance. We should strive for the utilitarian elegance and aesthetic beauty of our highest aspirations, but chance gives us definition – idiosyncratic, and infinitely more interesting than perfect. Administrators should combine mission clarity in forward planning with appreciative respect for the established in order to create new structures and landscapes celebrating our character.  

Comparing two buildings at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale provides a case in point. Pulliam Hall is traditional and earnestly collegiate, while Faner Hall is an ultramodern tribute to jarring concrete angles. Built in 1957, Pulliam carries the historic spirit of our teachers’ college roots, complete with relief sculptures depicting nursery rhymes remaining from its days as a grade school. Today, they constitute a charming display of historical awareness beneath Pulliam’s imposing clock tower.

Faner arrived in 1971, following the previous year’s student riots, and rumors persist that its dead-end hallways and baffling turns were an attempt at riot-proofing. It is ugly, possessing the aesthetics of a Mad Max penal colony and surreal floor plan straight out of M.C. Escher. However it has lore, just like Pulliam.  All the better that it’s urban myth.

We’re fortunate to have it.

We can cultivate a campus of purpose, beauty and character by viewing it as a whole – complexity and beauty in co-existence. How, you ask?

Become Your Vision – Plan campus growth around our mission statement. If sincere, it exudes education, ideology, and identity. One should be able to view a completed project, read the mission statement, then say, “Yes, I can see that.”

Embrace Who You Are – Take an observant stroll through campus. An objective view of aesthetics will bring wisdom to planning, and concreteness to identity and mission. Good for the soul, too.

Then Celebrate Who You Are – Create a book celebrating our buildings. SIUC’s Pulliam clock tower logo is a recognizable landmark and perfect labeling. It is also as inspiring as the guy on the Quaker Oats box. Let’s also create something that delves into our buildings’ spirits.

Our learning, ideas, and character reside on campus. Everyone who has attended a university can tell you about “that place where I used to just sit.” With care and cultivation, we can make our campuses a home for the mind.

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