In a way, it’s universal. The American public university system was largely constructed through federal grants in the mid-19th century. Schools such as Ohio State University, the University of Illinois, Michigan State University and our own University of Nebraska-Lincoln were founded and built in the years between 1862 and 1890.
It’s understandable that they’re all starting to seem a bit old and dusty by now.
A combination of inevitable updates for functionality and the urge for architectural chest-pounding has precipitated a fresh round of renovations at UNL. Some academic programs have outgrown their initial spaces. Some buildings aren’t what they used to be. And some projects are springing seemingly out of nowhere with the stated goal of driving recruitment. To actively take part in shaping the future of UNL, we as students need to be able to tell the difference. We need to be well-informed participants in debates about the allocation of student fees and the advancement of proposals. Basically, we need to decide, individually and as a student body, what we want out of UNL as an institution.
I should note here that I’m an English major, a student first and foremost, an unathletic schlup and an off-campus resident for whom UNL consists mostly of the grey classrooms of Andrews Hall and the eclectically decorated Daily Nebraskan office in the Nebraska Union basement. This isn’t to say I’m not involved at UNL – quite the opposite, really – but that my particular priorities will resonate through my writing. That aside, I’m going to give the clearest picture I can of UNL as an institution. I’m not disregarding investments in Memorial Stadium’s north stand because I’ve never had season tickets. I’m not calling for the Campus Recreation Center to close because I only go there to play soccer once a month.
I will, though, advocate for the best possible academic experience for anyone who sets foot on UNL’s campuses, city or east. I don’t believe in treating colleges as businesses or factories. UNL exists as a place of learning. If students enter at 18 or 19, graduate sometime in their 20s in reasonable financial and emotional situations, find something they wanted to study, study it and master it, then the university is successful, regardless of how much money it took to get us there.
With respect to specific renovation or building projects, this leads necessarily to a single question relevant to every new idea: Will this project help us graduate the most students who had the best experiences with the least amount of debt?
In 2014 alone, the university has taken on more than $30 million in renovation and construction. Over the next 15 years, another $100 million has been approved by the Board of Regents for new projects. That isn’t all-inclusive, either: The recent restructuring of the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts will definitely involve more development.
That sounds like a lot, and, well, it is. However, the numbers alone don’t make the case for frivolity.
For example, April 2 marked the completion of an $8 million addition to the Ken Morrison Life Sciences Research Center. This new wing wasn’t built to update an old building; the Morrison Center was only completed in 2008. The Morrison Center grew by 50 percent this year because it was functioning, and functioning well. In 2009, the National Institute of Health committed to funding the 30,000 foot expansion due to the success of research at the Nebraska Center for Virology.
Similarly, a significant chunk of university money is as good as locked up for upcoming construction in the College of Business Administration. Last September, NU Regents voted to approve the $84 million construction of a new home for the CBA, with the additional potential cost of $10 million for an adjacent parking garage. For anyone who has spent time in the winding, impersonal and uncomfortably tan hallways of CBA, this is likely welcome news. Sure, it’s a while off, but rebuilding CBA is the kind of project that we as students should care about, and the university can only be better for improving its academic facilities.
Can non-academic (or non-strictly-academic) renovations be just as imperative to the university’s continued success? To an extent, yes. But they can easily lose focus.
Since the beginning, I’ve been conflicted about the renovation of the Nebraska Union and not because I have a deep devotion to vomit-green tile. Maybe I just don’t see the drawbacks as strongly. Fundamental unfinishedness aside, the union looks better now than it did last year. But what does it do? What aspects of student life were improved by replacing tile with vinyl?
The union renovations, plainly put, aren’t for us. The $2.1 million that used to be money (and is now a red floor stripe, a knocked-out wall in the Caffina Café and a bunch more Helvetica on the walls) was spent, not to help students at the university, but to draw students to the university. It’s a fundamentally different mission. Making changes at UNL to drive recruitment, which, according to director of Nebraska unions Charlie Francis, was the goal of the union project, instantly transforms the individual from student to consumer. It doesn’t mean that aesthetic investments are invalid – it means we need to take them with a grain of salt.
I made a similar argument earlier this year in relation to the proposed renovations of Love Library. I firmly believe the library needs to be worked on. But I doubt that the proposed creation of a Library Commons in Love North will be in my interest or in the interest of your everyday library-goer. Currently, the basement stacks are cramped and full of books, but the main-floor study rooms are spacious and book-free. Current plans call for more book-free study rooms and an in-library coffee shop. I can see the union from the library; why make the two identical in purpose? According to the university, it’s, again, to drive recruitment.
Bringing more students to UNL and giving the current ones a better experience aren’t mutually exclusive goals. Many projects, such as the CBA reconstruction, can address both issues simultaneously. But it can be dangerously easy to forget about our primary goals. Public universities were built by government and private hands for the long-term benefit of students. We should be rebuilding them for the same reasons.
Benjamin Curttright is a junior English major. Reach him for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org