Evolving Campus Culture – Tear Down This Wall

            A trend I refer to as the “corporatization” of the modern American university popped up the other day in a different context than the usual degradation of the academic curriculum or the punishment of free speech and academic freedom. It showed up in the architecture of the recently opened student center at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

            As Jenna Russell reported in The Boston Globe, Vermont’s largest city finds itself cursed (some among the “gown” might say blessed, but the “town” more accurately says cursed) with a 4-acre, $61 million complex that university officials have pawned off on the public as “a symbol of growth and revitalization at the smallest public flagship campus in the country.” The186,000 square foot monstrosity houses offices for student clubs, a food court, a bank, a copy shop, a bookstore, a ballroom, and a game room “with pool tables, lounge chairs and a fireplace."

            The building has to be seen as more than a mere architectural error, inappropriate for the otherwise sylvan setting of this traditional, even if bustling, New England city.  There is a further and perhaps more fundamental question – not raised in the Globe report and rarely discussed in reports about the massive building campaigns in progress on campuses all around the country: Why is it that the modern university seeks, more and more, to keep its students glued to the campus rather than to encourage them to venture out into the city or town in which it’s located?

  One thing is sure: Burlington is going to be seeing far fewer students venturing off the campus to eat at local restaurants and cafes, visiting Ben & Jerry’s, transacting business at the local bank, using the services of the local copy shop, seeing what’s on the shelves at the local bookstore, or attending a social event outside of the campus ballroom. Stores and shops on the main drags and smaller by-ways in this college town will gradually dwindle, and once-vibrant unique local businesses will be the first to go, in much the same way Harvard Square has lost most of its quirky independent businesses and modestly-priced student-suitable eateries over the last couple of decades. When I arrived in Cambridge to attend law school in 1964, there were three all-night cafeterias in the Square. Now, there are none. I met more interesting people at the Patisserie Française than on the Harvard campus, but that café moved out years ago, as Harvard established more and more on-campus eateries and cafes. Even Harvard’s Lamont Library recently opened its own late-night café, lest a student be inconvenienced in having to leave the stacks in order to get some caffeine.

  The tendency of colleges – in Burlington, Cambridge, and just about everywhere else – to turn the campus into a company town of sorts, and keep the students penned in rather than out on the town, surely helps preserve the oddly isolated culture that has afflicted American campuses of higher education, where the values and practices of the “real world” grow more and more remote everyday. Only on a campus, after all, could limiting protests to one gazebo seem like a good idea. Only on a campus could the definition of the term “harassment” be watered down so much that it includes engaging in pure political speech, such as publishing unflattering facts about a world religion, or engaging in an anti-affirmative action bake sale that satirically illustrates its point by discounting prices to certain races. Only on a campus could a collection of Palestinian artwork be removed because it advocated only one side of a divisive issue.

   Even at Harvard Law School, the apex of the American legal establishment, there is a speech code – dubbed “Sexual Harassment Guidelines” – that grew out of a 1990’s student parody of feminist legal theory. Today students may safely engage in parody or other “offensive” speech in Harvard Square (protected by the venerable First Amendment, after all) that would be punishable if spoken in Harvard Yard or Harvard Law School. A student may not, at Harvard, engage in the kind of parody we normal citizens freely watch every night on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show and “The Colbert Report.” Our campuses of higher education, once the most free places in our society, are now the second least free (outranked, still, by our maximum security prisons).

             I’m not saying that providing a student on the campus with everything he or she needs is solely, or even largely responsible for the increasingly wide chasm between the campus and “the real world” that is characterized by the typical American urban street. (That’s a subject that my co-author and I tried to explore in our 1998 book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses). But I think that this isolation does facilitate the successful indoctrination of students with multicultural and gender-related sensitivity training, speech codes, and other aspects of the tendentious and nauseatingly politically correct modern academy that is at war with liberty, with truly liberal education, and with the greater society. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s famous speech aimed at then Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev, it’s time to tear down this wall, or perhaps this student center. The increasing isolation of gown from town can bode nothing but ill for both society and higher education.

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