Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Moat Around the University

I've said this before, I know. The truth of that statement doesn't make what follows any easier.

The First Part of the Argument (Andrea gets on her high horse about PRINCIPLE): Universities are funny places. We separate some people, mostly for a short time in their lives, from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world, give them time and space to think about things, and reward all kinds of behaviors (thought, reason, reflection, as but a few examples) that aren't particularly rewarded in the rest of the world. As for the people who live their professional lives out at university, well ... it's one kind of institution or another, I suppose -and it would be awfully expensive to put all those professors away somewhere else.

I think we foster this separation because, on some level, we both culturally value thought...inquiry.... discovery and simultaneously believe that it's not the work of "everyman". "Brains" are special people and deserve special treatment. So professors lead lives of privilege. Not financial privilege, it must be said, but many other kinds of privilege. In the interest of full disclosure, I have benefited from this privilege for most of my life.

Some universities define a portion of their mission as to the community, but it's only a small part. And frequently, this part of the mission isn't terribly well lived out. Universities maintain the division between town and gown in some subtle and some not-so-subtle ways. Non-university people usually can't park at universities. Public events are frequently only advertised within the university. University buildings sometimes aren't marked with the name of the building, so how can visitors even find the activities that are there? In principle, there are public activities, but university policies don't always support the principle.

And think how much worse it must be for, say, poor or poorly educated people. How would they begin to sort out the intricacies of a university bureaucracy, perhaps to expose their children to the possibility of higher education? There might as well be a moat around the university.

Part the Second -in which Andrea has to get off her high horse and learn what it feels like.

I have said these things, but always ALWAYS with the certainty that I knew how to swim the moat. I wanted the moat to be drained (or whatever one does to get rid of moats), but it was for the benefit of those other people. The university -any university- is my turf. These are my people. Oh brother. I walked right into the swinging baseball bat on this one.

As you know, I suppose, I live within feet of Swarthmore College. It's a beautiful campus with a warm staff, a vibrant faculty, and bright students -a little slice of heaven, if one is inclined toward these things. But I am neither faculty, staff, nor student there. No matter, I figured. I am who I am; it'll work. Since the campus is so close to my house, I figured that I'd join the gym there. Dave and I could swim in the pool. We would go to concerts, art exhibits. The college would be a good way to meet new people.

It is not. It is not my place. I am not welcome there. I'm not pouting, really. There are other places where I am welcome. It's just interesting to note and observe the feelings. Faculty families technically CAN use the facilities, but they don't, apparently. Concerts, lectures, etc... aren't even advertised on the university website; you have to get the campus e-mail to know what's happening. The campus is so small that non-members are noticed even when just walking through the campus to get somewhere else.

Here's the thing. Colleges and universities send hundreds of volunteers and professionals out into the community every year -interns, student teachers, campus ministry volunteers. In part, this is an effort to heal old town-gown wounds. (Of course, that's not ALL it is. The community, the students, and the professionals all benefit from this relationship.) But, if the flow does not -can not- go the other way, if the "town" can't come to the "gown" occasionally, then class, privilege, and even race issues aren't healed at all. University policy suggests that the university has something to offer the community, but not the other way around.

What a loss, for everyone.

And it hurts my feelings, too.


Renee said...

I think you have just identified your mission...

breadchick said...

Well Andrea, I agree with Renee. I think you have found your cause.

Having just left the ultimate "Town - Gown" world of Cambridge, MA, you hit the nail right on the head (as usual). The universities and colleges all rule the city in so many ways, appear to give back (and do), but heaven help you if you try to take advantage of the public offerings.

Good luck with your efforts.

Andrea Rusin said...

Well, I wasn't thinking I was stating my mission. Now you guys have given me something to think about!

Lisa :-] said...

There is that about "academia" (which is what I, as an outsider, have always called the...educational community?) that holds itself apart and aloof from the great unwashed. Maybe that is why I never chose to truck with it.

Megan said...

oh no. :( i never inhabited any other space on that campus than "employee".

at any rate, even though they do a crappy job of advertising stuff, check out http://calendar.swarthmore.edu/ (link is on top right of college home page) to see what's happening on campus each day.

bookwoman said...

I'm still put off from high school when they wouldn't let me into the library to study. This was long before the security issues around today. I just wasn't "special" enough to look at their books. Perhaps that's why I still have a fondness for the community college. they always let me in and always helped.