North Quad and other Michigan Review Stuff

30 09 2010

I had a couple of pieces in the latest issue of The Michigan Review, which has just hit the stands.  In addition to the following news analysis/column (available online here) on North Quad, campus’ newest testament to wasteful spending, I penned a fair amount of our staff editorials—one on Ann Arbor’s new couch ban and the other on Sarah Palin (it doesn’t appear to be on the website yet).  So I have been writing, only not online.

I don’t like the title I gave the North Quad piece; it’s a bit snarky.  Regardless, read on to learn about the University’s most recent folly:

Despite being open for less than a month, local news outlets, instructors, students, and, of course, the university administration, have already sung North Quad’s praises.  The $175-million complex is the gem of the University of Michigan’s residential community expansion and improvement program; students not fortunate enough to live in one of North Quad’s plush rooms or to have classes in the building’s state-of-the-art instructional facilities owe it to themselves to take a self-guided tour of the grounds.

North Quad’s design is, to be certain, a crowning achievement in academic architecture.  Its collegiate Gothic exterior, formulated with the apparent goal of looking splendid in university promotional literature and during campus tours, recalls the Michigan Union (minus the ivy and the history).

Because a progressive, forward-looking institution can't do any better than poorly imitating styles from a century ago

Inside, students and visitors are greeted with spacious lobbies and multi-story common areas replete with multiple plasma televisions, comfortable furniture, and dramatic lighting fixtures that appear to be from some oversized Pottery Barn for academic institutions.  Towering faux-marble columns ascend to vaulted ceilings, dazzling your eyes and distracting you long enough for you to forget the question that has been nagging you all along: Why in the hell did the University spend $175-million building what amounts to a four-star hotel with a handful of classrooms tucked inside?

It is difficult to criticize the latest result of the University’s spending binge without seeming like a bit of a downer, and for somewhat understandable reasons.  North Quad is an undeniably attractive building with undeniably appealing educational facilities.  The dining hall is undeniably inviting and the student housing is undeniably up-to-date, which is more than can be said about, say, Bursley Hall.

What is less than undeniable, however, is the soundness of the thinking that led to the creation of North Quad in the first place.  The project, green-lit more than five years ago, is just the latest in a chain of high-profile improvement and construction projects undertaken by the University seemingly designed to increase the campus’ prestige as much as to improve the quality of campus life.  Buildings age and need renovation or reconstruction, and U-M students are fortunate enough to attend an institution that has the resources to continuously make needed improvements or build entirely new facilities should the need arise.

But any responsible, tuition-paying student would be remiss if he or she failed to question the particular extravagance with which the University insisted on carrying out its construction projects.  To be sure, U-M has money; its endowment of roughly $6-billion is greater than the gross domestic product of numerous small and forgettable countries, as well as a diverse array of income streams (including tuition, gifts, state and federal outlays, and revenue from the University Health System).  As a corporate entity, U-M is in excellent shape, as its 2009 Financial Report plainly shows.

Yet with money to burn on luxe residential halls, “world class” dining facilities (like Mosher-Jordan’s Hill Dining Center, part of a $65-million renovation effort), and such frivolities as water bottle waste-counting drinking fountains in Mason Hall (as Ann Arbor clearly needed another unwarranted and undoubtedly expensive foray into feel-good environmentalism), it is difficult to have respect for a University Administration that shamelessly trumpets the “lowest tuition increase in 26 years.”

College students have been known to hunger strike if their cafeterias, er, community dining centers aren't Michelin Star worthy

Perhaps if University expenditures were limited, or new construction focused on functionality over form, U-M’s administration could concentrate on making the college experience more affordable (by controlling tuition costs), more educational (by hiring more faculty) or-in an ideal, unrealistic world-both.

Some, including President Mary Sue Coleman, have billed North Quad and other high-profile projects as a way to attract a wider range of qualified students from around the world.  It would be foolish to think that constructing more brick-clad monuments to the University’s profligacy is the most effective way to offer prospective students a better value for their tuition dollar.

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