• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Sometimes You Have to Say No

The bizarre UCSB dorm as a symptom of austerity.

November 1, 2021
 
 

Like most of higher ed Twitter, I’ve been following the story of the monstrous dorm at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a sort of morbid fascination.

The short version is that UCSB has agreed to use a dorm design suggested by a major donor, Charles Munger. He donated $200 million of the $1.5 billion they expect it will cost. It will house 4,500 students, mostly without windows. It will have two doors.

It’s oddly carceral. It reminded me of the movie Logan’s Run, blending futuristic technology (artificial windows!) with a level of confinement rarely seen in a voluntary setting.

This is where I invoke expertise as a parent more than as an administrator. The colleges at which I have worked don’t have dorms, so I haven’t had that experience. But I have helped my son move into a dorm.

Forty-five hundred students on move-in day, with only two doors, is a nightmare waiting to happen. Can you imagine thousands of students (and their parents) jockeying for prime parking positions near one of the two doors, then fighting their way through with furniture?

And that’s a planned moment. How do you do fire drills with 4,500 people and two doors? Worse, imagine a fire in the dorm. Imagine the pathways to one of the doors being inaccessible. That would not end well.

On a less spectacular level, imagine a power outage. (They’re not unknown in California.) If you don’t have windows, and the power goes out, you plunge into utter darkness. If the heat or cooling fails, and you don’t have windows, you’re stuck. With such high population density and no functioning HVAC system, the air could get pretty bad in a hurry.

And that’s not even mentioning the occasional airborne pandemic. Forcing 4,500 people into a single tightly packed building without many windows sounds like a recipe for contagion. Even after COVID, it seems like a prime location for the spread of respiratory infections, flu and the usual array of colds and stomach bugs.

I understand the need for student housing in such an expensive area. Many new projects engender local opposition for a host of reasons, some valid, some not. But this is extraordinary, and not in a good way.

The story behind the story is long-term public disinvestment in public higher education. Public higher education has had to learn to imitate private (and even for-profit) higher ed in various ways over the last decade. Sensitivity to donors was historically the domain of private higher education; now, it looms larger than it used to on the public side as a way to fill the gaps left by austerity.

Managed well, philanthropy can be a tremendous asset. Scholarships, for instance, can make a real difference for students. So can facilities. But sometimes you have to say no.

Saying no to $200 million can’t be easy; I don’t envy anyone facing a Board of Trustees explaining why they had to do that. But this dorm -- which will still cost the university $1.3 billion of its own money, even assuming no cost overruns -- is not an asset. It’s an albatross at best, and possibly a site for unspeakable tragedy. As hard as it could be to turn down such an enormous donation, it would be even harder to face parents of students who were trapped in a dorm fire and couldn’t escape.

No. It’s not my favorite word, but sometimes it’s the right one.

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