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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Campus and community
November 11, 2011 - 7:16am

The future, for colleges and universities, will require that we re-establish the local ties that many of us have been moving away from for generations. Operating a campus sustainably -- simply administering, lighting, heating, and plumbing its buildings; feeding their occupants; providing necessary supplies and handling physical output streams -- will require that the institution adjust, adapt, and rethink very much in integration with moves made by the surrounding community. Unless someone comes up with a magic spell of transportation at virtually zero energy cost (and as universities on other continents become more established and more respected), we're going to start seeing a decrease in distant applicants and distant enrollees.  Income from those full-price students has lulled us into complacency.  But, as societies (including economies and political functionality) become more regionally adapted and focused, we're going to have to adapt large portions of our curricula to focus more on how things happen in our respective parts of the world -- broad, sweeping, univeralist pronouncements will become ever less tenable.

We can become more locally and regionally focused.  Indeed, most of our institutions were more locally centered at some point in their history.  (And, of course, community colleges and some smaller four-year institutions are already/still very much regional in their service area, program offerings and enrollment base.)  But a recent incident reminded me of just how far some US colleges and universities -- even some of the smaller ones -- have allowed their community ties to deteriorate.  And thus, just how much they're going to have to rethink the way, and the reason for which, they exist.

It happened on a Saturday.  The weather was unattractive, so I was indoors.  At some point, I picked up a photocopy of an article I wanted to read and began to review it.  One page of the copy (made for academic purposes to allow me to annotate without permanently marking the book, and thus fully authorized under established "fair use" guidelines) was partially illegible.  I struggled through the first paragraph, decided it was a losing battle, and realized I needed to recopy that page.

But the copy of the book from which I made the original copy (the article had been republished as a book chapter) was on campus, at Greenback U.  And Greenback is about 25 miles away from my farm.  There are several smaller colleges and universities closer to where I live than Greenback is.  Through the wonders of the internet, I determined that one of them (call it "Cash College") had the same book in its library collection, and that the book purported to be available in the stacks.  I had used their library a couple of times before.  I knew where it was located, how its stacks were arranged, even where to find the copying machine that I'd need to use.  So, I drove to their campus.

At this point, I should offer a bit of explanation.  On the weekends, I don't dress as I typically do when I go on campus.  I dress for the farm.  On this particular Saturday, I was wearing blue jeans, a rugby-style shirt, and leather work boots.  The jeans and boots were somewhat -- but not prominently -- spattered with house paint.  My clothes showed signs of wear, but they had been chosen for solid construction and still had a lot of miles left in them.  As the weather was lousy, I put on a jacket and a tweed hat.  I wasn't particularly well-groomed, but I also was no more disheveled than the weather could explain.

When I entered the Cash College library, the sole student desk attendant was occupied with two student patrons.  Thus, I went directly to the area of the stacks indicated by the book's call number.  I stayed there rather longer than I'd intended (as it turns out, the volume I wanted was not on the shelf so I spent some time scanning the adjoining area to no good effect).  As I emerged and turned to leave the building, I was accosted by a petite, middle-aged woman whom I took to be the librarian in charge.

"Are you a member of the community?", she asked.  Not grasping her reason for the question, I admitted that I (at some existential level that didn't need immediate clarification) was.  I then described the volume I'd been looking for (an edited collection of philosophy) by title, editor, and call number.  I explained that their online catalogue had indicated it to be available, but that I'd been unable to find it on the shelves.  I asked if there might be some other area (carts, tables, whatever) where I might also check.  Throughout, I spoke quietly and collegially.

Her response was to ignore entirely what I said, and to inform me that Cash College was a private institution (which I well knew -- so many colleges in the northeastern USA are), and that members of the community were supposed to call at the Security Office and get permission before entering the library.  "So we can know that it's safe for you to be here," were her words of explanation.

I remarked that I hadn't known of their ostensible procedure, that I'd used the library previously without incident, that there hadn't seemed to be any signs (either at the boundary of campus or as I entered the library) advising me to stop at Security before proceeding, and that I didn't even know where the Security office was.

The woman's inner librarian took charge -- before dealing with the supposed safety issue she needed to deal with the fact that the book was supposed to be -- but quite apparently was not -- in its assigned place on the shelf.  After consulting the internal online system and repeatedly perusing the physical volumes, she admitted that something was amiss.  Then, having discharged her professional duties, she returned to her assigned institutional role.  She informed me that the need to involve Security was a relatively recent requirement (thereby mooting my point of having done this all before without incident).  She reminded me that we live in perilous times, thus (apparently) explaining any recent enhancement of security procedures.  And then she informed me, as if reaching for authority on a more profound level, that the other private colleges and universities in the region had all instituted similar security procedures in their libraries.  As an example, she specifically mentioned Greenback.

Now, a little further explanation.  Cash College exists in an upscale bedroom community, an outer suburb of Backboro.  It was once a market town, but has lost that position to the inner suburbs.  The college is now the largest local employer, but in a town not generally thought of as an employment center.  Residents tend to be upper-middle and lower-upper class, socio-economically speaking.  By contrast, the students at the college -- which is characterized as "less selective" in the major guidebooks, and recruits middling students from a fairly large geographic area -- often come from the middle, lower-middle, and upper-lower socio-economic classes.  They're not a particularly rowdy bunch (Cash College is hardly known as a "party school"), but the emotional affect on campus is higher than it is in the town.  By any conventional wisdom, the campus doesn't need protection from the town.  If anything, the opposite is more likely to be true.

Also, the statement about surrounding private college and university libraries was entirely bogus.  I've used those libraries, repeatedly and recently, without incident.  And I know for a fact that at Greenback U, all library spaces open to students are open to the general public.  Wherever.  Whenever.  No exceptions.

So after I left (and got over the fact that my trip had been both inconvenient and wasted), I got to thinking.  Did the librarian ask me whether I was a member of the community, or whether I was a member of "the community" -- kind of in the sense of "those people"?  Would my reception have been different during the week?  Or if I hadn't been wearing paint-spattered blue jeans?

All I can conclude with any certitude is that if a well-spoken man carrying a photocopy of a chapter from a volume of philosophy, annotated with the call number of the relevant book and well aware of status information conveyed by the library's online system constitutes -- on any physical, emotional or administrative level -- a perceived threat to campus security because he's a member of the community, then that campus has issues.  And they're not going to get better by themselves.


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