Believing in Parking

Terry Caesar reviews the real hierarchy on campuses -- at least for those who drive to work.

August 25, 2005

What should a new faculty member value most about his or her institution? Salary? Library holdings? Student SAT scores? Health plan? Of the knowledge that can well prove absolutely decisive, especially on those days when it's raining and you're running late for class, I would suggest one neglected subject: parking.

Many are hired. But not all can park. Or at least not all can park close to the building where they need to go. How close depends upon many factors, ranging from the size of the college or university to how many years you've been there or what time on any particular day you drive into a lot.

But of course you don't just park. As a faculty member, you occupy a place relative to administrators and staff, as well as other faculty members, visiting professors, consultants, post-and pre-doctoral students, among others. If you're lucky, a space awaits you. If you're not, there's a space on a waiting list.

Such a list constitutes just about the only way faculty rank may matter anymore, whereby a secure parking spot becomes the reason an individual celebrates promotion to full professor. More commonly, though, it may not be. Indeed, are there still institutions where faculty parking is allotted on the basis of rank? My impression is that just about everywhere this is now a thing of the bad old hierarchical past.

Nowadays, everyone is free upon being hired to make a parking contract of some sort. (Even on small campuses where parking is free, a badge or sticker is required.) The seeming egalitarianism of the market rules. Associate professors lie down with, er, park next to, adjuncts. You get what you pay for, provided that you have enough money to pay.

But wait. Among faculty, don't full professors have the most money to buy into (or keep renewing) the choicest spaces? The market may rule. But it does not rule everybody in the same way. And of course it does not rule the highest administrators at all. Who among the faculty has not dreamed of swinging, just once, into the space designated for the Provost or the Dean of Liberal Arts?

Just so, who among the undergraduates has not dreamed of swinging into a faculty lot? In fact, many of the newest undergraduates do so on a regular basis, making the beginning of each semester a veritable revolutionary period, during which perhaps the most basic academic distinction -- between student and professor -- is regularly overthrown in the parking lots for a precious few weeks. Fortunately, the overthrow is sporadic as well as transitory.

Moreover, since the lots are literally peripheral (for the most part) to the campus core, the illegal parking of some freshest to campus is not nearly as threatening as if they had somehow begun to speak from the lecterns of classrooms or else to wave everybody past while overseeing the turnstiles of the main library. Parking reveals how order is so central to the life of any campus.

Fundamentally hierarchical, order is not easily eluded. What if everybody could park anywhere at any time? As well ask what if everybody could just get up in class and speak at any time, or walk out of the library with any book! And yet, the order that attends to parking is not quite the same as these things, and herein resides its
peculiar interest: the space of parking is a foundational one.

Suppose we ask, when does the work day begin? For some, it begins early, when the bedside alarm goes off, or else later when the office door is opened. The question can always be answered in a personal way, and the answer will always appear to some extent arbitrary. For most of us, though, the answer will be the same: the day begins not once we start our cars but succeed in parking them.

Who was it wrote, "beginning is a god?" Parking constitutes just such a beginning. This is why we worship it -- our lots veritable shrines, their sudden empty spaces revealed as akin to miracle. This is also why we must never take parking for granted -- we  linger over our lots in peril, converting what is after all a mere beginning into an end in itself.

Michael Moore has made the following statement to audiences on a number of occasions: "I didn't go to college because I couldn't find a place to park." What can we answer? That he should have come back later or arrived earlier? Tried another lot? Taken a bus? Perhaps we could now direct Moore's vision to for-profit colleges, such
as the University of Phoenix. They advertise plenty of free parking available. Whatever their educational merit of such institutions, even they testify to a larger transportational truth: we begin college with parking or we don't begin at all.

Perhaps best to try to console Moore on the basis of a religious model: He lacked faith. In academic terms as in all others, you ultimately either have faith or you don't. Not just in this case, faith in yourself as a student that you can succeed. But faith in yourself as a commuter that you can park. Poor Moore. He should have tried either an urban university where it's possible to get to campus by bus (and then get round by shuttle) or a rural college where it's possible to walk to campus.

To me, however -- and perhaps to Moore as well -- each of these possibilities seems lacking in seriousness and commitment. Taking a bus is too easy, walking is too casual. And neither testifies to some larger principle of order. An academic day that begins heedless of the presiding categories of faculty, staff, student, visitor, and all the wondrous interconnections among them? On what basis can such a day be said properly to begin at all?

Having to park a car means having to participate in a great collective rite. You don't necessarily have to believe in it. But going through the motions gets you started along the road. I know a woman teaching at a small college. Parking is free to all faculty and staff, who only have to show a permit, in order to distinguish them from students. Trouble is, staff have to begin work earlier than faculty. The result? Each day the staff gobbles up the parking places closest to main buildings or under trees. A faculty member often has to get to school early, even if she only has afternoon classes, in order to be able to park at all.

Sacrilege! No wonder (she claims) secretaries are often so dismissive or clerks so unhelpful. It appears as if the staff has assumed the prerogatives of the faculty, beginning with (not to say authorized by) parking. What to do when foundational power no longer serve the ends of right order? Already, it seems, there are some days when my friend parks in spaces marked for Visitors, although not before removing her faculty permit from the rearview mirror.

I thought of her awhile ago, when I had to do some research at the library of the largest university in my area. Its parking problems are legion. Legend has it that papers have been written or children raised while vigilant drivers, hopeful believers all, have circled the lots (a parking garage has yet to be completed) looking for a space. Fortunately, I had a faculty parking permit for the university. Unfortunately, it expired last August.

I bought the permit the previous August, when I agreed for the fall semester to teach a class there. Two reasons. First, the class was at 8 a.m., so I was assured of getting a good parking place. Second, the permit would be good for another semester, and so I would be free to park (whether I taught there again or not)  in order to use the library. Now, though, what to do? I have a friend who, as an occasional adjunct, has accumulated enough of the university's yearly permits that she can switch to the color coding of any particular new year, if she needs to park there herself. But I didn't think to ask her if I could borrow the template for this year.

Foolishly, I developed a plan of my own. I picked a Saturday, when parking wardens might be more lax, if on duty then at all. Then I proceeded to park in the last row of a faculty lot, where a warden would have to come round to the front of the car to see if I had a permit. Neglecting to notice how one looked  this year, I dangled my old permit on the rearview mirror, cleverly (I reasoned) obscuring the year by a sunscreen mat along the front window. A happy research day at the library passed. It was shattered upon my return to the car. There it was stuck to the windshield wiper: a ticket!

According to the posted time, a warden had pounced on the car in less than an hour. Had he been lying in wait? Not only was my out-of-date permit noted. So was my attempt to conceal it. Worst of all was the price of the ticket: $65!

Had I failed to respect an origin, or, more garishly, feigned too much respect? The order of the academic universe is a stern one. I conclude at least three things about the whole matter of parking on campus:

  • 1. Access to it costs.
  • 2. Restrictions always apply.
  • 3. Best to accept what you are designated to be.

With respect to the last of these: I was a Visitor. So confessed, I have since twice requested, and each time received, a Visitor's day permit. The first time I was assigned a Faculty lot, the second time a Student lot. What exactly is the meaning of these assignments? Perhaps that no order is entirely consistent either with itself or with the operations possible within it. But this does not prevent the order from having to be accepted, or even -- if only so that you can get inside it -- believed.


Terry Caesar's last column was about fear of humor in the classroom.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top