Sunday, January 20, 2013

Historical Ethnography in the Academy: The Campus as Meaning System

Part two of a continuing series of thoughts and reflections...Parts of this blog come from a paper I wrote in 1988 and which was extensively influenced by discussions in a class I took with Eugene Halton at the University of Notre Dame, a class on social theory which included extensive discussions of the symbolic meaning of material culture and architecture. Gene's paper on the symbolic culture of Chicago remains one of the best papers I have ever read on symbolic culture.

The state of New York really didn't have a state university and college system before the 1960s. There were state normal colleges throughout the state including ones in Albany (1844), New York City (1870), Buffalo (1871), Plattsburgh (1889), Oneonta (1889), and beyond. There was a land grant university in the state but that land grant university was established as part of the private Cornell University in Ithaca. There were two state supported colleges in the 1950s, Harpur and Champlain in Binghamton and Plattsburgh. There was the University of the State of New York that was established by the state in 1784 to oversee the operations of Kings College (now Columbia). The University of the State of New York would eventually take on oversight roles over other private colleges and universities in the state, over New York state's medical colleges, over the New York State Library, and over the New York State Museum.

The state of New York began to move into the liberal arts education arena only after World War II when the University of the State of New York established Regents College to grant degrees in the name of the University of the State of New York to veterans for their military experience and education. Undoubtedly, the University saw monies in them there GI Bill hills. More than anyone else it was Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller who created the modern state university system in New York state. Rockefeller, a kind of Robert Moses of upstate New York, played the role of great moderniser in New York's upstate. He was the mover and shaker behind urban renewal in the increasingly rusty cities of upstate New York. He expanded the freeway system in increasingly rusty and declining cities throughout upstate New York to move automobile traffic from the increasing number of suburbs near them into them. He built the Empire State Plaza in central Albany, a 1960s equivalent of the mediaeval cathedral. And, though the State University of New York came into existence in 1948 before he was governor, he was the real mover and shaker behind the massive expansion of a state university and college system that would offer an education to the growing number of baby boomers throughout New York State.

The State University of New York created a network of state "research" universities and colleges out of the normal schools and, in some cases, private universities and colleges across the state. The State University of Buffalo arose out of the ashes of the private University of Buffalo. The University of Binghamton arose out of Harpur College. The Normal School at Buffalo became the State University College at Buffalo. The Normal School at Plattsburgh became the State University College at Plattsburgh. The Normal School at Oneonta became the State University Collge at Oneonta. And the Normal School at Albany became the State University of New York at Albany. Today there are 64 colleges and universities in the State University of New York system, the largest college and university system in the United States. An imperial sized college and university system for the Empire State.

The creation of the State University of New York in the late 1950s and 1960s proved a boon to struggling New York state. The expansion of old colleges and the creation of new universities across the state proved a stimulus to a New York struggling with urban decline, suburbanisation, deindustrialisation, and depopulation. A new campus was built at Oneonta on top of one of the fabled hills of this hill city. A new campus was added to the old one of the University of Buffalo. Harpur College was expanded. A new campus was built for the University of New York at Stony Brook. And a new campus built on an old golf course near the growing western Albany suburbs was added to the old campus of the old Normal School in Albany creating the State University of New York at Albany.

The new campus that was built at the State University of New York at Albany, SUNY Albany, has always seemed to me to be the ultimate example of "high" modernism. Built between 1961 and 1971 from a architectural design by noted modernist architect Edward Durrell Stone, SUNY Albany's campus initially consisted of a concrete platform (which has not aged well) of 14 administrative, academic, and student organisation buildings laid out around a central fountain in the middle of the old Albany Golf Club. Just a short walk from the platform in the centre south of campus is the recreational and athletic complex. In the four directional corners of the campus are four dormitories each consisting of a twenty-one storey tower and four smaller three storey dorms surrounding each tower to house the student-clients of the university.

The platform of the SUNY Albany campus tells us much about the ideologies of class, status, and education in late 1960s America. Underneath the platform were a series of practical offices and tunnels which look like they could have come right out of Fritz Lang's famous film Metropolis. Here in the subbasement SUNYA's manual labouring classes labour (literal subalterns) and move around the campus. Around the recessed fountain in the centre of campus were lecture centres in which classes of up to 200 underclassmen and women are held. Smaller classrooms for upperclass men and women lined the first story of the academic buildings--Social Sciences, Humanities, Education, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, Fine Arts, Business Administration. Above the first storey classrooms were departmental offices, faculty offices, and research institutes where academic bureaucrats worked and sometimes held court in their individual offices. In the Administration Building, the first building on the north western side of the podium as you walked up the sidewalk leading into campus from the circle, SUNYA's administrative bureaucrats, including the president, ran the university. In SUNYA's very design degrees of power and importance were, just like in the city-states of yore, represented in the campus architecture vertically and horizontally with those of greater power at the top, those of lesser power at the bottom, those considered central, in the centre, and those considered more marginal situated in areas further from the centre of campus.

Changes that have occurred on the SUNY Albany campus tell us much about what has happened in state universities, universities in general, and in American education since the expansion of universities between the end of World War Two and the early 1970s. The oil crises of the early 1970s brought stagflation, declining trust in government, a neo-liberal revival, and a tax revolt which eventually led to a tightening of state university budgets and an increasing use of those monies for purposes that are questionably consistent with a commitment to the liberal arts university. SUNY Albany has expanded, in the name of economic stimulus, into nanotechnology thanks to state seed money and state and city tax breaks. An entirely new futuristic looking campus--in comparison the old platform now looks like a dinosaur from the past--has risen along the western edge of campus between Fuller Road and Washington Avenue to house the new College of Nanotechnology. Along with the elimination of traditional liberal arts programmes in Theatre, Languages, and Classics and the relatively high salaries of academics at the College of Nanotechnology, the efforts and monies put into the creation and construction of this new campus tell us much about the visions contemporary SUNYA administrators and the political and economic elites who run SUNY Albany have for the SUNY Albany future. This less liberal arts and more high tech vision of SUNY Albany's elite movers and shakers is almost certainly a problem for SUNY Albany's liberal arts graduate programmes since you can't really produce competent and well prepared graduate students in the liberal arts without access to languages. SUNY Albany is quickly becoming the SUNY Institute of Nanotechnology with an arts and humanities curriculum that is as anemic as the arts and humanities curriculum of nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic in Troy, New York.

Additionally the construction of a new mall from Collins Circle to the platform with a new administration building on the east part of the mall and a new Business Building on the west part of the mall tells us something about how central administrators and the economic and political elites who run SUNYA see administration and business as being to the modern American university. The building of a new Biology building just off the eastern edge of the platform tells us how central the sciences with their practical applications have become to the modern university. The arts and humanities, on the other hand, thanks to a shift in the centre of campus off the platform, have become more and more marginal inhabiting space on the western fringes of the platform. Recently it has been announced that a new football stadium will be built on campus, something that reflects the hopes of many in Albany and at SUNY Albany that SUNY Albany will become a major player in Division I football and basketball. The fact that most college programmes, particularly at the mid-major level, SUNYA's level, spend more money on football than they make from it and that an emphasis on athletics creates a two class system of students and athletes, seems not to have phased those administrators and boosterist elites who dream of Albany athletic glory and the accompanying surge of dollars they think accompanies it.

We have come a long way since "scholars" created the associations that would eventually became the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. We have come a long way since the colleges of "scholars" formed out of these associations eventually led to the rise of the liberal arts college. We have come a long way from that time when the liberal arts were central to the educational mission of the university. The space between the liberal arts colleges of old represented by most of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge and the modern university of academic department or academic college, administrative, and student buildings, and the high modern or even postmodern university where the liberal arts has been displaced literally and figuratively within the geography of the campus by the applied sciences, business (men and women for the status quo), and by utopian athletic hopes, particularly at mid-size universities. Welcome to the world of the "modern" American university.

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