This week marks the end of classes at Purdue, with finals to come next week. With the turning of that page, we reach one year of Purdue’s newest bauble, the Krach Leadership Center.
The building is, of course, gorgeous, classic Purdue brick on the outside, a beautiful mix of brushed metal and glass inside, understated in its ornamentation but emanating luxury. 81,000 square feet of classy minimalism. Whether a public university should be building any facilities that emanate luxury in an era of unprecedented student loan debt and attendant public scrutiny is a separate question. Not to say it isn’t functional! There’s outlets for laptops and consistent Wi-Fi and beautiful classrooms and meeting spaces. It’s just unclear to me what the building is for. The official rationale is that the building is part of our “student success corridor,” and which “creates a bridge between residential and academic life.”
Or, as it was put to me more casually, the building is a “third space”: not the dorms and not the classrooms. Why the pre-existing student union, libraries, ample green space, dining halls and gyms, graduate student center, public library located within walking distance, the yawning atriums that every new building has, or dozens of local bars, restaurants, and coffee shops didn’t satisfy this need for a “third space,” I couldn’t tell you. Meanwhile, the handful of offices and programs that have moved in keep their regular presence there, although spaces like that of the undergraduate student government seem far more ample than they require. I suppose you could see housing these programs as the justification for building the space. But with a couple exceptions, the offices that originally housed these programs still exist. Not that they’ve sat empty; new things have sprung up to fill every cranny of this vast campus, fungus-like, as is the trajectory of the modern university. As is the case with NYU slowly eating the Village, Purdue has spread out across West Lafayette, nibbling away for decades. The amoeba-like college has crossed Northwestern Avenue, long considered a Rubicon for the people of the local community, with the building of the fabulous new Wang Hall. The ultimate question is whether we could have kept up our current functions heading into the future without building Krach Leadership Center. I can’t imagine how, looking at the size of this university, the answer could be no.
For the past year, I’ve gone to check in on the Krach building, because two things had quickly become clear: one, it was hideously expensive, standing proudly just across the street from the $92 million gym we built at the height of an employment depression; and two, nobody knew the building existed or what it was for. So for the past year I’ve made regular trips, multiple times a week, different times and days of the week. I did so because I wanted to be fair: maybe there was a time of day or time of week when it filled up with eager undergrads, badly in need of a place to study that for some strange reason they couldn’t find anywhere else. What I’ve found in fall, winter, and spring, early in the semester and late, morning and night, Wednesday at lunch or Saturday at dawn, in the middle of the bustle of the semester or in the lazy days of break, always the same: emptiness. Glaring, expensive emptiness.
But hey, they wised up and used part of the space more efficiently: they opened an Amazon store right inside. Apparently the campus was insufficiently turned over to private enterprise, never mind the Starbucks presence. It’s certainly convenient to get packages delivered to lockers on campus! Although why we need two on-campus Amazon stores within a mile of each other, I’ll never know.
I can’t tell you that my investigation was scientific. This isn’t data. Similarly, my frequent quizzing of people all around campus — undergrads, grad students, faculty, staff — and finding that very few knew the building existed and even fewer could define its purpose can’t be considered research. It’s anecdotal. But it’s a powerful anecdote and one which again invites the question: why was this building built, in an era of fiscal crisis for the contemporary university?
Meanwhile my own building, Heavilon Hall, is in a state of total disrepair. Heavilon is the building that houses the English department, the Introductory Composition and Professional Writing programs, the Purdue Language and Cultural Exchange program, our award-winning writing lab, the Purdue OWL, the second language writing program, the Indigenous and Endangered Languages Lab, American studies, several journals, and sundry other programs and services. I realize that in today’s day and age, these things don’t sound as sexy as a hypothetical Jeff Jarvis Memorial Thinkfluencer ThirdSpace for Dynamically Innovative Synergistic Disruption, but please trust me when I say that the university could not function without the things that happen in this building. Just our Introductory Composition program teaches over 3,000 students a year, and as many of our students spend their first years in jam-packed lecture halls with hundreds of other students, nobody does more to welcome those students to Purdue than we do. I’m not exaggerating: in many ways, our intro courses are the classes where students learn how to be a college student. That might not move the administration but it matters, as do our classes in written communication, in close reading, in literary history and analysis, in linguistics, in document design, in gender and race, in world English, and other topics. These are essential parts of the actual educating that goes on at this university, and we do it in a rotting building.
I took a picture of the bathroom on my floor here, where broken urinals are wrapped in plastic bags and stalls are cordoned off with police tape, where there’s no one to performance basic needed maintenance and where our part-time janitorial staff can’t keep up. But the picture is so genuinely gross that I feel too embarrassed to post it. Similarly, there is an ancient refrigerator in the downstairs graduate lounge that has a sign imploring you not to open it, as inside are eons-old rotting caramel apples that no one has been paid to remove and which no one who wasn’t paid would be crazy enough to get rid of. Roaches are a not uncommon sight. It’s well known that Heavilon is riddled with asbestos, which is why it never gets renovated– too expensive to do the proper environmental safety protections. For the first half of the year, it served as a kind of elephant’s graveyard of old furniture and fixtures for Grissom Hall next door, a building that earned the gut rehab we seemingly never will. Taking prospective grad students on a tour felt like trying to entice someone with a visit to Shitty Ikea.
Look: nobody, nobody, in the humanities is naive about this stuff. None of us expect the kind of opulence that you find in the STEM buildings, or the alumni hall, or the massive ghost town that is Purdue’s research park, which is set to expand by 980 acres in the near future. None of us expect that stuff and most of us don’t want it. What we want– what I want– is a functional building where I can meet with students who are willing to learn, with some classrooms with a functioning HVAC system, some chairs and desks, and a whiteboard. A computer with a projector would be nice. We aren’t picky. But it is so dispiriting to come into a dilapidated space at a college which seems to build new buildings for no purpose. Krach is hardly the only new building that seems to have been erected for the purpose of erecting it; I know from someone who knows things on this campus that several buildings in the hideously-expensive research park are half empty. Is there really no functional, utilitarian space to move programs like ours into? Is the Board of Trustees at this college so uninterested in the actual educational enterprise that they’ll build gleaming glass towers of emptiness before they bother to spend a few shekels on non-moldy classrooms and offices?
The Krach Leadership Center cost $30 million dollars.
I am grateful to the Krach family for their generous donation of $10 million to contribute to that cost. I just wish that more donors would give to the general fund, or to scholarship funds, or for hiring more tenure track faculty, or to simply fulfill the basic purpose of holding down tuition and thus debt. The need to build things that you can put people’s names on is a contagion in the contemporary university. We have more monuments and fountains than I can count, each with “Generously Donated by the Class of XXXX,” but there are fraying wires and black mold in buildings that host hundreds of classes and thousands of students. And as frustrated and insulted as I am by our degrading buildings, I am more upset for the undergraduates. They may be enjoying the climbing walls and whirlpools and glorified internet cafes in their early 20s, but they will pay for them in student loan debt for the rest of their lives. And I am even more upset by their parents, who crowd the halls on the endless campus tours and constantly ooh and ahh over the 55-vertical feet of climbing wall but seem not to care about the fiscal future of their children. I don’t blame the students; they’re just caught in this system. But I do blame the adults, particularly those administrators here who enable this endless physical expansion and the inevitable growth in Vice Assistant Provosts for Student Recreation it enables.
Meanwhile, at the complete opposite extreme, you’ve got the canard of online education for all, a transparently profiteering philosophy that no one can prove works even minimally well, that would necessarily dramatically shrink the amount of instructor attention individual students get, that would destroy the opportunity for networking and social growth, and would treat the most vulnerable students the worst. I am amazed that these appear to be the two options now: Disneyworld plus maybe some classes if you feel like it, or sweating in your basement while you cheat on a test “proctored” by a beleaguered adjunct teaching 5,000 students a semester for $11 an hour. Why hasn’t some established college decided to make its reputation as a stripped-down, efficient, inexpensive place where teaching and learning are valued ahead of a luxury dorm experience? Where are the colleges saying “Look, we won’t have the badminton team or the lazy river pool, you’ll have to make due with a dorm room of the type that used to be standard, and the gym will be small but serviceable. But you’ll get a school where the vast majority of your classes are taught by full time faculty whose work is respected and valued, and we’ll get you out of here on time with minimal loans, ready to start your young life with a quality education and without crushing debt”?
Better yet, why not a system of five federal universities, built on a foundation of efficient, teaching-focused education, use of full-time faculty, utilitarian amenities, and a tuition of $0? Get the big ed donors involved. Invoke the spirit of public education. Get some federal money in there. Spend it wisely. Keep room and board low by building dorms the way they used to be built. Entice faculty by making this deal: assistant profs will teach a 4/4, associates a 3/3, and full profs a 2/2. Faculty will also be in charge of academic advising like they always should have been. In exchange, we will put a small and rigorously-enforced cap on non-faculty instructors and labor. We’ll keep the administrative footprint as small as possible. You’ll control the university, being in charge of curriculum and standards. Faculty will be treated as they should be, which is as the essential resource of the university, rather than as a distraction from golf club and the pool hall. I promise, thousands of eager and well-qualified students would apply to attend those colleges, and hundreds of distinguished academics would be willing to teach there. I’d bet my life on it.
I say none of this because I have antipathy for Purdue, where I have just completed my doctorate. On the contrary: I say it all because I love Purdue, because my four years here have been the happiest and most fulfilling of my life, and I want better for the school and for its students than to suffocate under a mountain of needless expense. I want the school to act in loco parentis and to think about how crushing it is to emerge into young life with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. I want the school to focus on its proud research tradition and its record of stellar undergraduate teaching, not on putting up yet another monument to luxury architecture. I want to save Purdue university, and the physical university writ large, from themselves.
If you, on the other hand, think that the purpose of the university is to build an ever-expanding luxury resort; to stuff it with gyms and dorms and dining halls that would put your average 4-star hotel to shame; and to pay for new buildings that do not house educators or educating but instead some vague “third space” concept, out of the ugly conviction that actual learning is insufficiently sexy to merit the attention of administration — well, never fear.