Ever since my first year as a student way back in 1989, there was talk of the need for a new campus center. Davenport was seen as too awkward, too vertical, not central enough. A new campus center would give Wesleyan focus, improve the social lives of its students, and help bring everyone (students, professors, and staff alike) together.
Well, it’s 2007, and Usdan has arrived. I took a stroll through the place the week before classes started, and was frankly appalled. Looking at the bland off-white color scheme and the slick banners hanging from the rafters, the place reminded me of an airport. LCD monitors everywhere; a little store stocked with items for tourists; long lines for expensive food.
I stepped back outside onto Wyllys Ave. to reassess. The only things visible through the glass were an ad for Mac OS X coming from the computer store and a big, glowing Bank of America ATM. Was this a mall or a university?
I couldn’t bear to go back inside and see the rest of it. This is not the place that I went to school, I thought to myself. After a sleepless night in which I vacillated between anger and nostalgia, I talked myself into the idea that what I had witnessed was simply the result of a building that wasn’t complete. Obviously the finishing touches were behind schedule. Soon the sterility of the place would be overwhelmed by a campus in full swing.
What I found a week and a half later was not reassuring. Now Usdan was bustling, but it still felt like a mall. The commercial feel of the place was louder than ever, and how could it be any different with CNN headlines beaming from the TV screens and cashiers apologetically asking for $11 for a sandwich and a yogurt?
But it was the continued lack of bulletin boards that was most upsetting to me. Wesleyan, if anything, is a place of loud and multiple opinions, and the fact that no one bothered to design a space for them seemed inexcusable. Students had come up with an alternate approach, but it came at the expense of a cruel irony: the place for public opinion had moved from the first thing you saw as you walked through the door at Davenport to the last thing you glanced at before dumping your trash at Usdan.
How did we get here? Why does the Wesleyan that I knew as a student and still think I know as a faculty member (a place of lively debate, iconoclastic students, and genuine weirdness) seem so at odds with this cold, bland, unappealing place? How does a university as unique and classy as Wesleyan end up with such a generic building?
Let me stop myself mid-rant and reverse direction. Maybe I’ve just become a cranky professor who wants things ‘the way they used to be’. Maybe there are answers out there to all my questions and I just need to ask them of the right people. Maybe I should be happy that the food up on the third floor is really, really good.
But the chorus of complaints I keep hearing seems to suggest the need for action. Off the top of my head: 1) Let’s give people’s flyers and announcements a dignified home. 2) Let’s put some interesting, unique content up on those LCD screens (rotating choice of websites? Pix of student and faculty artwork?) 3) In general, let’s make the civic functions of the Center speak louder than its commercial ones.
I walk into Usdan and feel like I’m in Anywhere, USA. I would like to walk in and feel like I’m at Wesleyan.