Column: Bricks and mortar

Ever since the new GW Hospital was built, administrators have engaged in much hand-wringing over the future of the old hospital site – land known as “Square 54.” University officials promised a slow and deliberative planning process, one that could take up to a decade. They said that since Square 54 was one of the last open spaces on campus, the importance of selecting the right proposal was paramount. Now that an initial draft is on the table, let’s hope that the rhetoric about open-mindedness still holds; the first proposal is far from the best one.

A preliminary sketch would have Square 54 converted into the panoply of income-generating properties: an office complex, two apartment buildings and retail outlets. Noticeably absent, though, are any plans to put Square 54 to academic or residential use for GW students and faculty.

Because of Square 54’s close proximity to Washington Circle and the Metro, land-use experts recommended that GW exploit Square 54’s location for commercial gain. Income from the new properties will then be used to fund construction elsewhere on campus. (To which many ask, “Where?”)

While such a plan is theoretically possible, if perplexing, it negates the special challenge Square 54 presented. The administration didn’t call for a long, drawn-out process because of the difficulty of deciding what to put across from the Metro. Rather, they did so because Square 54 is the last feasible location for a large construction project.

Square 54 was to be the capstone of a campaign that included, among others, the Elliott School, the Business School and the SMPA building. It was to be the most long-term-oriented, the most celebrated project in current University history. It was to be the crystallization, after much contemplation, of what this University would bequeath to future generations of students and faculty.

The administration should not settle on a proposal until it has found one worthy of this billing.

Ironically enough, the first group to lay claim to Square 54 still presents the most convincing argument. GW’s science faculty has clamored for a new facility for almost 30 years; they vocally argued after the new hospital went up that Square 54 should partially be committed to science.

It’s natural for schools and departments to lobby the administration for better accommodations, but the science departments have done so more out of necessity than out of desire. GW’s present science facilities are in disrepair; we even boast of having a better facility for intro classes held on Mount Vernon.

A new science building would address pressing needs of both students and faculty.

For the faculty, new research laboratories would revitalize all of our science-oriented departments. GW is a research institution; nowhere is research more essential than in the natural sciences. A state-of-the-art facility would better enable GW faculty to be on the vanguard of scientific breakthrough and innovation, both attracting higher-caliber faculty members and winning institutional acclaim.

For the students, the best argument is, apropos of GW, a geopolitical one. Political scientists have warned that the United States risks losing its scientific advantage because of increasing globalization and decreasing numbers of U.S. students entering scientific fields. One can debate globalization, but it’s more difficult to contest an eroding scientific knowledge and interest among our students.

Universities have a role to play in addressing the problem. If universities don’t show they’re serious about science, students won’t do so either. GW has shown commitment to medicine, as evidenced by the new hospital, but we should not easily conflate community service with research-oriented advancement. An academic-based science center is still sorely needed.

Square 54 was once the location where a president’s life was saved. On this ground, GW could build a scientific powerhouse with the research potential to save countless more lives, or it could build some offices and a grocery store. The initial proposal is so puzzling precisely because our administrators were the first to emphasize this was no low-stakes project. If they renege on their promise by trivializing the outcome, it won’t just be the science faculty feeling hoodwinked.

-The writer is a sophomore majoring in English.

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