A university is, by nature, a permanent construction zone. When not moving earth to erect new physical structures, it works to shape the souls of students who enter it seeking knowledge, truth and beauty. Universities have traditionally labored so that the former endeavor would facilitate the latter one. The metaphoric ivory tower weds architecture with academics: imaginative, mind-stretching buildings become epicenters of advanced thought, innovation and learning.
GW, however, has shunted off the pretension that our most inspired architecture should function as a locus for higher contemplation. In place of what were once the University’s boldest monuments to deep learning and passionate inquiry, we have substituted a vacuous consumerism. Particularly with the proposed “town center” on Square 54, GW is giving us the polish without the substance, a bastard imitation of intellectual design.
It used to be unimaginable for universities to think of building apartments and office buildings to finance their mission. At most institutions, it remains so. GW begs to differ, asserting with dogmatic zeal that whatever is good for the bottom line is good for students as well. Specters of a self-financing institution are trotted out. It is worth remembering, though, that modest tuition has never been on the agenda at GW, nor does anyone believe that a more thrifty economics will magically take root if a “town center” goes up on Square 54.
GW is a unique institution that derives a large portion of its operating resources from real estate investments – that’s understandable in the center of a city. Even so, it is heartening to hear of nascent plans for a cancer research center. Yet, the University’s intentions remain ambiguous. By aggrandizing the commercial proposal while remaining mum on academic ones, the University has given us the impression that academics are the afterthought – an indulgence to be considered only once the bank account is stock-full.
The University’s logic posits that academics and financial stability could not go hand-in-hand. In truth, they can. If what was built on Square 54 garnered the University an abundance of prestige, for example, the alumni-giving rate would increase long-term. One need only look at the successes of the Elliott School, where a new facility begot not only better environs but also a higher-caliber faculty and a growing number of alumni who are proud to be GW graduates.
The more deep-seated problem, though, transcends the specifics of the Square 54 debate; it is manifest within GW’s very approach to development.
GW’s idea of an ivory tower is best seen in the dormitory that bears its moniker – a massive investiture of financial resources towards the cosseting of students, not their education. That we would name our most extravagant student housing Ivory Tower reveals a gross debasement of what this metaphor once represented.
Ivory tower has customarily invoked an elitism of knowledge, the university’s claim to possess a priceless wisdom. GW’s version retains the elitism but discards wisdom: ours is an elitism of status, of material wealth, of the same shallow worldliness the ivory tower was meant to eclipse. Our Ivory Tower is merely a shrine to the decadence of those who can afford its rent; gone is the belief in knowledge being more valuable than riches.
The proposed town center on Square 54 is similarly profane: first-class architecture ignorant of any higher calling, as surface and as deceptive as its veneer of glistening glass.
For the past two years, first-time visitors to GW have been greeted by an empty block of barren land upon exiting the Metro. This rubble lot, an unrealized future, sits in apprehension of excavation, sculpting – just as this University’s future waits to be sculpted by what is built upon it.
Our future is no less precarious than Square 54’s: there is the potential for epic achievement as well as colossal error. We’ll know which way GW is headed by what you see welcoming visitors ascending the Metro escalator five or 10 years from now. We’ll know whether, in being duped into building a paradise of crass consumerism, the University has bartered its ivory tower for the fool’s gold of hollow opulence.
Surely the University will bankrupt the moral authority with which it crafts its students’ souls if, in exchange for a pecuniary sum, it willingly surrenders its own.
-The writer, a sophomore majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.