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(July 12, 2001, Gazette)

 Michael TilleyThe politics of space

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side of the university.

Through the growth of welfare states the role of universities has broadened. As a public institution, the interests that the university is required to serve are diverse. The notion of a higher education can hardly be called exclusive anymore, (relatively speaking). But when diversity is territorialized, the integrity of the university is threatened.

Look at it this way: in its most general form the university may be said to embrace two perspectives, namely the practical and the theoretical. No curriculum should include only one of these ideas, but in the real world it is a difficult task to give an equal weight to both.

As well, the university has evolved to include expansions into professional fields, i.e., medicine, business, engineering. It is the nature of these knowledges that they should be applied directly to meeting the practical needs of society. In contrast, the more traditional areas of study, those faculties listed under the umbrella of arts and science, conventionally focus on more theoretical matters. Because each of these approaches to learning presupposes a certain level and specialization of education it is often difficult for one to appreciate the other perspective.
The diversity of interests can become polarized when particular departments face the realities of fiscal restraint and are forced to make choices in favour of the style of education that can be most successfully delivered. It’s true, not everyone wants to be an academic. There’s more to the world than the critical analysis of it. A majority of students look to the university to provide a skill, an ability which they may translate into opportunities world-wide. But these desires turn dangerous when one discipline assumes to teach both practical and theoretical elements. It is my contention that in these cases the distinction between practice and theory is blurred. The decision to favour one over the other becomes a complicated moral issue.

In this scenario, the student body wills the ultimate decision, for how can one dictate value for another person? Since students vote with their feet, academic theory, being only one of many interests, is displaced. The outcome of these decisions implicitly express value-judgements on behalf of the departments and is reflected in the attitudes of students. Unfortunately, the reasons behind curriculum choices are not readily communicated, and what was a process of compromise, merely a means to an end, is understood by the general population as an end in itself. When fiscal realities and the like force a competition for funds, the diversity of perspective becomes a bone of contention that can border on alienation and hostility. This often boils down to a division between the “academics” and “the rest of us”.

Here at MUN this “us against them” mentality is echoed even in the physical development of the campus. Some professional schools of were added after the original buildings had been erected. The only area left that could be developed was the land on the other side of Prince Philip Drive. So on one side of campus you have a population unified through their commitment to theoretical analysis. The other side meanwhile, physically divided from the central campus by the Parkway, maintains a distinct idea of purpose focussed contrarily on the practice and refinement of particular theories. These differences in ideology politicize areas of common congestion as each faction tries to extend its influence over the whole of the university.

The TSC which was the centre of the university life, had a central location in the middle of campus, the meeting place of the disciplines. It was like a town square where people were invited to loiter, and commune. But times have changed and on the cusp of the new millennium the students’ centre has been relocated to reflect the growth and diversity of the population of MUN. Nowhere is the debate between university ideologies more physically apparent than in the very building of the new students’ centre. The new student centre is supposed to be a bridge literally connecting the old and the new sections of campus, yet figuratively polarizing the academics and the professionals. Like a giant bandage it serves to mend a gap by providing a place for both perspectives. But it fails at this task because it seems to have been built to carry traffic, not to bolster a community. A community needs a place where it can stop and rest, to take note of its diversity, to enjoy itself at leisure.

The Smallwood Centre does not address this issue. It was built with movement in mind. As the only point of access between the sides of campus, the expected turnover rate is much greater than the load that the TSC was ever expected to serve. It is not therefore a meeting place, but a place of business. In appearance it is a long hall rather than a square. From the moment you enter you are ushered from one concession to the next until you reach the other side fed, informed, drunk and ready to catch the bus home. The Smallwood Centre erodes the traditional idea of community simply because it does not recognize the differences inherent in the disciplines. Instead it would lump all students into a single mass whose needs may all be fulfilled through efficient design. Alienation follows.

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