The recent tumult at the University of Missouri, where the President and Provost were forced to resign, at my own Alma Mater, Yale, and at other universities and colleges has laid bare a fundamental problem with what should be models for the kind of American communities to which we aspire: While these institutions claim to bring the best and the brightest of all kinds together to both learn and become socialized into being cultured citizens, they were built on principles that are inherently exclusive, and intended for white males. Their racism is built into their very bones, which is to say, in the ways in which campuses were laid out, constructed, and even named (one of Yale’s residential colleges is named after slavery champion John C. Calhoun). The question is whether anything can be done to or with those campuses that might contribute to them being more open and inclusive.
The most fundamental problem with most American campuses is that their designs have developed over the years so that they have become bastions of privilege. Many of them, including Yale and Missouri, started with a few buildings standing in open terrain, placed in such a manner that the boundaries between the city and the landscape were not clear. Over the years, colleges turned themselves into ranges of contiguous dormitory and classroom buildings that shelter interior courtyards, leaving relatively few passageways from or to the outside world. As the economic, racial, and social discrepancies between town and gown increased, the universities have lavished money on buildings whose material, detailing, ornament, and size evidences their wealth and power, while their layouts have kept the surrounding communities out. Just in the last few decades, most institutions, including Yale, have even taken to permanently locking all their gates, so that at only students, faculty, and staff have access to their hallowed halls and courtyards.
So there is one relatively easy fix universities could make: They could open themselves back up, unlock the gates, and plan future construction in ways that embrace the community. They could even try to design their buildings to respond to their context. Sadly, tradition and fear make it unlikely that this will happen. You would think that we have more sophisticated means of discouraging and preventing crime that just putting our sons and daughters under lock and key, but apparently we do not: Yale’s new residential colleges, currently under construction to designs by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, are about as good a copy of the walled and turreted compounds built in the 1920s and 1930s as money can buy.
Beyond such moves, we should question the architecture style of new campus construction. It might seem like a trivial point, but the Neo-Gothic and Neo-Georgian styles that dominate many campuses—and are, after a fling with modernism in the 1950s and 1960s, very much back in fashion these days—reinforce the notion that the university is the continuation of institutions set up by and for white men to study a limited canon. One of the advantages of modernist architecture was always supposed to be its democratic qualities: The use of everyday materials, an absence of overt historical references, and openness in plan. If we could truly build in such a way, while making the buildings comfortable and appropriate for their settings, we might help to set a new tone for the American campus.
The real and immediate work at hand is to address the acts of discrimination and the bias that are still part of the daily practices of many universities. We need more diverse faculty and staff, let alone student bodies; we need policies that encourage acceptance and dialog, and that prevent discrimination. We need to celebrate all students’ particular heritages and life preferences and the contributions they are making to their colleges and will make to our society. But, if we continue to build and operate the places where we teach and learn in the manner we have for 200 years, we will bake prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion into our institutions of higher learning. We will thus perpetuate the problems that always simmer on and around campuses, and will continue to flare up. Let’s open the American campus so that future generations will learn there how to build a better country.
[Ed. note: Aaron Betsky is dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin and Taliesin West, a program with 23 current M.Arch students.]