Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Our Isolated University

One never risks stumbling onto the campus of University of Calgary, or the other post-secondaries in Calgary for that matter, the way one might stumble upon university campus in cities like Halifax, Montreal, or Seattle (just to name a few.)  In Calgary each of the institutions, and I refer to Mount Royal and SAIT to an extent as well, is clearly set off from their surroundings by significant thoroughfares or other barriers that somehow make them less accessible as well.

While Mount Royal has had a downtown presence and SAIT has had its location in the northwest throughout its history, University of Calgary has seemed indefinitely cordoned off by Crowchild Trail, 24th Avenue NW and Shaganappi Trail.  That fluke of geography is often reflected in people's assessment of U of C's place in the community.  Most of the people I talk to about the school say that the school does not feel as much a part of the community despite the energy put into outreach and the establishment of its downtown campus in recent years.

Some may cite the relative youth of the university as one aspect that has kept U of C from more fully integrating into the community.  There is an old anecdote about a Texas billionaire, eager to start or endow a university, asking deans and chancellors of more established school what it takes to start a great university and being told, "100 years."  Perhaps the university is gradually establishing that toehold in the city and that it is just a matter of time.  SAIT and Mount Royal each have much longer histories than U of C and they seem to have closer connections to the rest of the community as well or happen to be nimbler in responding to the needs of the community.

However, the location of the university has created a degree of physical isolation that is exacerbated by the parking lots that add another layer of distance between the school and the city.  The LRT has helped connect the university tot he city more efficiently, but a barrier still remains. Further to that, U of C struggles with the issues of being a commuter campus, which limits the extent to which the students form a campus community. There may be more incentive among the students to get in, finish classes and get out, especially if there are jobs to get to. There is a pragmatism about the school's layout and its space (inside and out) that does not invite or encourage the students or faculty to look beyond the work in front of them. There may be a few offices and classrooms that afford a view of the city surroundings, whether it is north to Nose Hill or south toward downtown, but few spaces provide such vantages.

The architecture on campus has not helped forge stronger ties whether within the university population or with the community beyond.  The oldest buildings on campus tend toward the boxiness of the 1960s and may have been put up quickly to provide the required facilities for the school rather than indulge in a longer planning process or ambitious landmark for the first building on campus. The architecture has improved during a period of exceptionally rapid growth, but there are still brutalist touches and interior darkness to even the more modern buildings, such as the ICT, that impart an inhospitable vibe.  The new digital library is an airy, well-lit space that gives people a view of things happening on campus and creates a sense of connection for those looking through the windows, but it was built at the expense of one of the better treed corners of the campus.

Things are improving, but there is still reason to ponder how much the physical space at the university has influenced the way people have worked and studied there.  To what extent has the space encouraged people to take more pragmatic approaches to their teaching, their studies and their research rather than to lift their eyes beyond their desks and the work in front of them to the take into account the community that they are in?  I do not wish to suggest that there is an attitude within the university that is averse to looking at the community involved, but that the environment at the university inhibits that outward orientation just enough to keep the university and its community contained.

The isolation reduces the chance or synchronicity that would spark and nurture ideas and people together in ways that cultivate innovation and new thinking.  The isolation also reduces the chance of people accidentally finding themselves in the university community and exposed to its potential, something that I have enjoyed encountering in Seattle and Halifax when I have been in those cities. If you go to U of C you have to make a point of going there.

The downtown campus has helped.  It is not a place where people are going to end up by accident, but it is an improved presence for the university and a place where university staff and faculty can communicate with the downtown community and interact with them more regularly.  With plans for the development of the university's West Campus looming there will be a need to ensure that the space is developed in a way the ensures that faculties are integrated more closely together and that the opportunities are created to increase linkages between the city and the university.  There are risks in not making the fullest use of this opportunity, but hopefully the development of this part of the campus will be more passionate and less pragmatic.

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