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When Universities Abandon Education for Buildings

"Starchitects" and administrators enjoy debt-fueled binges on the infrastructure of higher consumerism.
university of cincinnati campus recreation center

Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine featured the University of Cincinnati’s ambitious building boom, a budget-busting architectural bender that has employed “a murderers’ row of architects—Frank Gehry, of course, along with Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and Thom Mayne” to further the school’s “decades-long bid to turn a quiet commuter school into one with a global reputation.”

Cincinnati is merely one the most prominent examples of a national explosion in debt-fueled collegiate building binges ushered in along with the new millennium. A 2012 New York Times report asked for the numbers and found that, “Overall debt levels more than doubled from 2000 to 2011 at the more than 500 institutions rated by Moody’s, according to inflation-adjusted data compiled for The New York Times by the credit rating agency.” What’s more, “In the same time, the amount of cash, pledged gifts and investments that colleges maintain declined more than 40 percent relative to the amount they owe.”

In total, Moody’s found those institutions to have amassed over $200 billion in debt, $122 billion being held by public universities, $83 billion by private institutions. The University of Cincinnati, with its lavish gambit for international prominence, now holds over $1.1 billion of debt, approximately $200 million of which was spent on construction in the past 10 years.

Cincinnati administrators are happy to defend this spending, as they told the Times in 2012 that “The institution has profited mightily from the changes that we have made,” for “We have gone from a second-choice institution to a first-choice.” And indeed, university enrollment increased approximately 30 percent over the past decade.

However defensible individual capital investments may be when deployed to expand a university’s enrollment or periodically maintain its facilities, though, University of Cincinnati’s reliance on the star architect model left its campus as a hodgepodge of slants and odd angles, along with the all-too-common signature of experimental architecture, imminent decay:

Peter Eisenman’s Aronoff Center for Design and Art at the university had cheap cladding slapped on during its construction from 1989 to 1996, and over time it began to rot and peel away. Repairs and renovations on the $35 million building cost $20 million, and the university borrowed $19.25 million to help pay for them.

On a snowy evening this past March Patrick Deneen lectured on the architecture of university libraries, highlighting how,  over the past century, they had too frequently gone from (in the title of the lecture) “Sacred Space to the Bunker and the Spaceship.” Deneen’s argument, as summarized by JuicyEcumenism’s Matthew Maule, was that universities abandoned building libraries in keeping with classical forms and understandings of how to organize knowledge, light, and people, and instead exchanged that wisdom for concrete brutalism and glass-and-steel sci-fi modernism. What’s more, “the shift in form parallels the change in function from a focus on educating students to assisting the university’s research faculty whose output is often only read by a few of their peers.” A research library organized merely to contain faculty work that would never be read was necessarily built differently than a teaching library aiming to bring knowledge, students, and scholars together in serendipitous encounter and reverent transmission of wisdom.

Deneen pointed out that the classical architectural forms had been tested by hundreds of years of cold, rain, heat, and all kinds of inclement weather, and had survived the stress test of the centuries. Likewise, the classical educational model relying on great texts had been tested by the millennia of Western civilization, and had that civilization to testify to their passing grade.

What does the starchitectural building boom of University of Cincinnati indicate about the aims of contemporary education? It would seem to be a debt-fueled consumerism, a highly leveraged sensationalism, where institutions of higher education represent not institutional transmitters of wisdom, nor even organized laboratories seeking to let knowledge grow from more to more, but rather marketplace actors competing to attract student-customers by way of lazy rivers and gigantic gymnasiums. As Nikil Saval worried in the Times, “the university will turn into a luxury brand, its image unmoored from its educational mission—a campus that could be anywhere and nowhere”

Those students will then be saddled with the bills for the building booms through soaring tuition or swelling student loans. And the university administrators will take home the salaries and the credit due to those running such a successful scheme.



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