My name is Max. I am the mayor of Norris (on Foursquare). This means that every day, without fail, I show up at the Norris University Center to eat, work, study or hang out with friends. Oftentimes it is all of the above in one day. I spend more time in Norris than I do anywhere else on campus, and I love it dearly. That is why I chose to help market the New Student Center Initiative. Norris may be my center of campus, but it is certainly no University Center.
The initiative to build a new student center began two years ago as an ad-hoc committee under ASG President Neal Sales-Griffin, but the student center has been suggested in framework plans for more than thirty years. In these last weeks of school before the university’s strategic plan is decided upon, many students are still not excited about the project. The initiative is faced with the problem expressed in Henry Ford’s famous quote: “If we had asked people what they had wanted, they would have said faster horses.” When people are content or unconcerned with an issue, it’s hard for them to imagine something significantly better. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do from the start: Imagine a student center that is actually a student center.
Half of the respondents to our initial survey said that Norris was inconveniently located. Three-fourths said they prefer to hang out, eat and work in their residences — even those from South Campus dorms. Remember, the building in question is the Norris University Center, a building that is neither the geographic nor cultural center of the University. Some like it as it is and some don’t care about the building’s fate. But try to imagine:
What if your student center were awesome?
The idealized amenities — a grocery store, performance space, services from postal to career, meeting space and study space — could create one building for students to love. These goals are not meant to aggrandize Northwestern, but to create a space that students want to use. No more tongue-in-cheek jokes about brutalist architecture or overuse of Sbarro’s. A friend at the University of Georgia once told me that everyone loves to meet and study in the Student Learning Center. Here at Northwestern, friends of mine jokingly refer to their frequent trips to the library as “trips to the Keg” to add a semblance of fun tradition. Still, even our library-going community is divided between tower/letter codes. No one spot brings students together. Oftentimes on my tours, parents ask: “Where do all the students hang out?” How would you answer that?
A large social space would help to create shared culture at Northwestern because currently, the culture at Norris is not shared by all. For example, one of my favorite school traditions takes place in Norris — meeting up for dollar crepes. But when I tell people I am going, plenty of them don’t even know what I am talking about. This is a small but significant example of the limited reach of campus culture. We are all part of the same school, and if one student has never heard of something that takes place at their student center, then the space is not fostering community. If a special event went up in Norris, would the whole campus know about it? If a performance were taking place, would people know to come?
Dissenters argue that a new building wouldn’t solve any issues, but again: What if the student center were awesome? What if it were in the middle of campus? The answer: You would go to it. No matter who you are or where you lived, you would be more likely to go to the student center if it were closer and had more facilities. Some say that simply having more people there will not increase diversity or community unless we lived in a world where people tapped strangers of different backgrounds on the shoulder and introduced ourselves. But that is not an accurate reflection of campus life. I believe it isn’t who you meet at a student center, but who you have met. Might you sit down with a table of friends-of-a-good-friend? Might you bump into that guy from class, or that girl you met Saturday night? The probability of meeting them is defined by the odds of you being there times the odds of them being there, and if the student center is a convenient and cool place to be, these odds can only improve.
This is only one of the ways in which we can build community with a new student center. We can also create a space big enough for an entire class to meet — no more convocation in SPAC. We can create a performance space or theater so that more groups can have programming in the center of campus. In fact, we can create anything that we can imagine because this is a student initiative. For now, the idea only needs to be approved for trustee fundraising. What ensues is a few years of you, the students, helping to plan the project. And here’s a secret about some of the new student centers at other schools: The students don’t like them. They dislike them because the administration plans everything and doesn’t allow student input. Said one friend at Dartmouth, “My student center could burn to the ground and it wouldn’t impact my life in any way.” With a new administration and a new strategic initiative plan, we are uniquely positioned to enact one of the largest ever student initiatives and design our own student center.
The best part of this new building is that it will cost the students nothing to build it. Once voted into the strategic plan, a list of all capital improvements the school wants to make over ten years, the board of trustees would begin a capital campaign for private donations on a project-by-project basis. Donors would choose to give money explicitly towards the student center and the endowment and student tuition go untouched. The last capital campaign in 2003 raised $1.55 billion — more than fifteen times the proposed cost of the student center. It is therefore unlikely that the center would impede on any other improvement projects. These are the facts that some students to ask me “what exactly are the downsides for us?”
I love Norris. I feel a sense of community there. I build traditions there. But most people don’t. Now, the student body is faced with three options: Reject the initiative and see zero change in the school, support new usage of Jacobs and have one more meeting space in the mix or support one new building in the center of campus (that is currently a parking lot) to bring the school together. Norris is a great place, but it isn’t the social center this school could have. It could be greater, and you could help to build it. Imagine that.
Editor’s note: Max Brawer is director of marketing for North by Northwestern and the New Student Center Initiative.