AskNBN #16: Meet me at Norris?

    As Northwestern secures funding for the new Norris – University Commons – the days are numbered for the student center’s well-known tagline. In this episode of AskNBN, Lila Reynolds takes a look at the past and future of Northwestern’s main meeting place. Transcript below.

    Lila Reynolds: Welcome to AskNBN. I’m Lila Reynolds, and I’m a junior, which means I’ll probably never get to see Norris knocked to the ground. But even if you’re a freshman, it turns out you probably won’t, either. Do you remember last fall when there was all that excitement about Northwestern announcing plans for a new University Commons to replace Norris? Maybe you’ve seen the approved model sitting downstairs in Norris that arrived with that announcement. Senior or sophomore, you’ve probably heard something about the plans, because last year people couldn’t stop talking about it. This year, I’ve noticed that conversation has fallen away to the point that freshman might not even know about the plans. I decided to look into what happened to try to find out whether I could expect to see the new commons at my 5-year reunion, or my 50th.

    [Good Grief – Ryan Little]

    Lila: As I started looking into the question of next steps for the new university commons, I came across a problem: nobody really has any answers. The plans were the first couple of steps – albeit important ones – of what will be a lengthy process, and as with most things on a college campus, it all depends on money. I talked with Jeremy Schenk, the Executive Director of the Norris University Center, to try to get to the bottom of all this.

    Jeremy Schenk: At this point, that’s where we’re at and we haven’t done anything else because we aren’t exactly sure at this point when the project’s gonna start. They’re out fundraising for the building right now. Until we hit a certain fundraising level, the project at this point, is kind of at a standstill.

    Lila: Schenk says he can’t imagine anything happening before the summer of 2019 – right after I graduate – but he says it could be longer than that.

    Jeremy: Now we’re at a point of just needing to see what happens next. So it’s definitely not happening right now. Just to get to taking a design development and getting it to where its construction documents are ready to go out to bid could take up to 10 months to a year.

    Lila: It turns out this push for a new Norris is far from the first.

    Jeremy: There was people who worked here in the 70s and 80s and 90s and 2000s who all, every time talked about it at some point in that 5-10 year window each decade there was talk about another project happening. This building turns 45 in January. Just when you think about the needs of the students and our population and how we've changed over 45 years, the building’s at a point where there’s only so much we can do, and to really meet the needs of what we want to be able to do for our students, that project is really the next step, it just takes time to get there.

    Lila: The good news is that with this try, Northwestern has gotten further than any other movement. Schenk says this time, it’s definitely going to happen. Before it does, though, he says they’ve got some ironing out to do. For example, during that two year construction process, where are students going to find their Norris?

    Jeremy: For Northwestern, the first student union wasn’t a facility, it was an oak tree. And our students in the late 1800s would go to this oak tree, and that’s where they would hang out, that’s where they would have their student meetings, that’s where they would debate. At the end of the quarter, they’d burn their math book under the oak tree. So that existed before we had a space. The space makes it a lot easier to do, but we’re going to have to go back to our roots a little bit…

    Lila: So you’re saying we’re gonna plant an oak tree?

    Jeremy: We’re going to build an oak tree. But we’re going to have to go back to our roots a little bit and say “How do we bring the feeling that we hope people have when they’re here outside of here for that time we’re gone?”

    Lila: Okay, so that’s one problem. Schenk expects bits of Norris will be scattered around campus during that 2 year period. He says if you’re one of the people spreading rumors about the Old Kellogg building becoming our interim Norris, you’ve got it wrong.

    Jeremy: What we’ll likely see is that bits and pieces of Norris are kind of at different spots based on the need, because Jacobs isn’t going to sit empty. There are programs moving into Jacobs, there are things that need to be done there. Everybody has a need on the campus for space – we wouldn’t want to monopolize that, either.

    Lila: Speaking of space, unfortunately, divvying up Norris doesn’t leave much of it for places like our beloved Norbucks. Schenk says Northwestern’s contract with its current food provider is up right now, which means that as new food services submit bids, the new provider is responsible for making sure there are plans during construction.

    Jeremy: I suspect there may be options potentially for food trucks, or placing different popup food options at different places. But is something we will continue to work through. Because you don’t wanna take away Starbucks. We know that those are elements that are really important.

    Lila: Schenk knows that students are eager to see the new commons materialize – he is too, by the way – but he hopes that students understand that whether they’re students or alumni by the project is finished, the new Norris will be their space too.

    Jeremy: We hear a lot from students - when is this gonna happen, I wanna see this, will it be when I’m here? And I always remind students that when Norris was being built, many of our students never got to step foot in Norris as a student. They just got to see the building of it, then got to come back to it as an alum. That’s gonna be the case here and that’s how campuses work. I think when we look at the how we make this all happen and that response to our students of just because when you graduate, you may not step in here as a student, but you’re always a part of the Northwestern community. As an alum, we welcome you back, we want you back. We want you a part of generation upon generation of student experiences on this campus. Being that you’re always a part of our family, you will get to be here. This is still your student university commons, even if you don’t see it as a student, you’ll see it as an alum.

    Lila: While this probably isn't the answer you were looking for, you can at least feel pretty confident that you will be able to tell people to “meet you at Norris” for at least the next few years. And in the meantime, please let Norris know if you find a new oak tree.

    [Good Grief – Ryan Little]

    Lila: If you’ve got a question about life at Northwestern that you want answered, send us an email at AskNBN and all other NBN podcasts are available on iTunes and in the Google Play store – just search North by Northwestern or AskNBN and hit subscribe to get a notification whenever we post a new episode. Our music is Good Grief by Ryan Little, and for NBN Audio, I’m Lila Reynolds.

    [Good Grief – Ryan Little]


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