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December 2, 2014

Fear of rubes in Rubenstein

Newly annnounced Rubenstein Forum is an opportunity to create a real student union.

The University recently announced the construction of the David M. Rubenstein Forum. The building, to be located between Woodlawn and Kimbark Avenues on 60th Street, and scheduled for completion in 2018, will be an area for hosting “academic conferences, workshops, lectures, meetings, ceremonies and other types of gatherings that entail formal and informal interaction and that benefit from a dynamic, technologically advanced environment.” And, according to the University, it will be “a much needed physical space in which people from all parts of campus, the broader University community, and visitors from around the world may gather, collaborate, and interact.”

The current discussion I hear on campus regarding the already aptly nicknamed Rube focuses on it being an alternative to the Reg as a social space, where students can gather and hang out between classes or at night. Some are even heralding it as a student union on campus. However, I have my reservations. First, if it is indeed intended to be a student center, its location will not be ideal. The new Campus North dorm will presumably dominate first-year housing in the future, and it seems unlikely that anyone living north of Max Palevsky (off-campus students included) would be willing to trek the six blocks south on a cold or snowy evening. Second, and most importantly, the University explicitly did not call the new building a student union, but instead a “forum.”  From the press release, the University seems very serious about the serious type of serious discourse that will happen at the “forum” and the knowledge we can all learn from the academic conferences that will be hosted, and the “informal interaction” that will occur as well. It seems even future, spontaneous interactions in the new “forum” will be classified as either formal or informal, so I don’t have much hope that it will create the relaxed and leisurely atmosphere a true student union needs.

As a fourth-year who has become well acquainted with the available “social spaces” on campus, from the pseudo-student union Reynolds Club to the first floor of the Reg, I am calling on the University to get off its high horse and actually construct, or at least renovate, a building to become a true center of student life on campus. Anyone who has ever visited another university with an actual student center will know that the areas on our campus that we pass of fas social spaces are far below par. A true student union would be a venue located in the heart of campus with food, entertainment, study spaces, and social spaces all mixed into one. A place where students can gather during any time of day to study for tests, or just to hang out—Hutch Commons meets Ida Noyes meets the Reg meets Logan Arts Center meets The Pub.  Indeed, the most social and “collegiate” area I have encountered in four years here is The Pub, which is only accessible to a quarter of students, and stuck down in the basement of Ida Noyes Hall. With the University’s recent construction binge, there really is no excuse for the University to not dedicate at least some funds to create a space that would liven up the social atmosphere for its students. Reynolds Club could be a perfect candidate for this new center, as it already is a main hub, but its administrative offices need to be relocated, and its upper floors and rooms need to be expanded and filled with vendors students will actually patronize. Imagine if Chipotle weren’t on 53rd, but in Reynolds.

The recent development on and near campus highlights a deeper issue with our University’s identity, one that will perhaps unsuspectingly dampen the aspirations the University currently has at reaching greater heights nationally and internationally. It is clear that the administration wants to break into the top realm of universities worldwide, the Harvards, Oxfords, Cambridges, and Yales of the world. I, for one, believe that we are already there, but so long as we are not at the top, the University will undoubtedly have ambitions to climb to the top. Thus, the administration spends millions in developing the neighborhood and constructing buildings on campus towards a grander, more elite vision of the future. But does the University really need to be so pretentious as to construct a “forum” for ideas and discourse?

The construction of the building seems to be motivated by delusions of grandeur that distract from the real issue of students desperately needing a separate social space. Socializing does not always need to be serious discussion or intense conversation, but there seem to be no places on campus that don’t serve alcohol to encourage that. A student center would liven up the atmosphere and present a safe location for students to simply kick back during the cold winter months. Without one, students are dispersed around Hyde Park, in their own circles and rarely ever interact with the entire student diaspora.

Our University occupies a position as perhaps the most academically rigorous in the country, which is fine—although we do seem to fixate on that a bit. But that doesn’t mean we need to take ourselves so seriously that we don’t even entertain the idea of allowing a student center on campus. If we want to be able to compete for the best students coming out of high school, the quality of student life needs to matter, and given the recent discussions about intolerance and bias on campus, we would all benefit from a more sociable atmosphere encouraged by a student center.

Lear Jiang is a fourth-year in the college majoring in political science.

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