For many alumni, a visit to their alma mater is often a heartening stroll down an ivy-covered Memory Lane, the opportunity to relive cherished memories and experiences that, figuratively and literally, changed their lives. Or as to Sir Laurence Olivier’s character in Marathon Man put it, college is “the last time in your life no one expects anything of you.”
Colleges and universities have no problem cultivating nostalgia. But they also want to assure their graduates that the “old school” isn’t stuck in time either.
That’s why larger schools, particularly those that emphasize both teaching and research, like to always have some major construction underway or in the works somewhere on campus.
After all, new facilities instill pride and reinforce their commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. They also help sustain the cycle of attracting the best faculty and students, and, in turn, more resources to preserve that leading role in the discipline.
One case in point is Virginia Tech, where tower cranes never really disappear from the scenic mountain backdrop; they just get relocated.
(For disclosure’s sake, I’m a three-time Hokie graduate, and would likely still be in Blacksburg if there was money in drinking beer and going to class.)
Highlighting the current construction parade in Hokieland is the new Signature Engineering Building. The155,000-sq ft, four-story showpiece building, scheduled for completion in 2014, will be the administrative and instructional centerpiece of Virginia Tech’s highly regarded College of Engineering, a role enhanced by its choice location adjacent to a campus entrance.
A short walk away, the new Center for the Arts is on its way to reinforcing Virginia Tech’s commitment to the humanities as well. Combining 71,000 sq ft of new construction with the renovation of a 55,000-sq ft former dining hall, the Center will house a new Performance Hall with a 1,300-seat auditorium, a visual arts gallery, and labs and studios for creative technologies.
Much-needed for both space and prestige purposes, neither project consumes much in the way of memories or cherished landmarks, rising as they do from what most recently had been parking lots.
But another pending project has generated some friction, as it pits a relatively recent, high-profile addition to the Virginia Tech campus—big time football—against one of its oldest, yet least known assets—old-growth trees.
The controversy centers on the Virginia Tech Athletic Department’s plan to construct a new indoor practice facility, projected to cost as much a $25 million, adjacent to Lane Stadium and other existing athletic buildings.
The site eyed for the facility would cut into a hillside and consume approximately one-third of a 15-acre heavily wooded area, little used by students (well, at least officially), but found to contain what may be the largest remaining collection of old-growth white oak in the eastern United States.
You can see the familiar dilemma this project creates. The Athletic Department claims that the indoor practice facility is necessary to keep up with Virginia Tech’s rivals and maintain its high profile in football, which despite its occasional on-field frustrations, has become a rallying point for the highly diverse Hokie disapora, particularly in light of recent tragedies such as the April 16, 2007, shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 32 students and faculty members.
Forestry professors and Stadium Woods supporters counter that the trees’ inherent uniqueness makes them worth preserving, and that preserving them is in line with the school’s mission as a Land-Grant institution “teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”
They also cite several other potential building sites in close proximity to the stadium complex that would seem “shovel-ready” for a practice facility, but which Athletic officials dismiss as too far removed for tiime-crunched practice schedules.
Construction versus nature is not a new problem, nor are most of the issues being weighed by an ad hoc committee appointed by University President Charles Steger unique to Virginia Tech.
Though it’s not always feasible to have things both ways, we do like to think of colleges and universities as incubators of innovation, places where great minds can find solutions that need not be “either or,” but “what if.”
Virginia Tech takes great pride in its slogan, “Invent the Future.” It’s now up to the school to figure out how much of the past to bring along.
UPDATE 6/4/12: The committee has recommended relocating the proposed facility to another nearby location, preserving all but .2 acres of Stadium Woods. Its now up to Virginia Tech's Board of Visitors to decide whether to endorse the recommendation.