College Ignores Campus Center Needs
By David Zheutlin '11
A few weeks ago, I drove over to Williams with three friends of mine to cheer on our men’s rugby team during their annual scrum-fest against our NESCAC rivals to the north and west. In light of this experience at bizarro-world Amherst, this article could easily be about the general wooshbaggery that we experienced as the only four Amherst fans in attendance that day. Instead, though, I was inspired to write my first career article for The Student after seeing Williams’ recently built campus center, which, as much as it pains me to say, is absolutely incredible. Breathtaking. It is a perfect place to study, hang out, eat a meal or meet with a professor; it’s open 24 hours a day, is situated in the middle of their campus and overlooks (with balcony access!) their beautiful college green.

I want to make a few things clear before I begin. I truly dislike Williams, just as any purple-blooded Jeff should. And I love spending time in Keefe. But put simply, Williams’ Paresky Center puts Keefe to shame. To provide some comparison, when I walked into Paresky on Saturday at 2 p.m., there were about a hundred Williams students eating lunch at the in-campus-center dining area, 20 or so working in the various upstairs lounges, one club congregating for an afternoon meeting in a conference room and several faculty meeting in another. The scene in Keefe on any given Saturday at 2 p.m.? Ghost town. No one studies upstairs, there isn’t anyone meeting in Schwemm’s, which is closed until 7 p.m. on the weekends anyway, and the atrium is guaranteed to be empty. To me, this is a serious problem. And has anyone else noticed that whenever you want Schwemm’s to be open, whenever you’re in desperate need of a bagelwich or an Honest Tea, it’s guaranteed to be closed? Strange.

At any college, the campus center is (or at least, should be) the hub of student activity on campus — but Keefe has outlasted its glory days of the 1980s and 90s, and it has become increasingly evident that a good, useful and comfortable campus center is one of our most glaring needs at Amherst. Keefe, along with student housing and Valentine Dining Hall, contributes strongly to what we can consider everyone’s “student life.”

People take different classes and become involved in different extra-curricular activities, but everyone lives on campus, eats at Val and spends time in Keefe on a regular basis. If Keefe is greatly lacking (especially as compared with peer institutions of ours) — without getting into complaints about Val — then we have a problem on our hands.

As the years go by, and as our student body grows to 1800, the problems with Keefe and Val will only worsen. Each year, the buildings become increasingly out-of-date (has anyone played Pac-Man since 1993?) and pressed for space (try getting a Val meal on a Monday at noon). And my concern at the moment has come on the heels of the news about the New Science Center, the construction of which will entail a four-year megaproject at the cost of around a quarter-billion dollars. Now, at the risk of inciting a scientist-fueled riot, I would like to argue that before tearing down Merrill, we should think for a moment and consider if we might, instead (or additionally), prioritize improvements to student life.

Why should a new campus center take priority over a science center? While the science center will have a profound impact on our science programs, every single student’s day-to-day experience at Amherst would be markedly improved by a campus center tailored to the needs of today’s student. It’s not hard to imagine the benefits of comfortable study lounges, meeting rooms, and a large snack bar (on the meal plan) that could alleviate much of the pressure on Val. It’s worth mentioning, too, that a beautiful new campus center could be built at a fraction of the cost of a science center. One complaint often heard around campus is that there are few good places to meet with a friend (other than, say, one’s room or dorm) or a professor (outside of the standard office hours). Those looking to have a conversation, enjoy a meal or discuss course material are generally better off heading to town; more people probably do work at Amherst Coffee or Rao’s than in Keefe. If our campus center provided better leisure areas and workspaces, the positive impact on our Amherst community would be remarkable.

I went to the talk in the Red Room with the architect-to-be of the new science center, Stefan Benisch. I was impressed, generally, with what I saw there — but I was disappointed that the rest of our campus was not considered in relation to the planned construction. There was no talk of where the Socials currently reside, or of how this gigantic facility will affect future architectural plans at Amherst.

Furthermore, there is an understated tragedy in all this: the demolition of Davis, which was practically an afterthought in President Marx’s email regarding the Science Center. To me, the fact that Davis is being demolished “to provide sufficient access to the site during construction” signifies the College’s inattention to the needs of students. Davis, in addition to being the most popular Social Dorm (as per Room Draw 2010), is home to one of the best remaining social spaces on campus — its basement. As noted in my recent article for The Indicator, our campus social life is shrinking such that the Socials have become an every-night destination for partygoers; taking Davis out of the equation will put further stress on the limited number of areas available for student use on weekend nights. I fear that the importance of taking down Davis has been entirely overlooked throughout this process.

From everything I’ve heard, Merrill desperately needs to be revamped for the sake of our science program. Other departments, too, have complaints: the library and music building require drastic improvements, and disciplines like economics are overdue for buildings, or at least spaces, of their own. But I feel that all these projects should only be addressed after we fix our problems with Val and Keefe. Academics may be Amherst’s main attraction to prospective students, but what truly sets us apart from our peers is how happy and prideful we all are about our school. The sciences need new facilities; that much cannot be argued. The more glaring need, though, is in terms of student life. If we fall behind peer institutions in that department, then we’ll have some serious problems.

Issue 10, Submitted 2010-12-01 01:19:39