I’ll be honest with you — I’ve always been skeptical about North Quad, the new dorm currently being built at the corner of State St. and East Washington Ave.

It’s not the destruction of the historic Frieze Building I’m upset about, although a lot of my fellow locals were sad to see it go. After all, the place was full of asbestos.

It’s about what North Quad symbolizes to me. Last fall, construction on campus totaled $1.3 billion dollars. Many of those projects are still in progress, and the Regents recently approved even more. God knows that Michigan needs the construction jobs, but what motivates the boom?

North Quad is known on campus as “Mary Sue Coleman’s idea.” In an Ann Arbor News article (North Quad to get new look, 7/31/2006), she said that she was hoping that North Quad would give the entrance to campus a certain “wow” factor. And we’re spending $175 million to get it.

Don’t misunderstand me — some of the facilities we’re getting are astounding. I appreciate state-of-the-art technology and a clean, bright learning space. But I think that many of the University’s construction projects are an attempt to enter the academic version of an arms race with private schools.

North Quad will be able to house 460 students in suite-style dorm rooms. One style comes with a living room, another with four singles. Each room will have a bathroom. Oh, yeah, and this dorm will not be certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s Green Building Rating System.

The dining hall will also try to compete with gourmet campus eateries across the country, as noted by a recent Michigan Daily article (Catch-up cuisine, 9/16/2008). It might seem too good to be true, but it may just be too good to afford.

Who will be living in these rooms? Affordable campus housing is already difficult to find, and neither private developers nor the University seem to understand. Everything being built is increasingly more luxurious. What’s wrong with the idea that students eat ramen and wear shower shoes?

Our fixation on image wouldn’t be a problem if tuition were not steadily rising each year. Rather than spending money to house high-maintenance students, shouldn’t we lower the tuition costs of our public university?

In such tough economic times, how we spend our budget speaks especially loudly about our values. It seems to me that as much of our surplus should be directed toward academic excellence as possible, not attempting to improve dormitory or dining hall rankings.

Another example of the University’s ignorance of actual student needs is the change in venue for the Screen Arts and Cultures program. I am in Film Production classes here, and the University’s decision to move studios and equipment rooms to the Modern Languages Building has disappointed me greatly. Currently, the program calls the Argus II Building home. And although a few blocks from campus, Argus II has plenty of space for film editing rooms, production studios, and drive-up space for the 500 pounds of camera and lighting equipment necessary for each upperclassman film project.

Instead, this film equipment is going to be placed in the second floor of the MLB, where students will have to drag it around hallways, down elevators, through double doors and across the sidewalk to have access to it. The Language Resource Center will be moved to North Quad, away from every language class and office.

Talking to Screen Arts and Cultures faculty who are against these decisions, it seems like they were made just the way decisions on tuition increases are: over the summer, behind closed doors. Although better facilities are intended to attract top-notch faculty, the process of building them has been deaf to the requests of some teachers we already have.

Ultimately, I have enough good sense to know that North Quad will be a beautiful facility with more than a few blessings. But as long as the project is motivated by a craving for the “wow” factor, it will seem to me to be out of step with our real needs: low costs, convenience and academics to help our students (and our state) soar.

Meg Young can be reached at megyoung@umich.edu.

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