World View: 'Big Mac' is hard to swallow

September 7, 2001

A move to 'state-of-the-art' Mary Ann Cofrin Hall, aka Big Mac, is far from ideal for Harvey Kaye's department

The big day has finally arrived. My colleagues and I move into a brand-new building, Mary Ann Cofrin Hall, a large multipurpose facility housing 20 high-tech classrooms, a series of science, natural history and geography labs, a host of institutional offices, and all of the social science departments.

The project has generated a lot of excitement. In the past 25 years we have built a performing arts centre, residence halls, and additions to the student union and sports centre, but "Mac Hall" is our first new academic building on campus since 1974. In line with our original, progressive campus mission, the facility was fashioned to be environmentally friendly and extremely energy efficient.

Nevertheless, the project has antagonised quite a few people, particularly those of us who have had to emigrate to it. I expect my colleagues and I will come to appreciate our new home, but right now we view it with little affection. We wonder what the architects were thinking when they designed our spaces and - given the stress and strain of moving - we believe university administrators saw the whole process as an opportunity to torment us.

The 11,000-sq/m, three-level structure appears to have been modelled after medieval cloisters (we are even told that there are plans for a fountain and garden in the interior courtyard, should some aristocrat seeking an indulgence step forward to pay for it). Indeed, it reminds me of the massive San Martin Pinario monastery in Santiago, Spain. I like the look; but, as University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is a public university, it disturbs me that above the main entrance a mast-like feature reaches skyward, as if waiting for another piece to complete a cross. The monastic theme continues inside.

We distribute offices by seniority (rank and time in rank). In our old building the best were large and windowed, the worst were small and windowless (my own was small but with a big window and a great view of the library). In Mac Hall, the offices are all the same size and the interior courtyard allows everyone a window, making happy at least the more junior faculty among us. However, making the more senior faculty rather unhappy, the new windows themselves are much smaller, producing a cell-like aesthetic. Almost all of the senior profs chose exterior offices (well knowing that a courtyard fountain and garden will mean little in a Wisconsin winter). In fact, many of us ended up alongside each other, so I expect to hear references to Old Codgers' Row. As the youngest of the cohort I can handle that. What worries me is the rumour that the building's lifts cannot accommodate a stretcher.

Mac Hall is big - much bigger than the building we have vacated (leading me to suggest we call it "Big Mac", in deference to capitalism and in honour of the renowned hamburger). But, big as it is, the social science departments have forfeited space in the relocation, and my own department has forfeited the most of all. Apparently it did not matter that we had met with the architects, presented our needs and received assurances. They proceeded to design academic suites without a room to store supplies and equipment or a common room for department meetings and seminars.

Everyone promised that our offices would be handsomely appointed. Yet the carpet appears a putrid swirl and the desks and cabinets are an unattractive black metal, plastic and wood-look laminate. And when will university officials learn that academic offices are not corporate offices? For a start, we read books. Would you believe we had to fight for adequate shelving?

The new classrooms are bright and airy, not to mention, as the public relations folk put it, "state-of-the-art" teaching venues (meaning they provide for computer-based instruction). Somebody had the smart idea of putting interior windows on the rooms so passersby could look in (like an operating theatre). We are told it will allow visitors to see, and be impressed by, professors and students in action. Yet I cannot help but think that administrators wanted to create Jeremy Bentham's "panopticon effect", so we would feel we are always being watched.

Punishments started even before we moved. We had to box our computers, books and files without assistance or compensation (we do not get paid in summertime). We dumped papers and culled books from our collections, knowing we would have less space in our new offices. We lost innumerable days from research (or recreation), and at least one don's back gave out on him. Our secretary, Chris Terrien, had it the worst. Not only did she have to coordinate 30 of us, but also she had to box up both our departmental offices and her own stuff without extra help, while campus administrators sent her contradictory instructions and updates.

Fortunately, we did not have to haul the stuff ourselves. As I write, "professional movers" are loading our things on to a truck for delivery to the new building. Unfortunately, the shelves for the new offices have yet to arrive, the wiring for computers and phones has yet to be completed and the keys have yet to be cut. By mid-semester I expect we will feel right at home in our new digs. But right now we are a bunch of sore, exasperated and paranoid social scientists. Wait a while before you visit us.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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