Op-ed column: Isolated UAlbany not part of any common culture
Recently I shared dinner with William Jankowiak, a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, who studies Asian cultures. When asked what it was like to teach in Las Vegas, he replied that universities take on characteristics of their communities. UC Berkeley, he said, had characteristics of the culture of Berkeley, California. Harvard, he said, had characteristics of the Boston area. And his university, UNLV in Las Vegas, shared traits with Las Vegas.
Recently I shared dinner with William Jankowiak, a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, who studies Asian cultures. When asked what it was like to teach in Las Vegas, he replied that universities take on characteristics of their communities.
I attended UAlbany, twice. After enrolling the second time to get a degree in teaching English as a second language, I came to like it even less than the first time. It’s largely a cold, unfriendly place with a sense of misdirected, bureaucratic priorities at many levels. I learned little there compared to what I could have taught myself in the library. (By contrast, at Cornell I was amazed at how much I was taught by my professors that I could not have learned on my own.)
And incidents such as the “kegs and eggs” riot in March and the canceling of Fountain Day — neither of which I approve or understand — reinforce my view that something is deeply wrong with the place.
Does UAlbany show characteristics of the community in which it is based? It’s an interesting question.
To answer, one must first ask, in what community is UAlbany based? It’s not really in Albany. It’s out on the edge. Is it in Guilderland or Colonie? Maybe partially, but I don’t really think so.
The fact seems to be that UAlbany is basically a big, isolated block of concrete in the middle of a field, disconnected from its surrounding communities in any meaningful sense.
You can’t comfortably walk to the university from anywhere. I’ve tried. Three sides have busy roads and nothing in particular and the other has state offices. Starting at any edge of the campus, to get to anywhere significant on campus is a hike, especially in the snow, and not even safe.
As for visiting by car, this too is discouraged. There’s no free public parking, so you can’t comfortably park and visit.
And if you do, what will you see? Unlike at some colleges, museums and displays for prospective students, their parents and the community are minimal. In my experience, if you visit campus departments and ask what they are doing and which courses they offer to interested community members, you generally confuse the secretaries with little result.
UAlbany, as an institution, has not tried to integrate itself well into its surrounding environs.
And its recent widely publicized, nationally recognized, extremely unpopular cuts of classics and languages did not help any either.
Which brings me back to a theme I’ve written of before. UAlbany is a deeply unhealthy place and the roots of the problem lie in its architecture. The university is physically isolated from the outside community and physically cold and unfriendly. Therefore, institutionally, it suffers psychological problems. And the university makes no effort to correct this.
The commuter students generally see UAlbany as a place to get a degree and then go home to where they really live.
What about faculty? A mixed bunch. Some are great people, Others are burned out. In many cases, outstanding educators have been discarded because administrators at this third-tier institution consider research more important. (Although once I got outside the Educational Theory and Practice department, I really enjoyed my contact with my professors.)
Yet few professors, I think, see the university as more than a place to work even if they love and are dedicated to their jobs. Unlike some universities, none live on campus and there is no special housing for visiting professors. They commute from many different towns, cities and villages.
Few professors are encouraged to socialize in ways that encourage interest in their discipline with their students.
Again, no strong sense of community integration has developed from this source.
So what’s left? The dorms? Could the UAlbany culture be representative of a bunch of homesick, Long Island teenagers left without a babysitter? Could be. Think about it.
Building on Jankowiak’s idea that universities take on characteristics of their community, UAlbany is an anomaly, a university without a community, alone, isolated in a field without sidewalks or parking lots, left culture-less, with no sense of shared community. Therefore it takes on the characteristics of the only community it really has, the culture of the nearby undergraduate dorms and its distant bureaucrats.
Is it true? I don’t know. But it’s something to think about.
Peter Huston lives in Scotia.