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The first rays of the Sun warm the earth, preparing its creatures for another long day of struggling for survival and meaning in a barren land. A tribe of primitive apes awakens from a fretful rest atop a pile of dirt and bones. But something catches the eye of one of the tribe members—a gigantic and bizarre monolith, thrust to heaven itself. Filled with rage and fear, he runs to attack the strange entity, only to stop in his tracks. Feelings of anger give way to awe and worship, and the course of the world is forever altered. For those of you who have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, this might seem like a familiar scene, except this time around it was more or less what happened when I went to the Campus Center to get my morning coffee. It also wasn’t actually a monolith. In reality, it’s a really weird monument.
As it turns out, this strange sculpture isn’t an indecipherable entity built by an extraterrestrial race, but rather an indecipherable entity built by a bunch of really, really rich people. The 1865 Society, WPI’s new club of donors who have given one million dollars or more to the university, has managed to dig a few hundred thousand dollars out of the couch cushions once again. In honor of the engine which keeps the university going—themselves—they and WPI have decided to bestow upon us this thoughtful gift. To make sure we can appreciate it as much as is humanly possible, they even went the extra mile and bolted it to the wall in front of the Campus Center entrance.
Now I’m all for donating ludicrous sums of money to beneficial causes like education and/or monument building. It’s cool that there are a lot of people willing to donate that much money to WPI; should they and the university choose to have a sculpture placed on campus, they have every right to do so. It would be tough to argue otherwise. The location seems to have been a pretty bad choice, though. Given the reactions I’ve heard from the students, I get the feeling that the student body—the people who are supposed to benefit from the 1865 Society’s philanthropy—wasn’t adequately consulted on the matter. The faculty response seems to have been tepid as well. Maybe this location wasn’t really a planned thing, but rather an unfortunate leftover from the red-carpet ceremony the night of its unveiling. Think of it like a really bad hangover, or a regrettable one-night stand.
It’s not hard to find dedications to those who have given something significant, financial or otherwise, to the university. Some of them are prominently displayed, others are out of the way, but all of them share a common theme: they’re integrated into the campus itself, serving as a subtle reminder of a person or entity that significantly benefited WPI in some way. Unlike other testaments to compensating for staggering economic inequality in the US, however, the 1865 Society’s sculpture is about as subtle as a freight train speeding along on a track made of rust and firecrackers.
If this newly-established class of donors wants to keep a sculpture on campus, that’s fine. Its current location, though, sends the exact opposite message from what such a sculpture should send. Rather than act as a pleasing aesthetic addition to the campus which celebrates the 1865 Society, it comes across as an imposing monument which serves little purpose other than to maximize the likelihood that it will be seen and the donors appreciated. If that is the message they intended to send, then that’s their choice, but I hope in that case they’d recognize that the apes in “2001” stopped rubbing and sniffing the monolith after a while. Novelty wears off quickly.
My recommendation to the 1865 Society is pretty simple: pick a better place for a sculpture or other monument. If the aim in donating such high amounts of money to WPI is to promote the quality of education and life for its students, this shouldn’t be an unreasonable demand. Perhaps one could design an 1865 Society female goat for the new goat on the quad, or an 1865 Society garden, or even an 1865 Society mountain of arsenic-laced dirt blocking the vision of everyone near the football field. Actually, the last one is already taken, but at least it would send a similar message to what’s already in place.