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Big things are happening on the quad right now. Almost anyone who passes by the area knows that WPI has been building a massive new athletic center for the past several months – a project that has chewed away at a large portion of the quad as the building itself has gone up.
It’s no surprise that the WPI administration would elect to build more athletic facilities. There is, among many students who make use of the facilities, a perceived lack of adequate fitness equipment and space. Demands for an upgrade have been numerous for the past few years, culminating in the construction project now underway. Upperclassmen may well remember the posters in the Campus Center displaying 3D models of the gleaming, palatial facility.
Even on paper, the new center seemed grand and impressive. The description of what was to come touted everything from racquetball courts to glass corridors and space for robots. The administration offered its students – or the few who would see the project to completion – the moon.
Construction has advanced, and the building certainly looks large enough to fulfill all of the university’s promises. Many who use the current fitness facilities support the new expansion – as they well should, given the state of what we have now – but how much is too much?
A WPI web page soliciting donations for the new building boasts of its 11,000 square foot, muti-level space for weights and fitness machines. The center is also slated to have three racquetball courts, a rowing tank and other multipurpose rooms – another 5,000 square feet. This all comes on top of a new four-court gymnasium space and 25 meter swimming pool.
None of these are onerous, evil things by themselves, but WPI hasn’t traditionally held athletics as its primary focus. An aggressive expansion of the fitness facilities is a bit out of character given the university’s official focus on science and technology. Even the mission statement on the university website is “to create and convey the latest science and engineering knowledge in ways that would be most useful to the society from which its students came.”
Yet with this new facility, the game has apparently changed. The rhetoric, at least on a web page targeted towards donors, is that WPI is now attempting to “embody the distinctive WPI education while ushering in a new era of athletics and student achievement at the university.”
“A new era.” Those are pretty grandiose words for an administration to be using regarding a university that has held science education as a central mission for nearly 150 years. Rather than take that seriously and go with the scientific strengths that makes WPI stand out, it seems that this administration has opted to take an entirely different route and divert its attention towards other things.
Of course, this is what universities often do. Because the typical lifetime of a person as a student is just a few years, it’s easy for administrations to feel that they can quickly and near-omnipotently reshape the student body and institutional focus. The construction of the new athletic center points to a sort of administrative hubris – one which is leading WPI away from science education towards academically desolate ploys to draw in students and donors.
Like the millionaires’ monument in front of the Campus Center, this building feels like yet another attempt by the university administration to show itself off for reasons entirely unrelated to WPI’s academic rigor and credibility. Indeed, the administration’s own words show that the facility is a deliberate and targeted attempt to change the character of WPI to make the university marketable to a broader population – regardless of the cost.
Athletic facilities are good; the same can’t be said for self-aggrandizing construction projects. Now, as the last open side of the quad gets shut in by the new fitness center, one is left wondering what is being traded away in order to usher in this “new era” that the administration seeks.