May 17, 2016

Architecture and Inequality on College Campuses

image from Peter Kaufman

Inequality is one of the most important and most popular topics that sociologists study. It might even be the most important and popular topic. Inequality is discussed in every introductory course, it is a prominent theme in many sociological theories, and it is even a required topic of study in most sociology departments. If you have ever studied sociology and have never thought about inequality then something was probably missing from your education.

When sociologists study inequality we usually look at the various ways that it exists in our daily lives. We may consider the different effects that inequality has on people, the multiple ways it plays out, and the various social institutions or locations where we might see proof of it. Because the world is awash in inequality, there is, unfortunately, no shortage of topics to consider.

A typical sociological study of inequality may involve examining how variables such as gender, race, social class, ability, sexual orientation, or age help some people advance while holding others back. We might also investigate how certain social institutions such as education, health care, politics, and work give preferential treatment to people based on their personal characteristics.

Lately, I've been thinking about some rather blatant examples of inequality that we might say are hidden in plain sight. I'm referring here to architecture—the design, appeal, and aesthetics of buildings. More specifically, I've been focusing on the architecture on college campus. When you take the time to consider architecture, and you think about the location, the clientele, and the use of the buildings, you will quickly realize that many of these structures tell us an important story about inequality in our everyday lives. Let me offer some examples from the world of higher education.

I recently had the pleasure to spend a week at Northern Arizona University. I was working with a colleague from NAU's sociology department so most of the time I spent there was in the offices of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Here is a picture of what that building looks like:

Nau social sciences bldg

 I actually felt right at home in this building and not just because I was surrounded by other social scientists. The reason why this structure seemed so familiar to me is because of the nondescript brick and concrete construction. And with the pervasive chipping of the bricks and the clear signs of disrepair in the façade, this building quickly alleviated any homesickness I might have felt.

I imagine that the students, faculty, and staff who use this building everyday think of it mostly as their place of work or study. That is certainly how I approached it for the week I was there. But each time I left the building I was quickly reminded that it was not only an architectural structure but also a symbolic structure of inequality on college campuses.

Why might I say that? Take a look at the two buildings that flank the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. On one side is the NAU College of Engineering:

Nau engineering

And on the other side is the NAU College of Business:

Nau business

Do you notice any difference between these three buildings? Are there any features that stand out to you? I don't think you need to be an architect or an art critic to realize that in terms of design, appeal, and even beauty, the social science building is quite a few notches below its neighbors. It might not even be in the same ballpark. Let me offer a few more examples.

Consider my own campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz. Here is a picture of the entrance to the Humanities building (trust me, there are doors where the dark slit is) where courses are held in sociology, history, political science, and English.


And here is a picture of the Smiley Art Building which houses the departments of art education and art history. Be careful not to get this building confused with the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at NAU.     

Smiley art

Now right across from the entrance to the Humanities building is the newly renovated Wooster Science Building:

Wooster science

And a little walk down from this "old" science building is the almost-finished new Science Building:

New science

The examples I've given so far all reflect buildings that are on the same college campuses. So let me raise the bar quite a bit and offer one more comparison. Here is a picture of Parker Theater, one of the two main performing arts centers on my public university.


For contrast, consider the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. This theater is on the campus of Bard College, a private institution that is less than 30 miles away from New Paltz but has an endowment that dwarfs the endowment of New Paltz ($267 million versus $7.67 million).

Fisher center

So what do all of these pictures mean and what exactly do they tell us about inequality on college campuses? There are a number of important points for us to consider.

These pictures are indicative of what disciplines are more valued on some college campuses. The social and behavioral sciences and the arts and humanities are generally not seen as being as important as business, engineering, and the natural sciences. Frank Gehry has designed buildings for a number of college campuses. With the exception of the Fisher Center at Bard College and the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, all of these buildings house departments of science, technology, and law. I don't expect a Frank Gehry-designed social science building will be coming to a university near you anytime soon.

If some departments are deemed more important than others—and it's not just the architecture that demonstrates this, but that is a topic for another post—then what does this suggest about the students, faculty, and staff who work and study in these buildings? Are those in science, engineering, and business more worthy of these beautiful, state-of-the art buildings than their peers in the social sciences, arts, and humanities? Do those of us who teach, study, and work in uninspiring buildings of chipping brick and peeling paint deserve these lesser conditions? And if so, what did we do to deserve this?

I often think about these questions when I walk past a campus tour in process. What must these prospective students and their parents think when they see the old and outdated social science building and compare it to the stunningly new science building? What message is this conveying about what the college values and who is worthy of these new investments in infrastructure? And do these drastic inequalities in architecture influence the decision of students to choose one major over another?

These questions of what disciplines are deemed to be valuable and who is deemed to be worthy are key questions to be asking when we are talking about inequality. And these questions do not only play out on college campuses. Anytime we are talking about inequalities in salary, education, health care, or access to public transportation these questions of value, worthiness, and deservedness are sure to crop up.

We hear so often that we live in a meritocracy, that we are judged solely on our efforts, abilities, and hard work. That sounds like a good idea in theory. But when I see students and colleagues in the social sciences, humanities, and arts working just as hard as our counterparts in business, engineering, and the natural sciences, I can't help but wonder why we have not earned the same benefits and privileges that they enjoy.

All photos courtesy of the author


nice article

I didn't know there can be bias in designing buildings for different disciplines.

Wow i never thought of it that way and now that i think about my college is getting a new science and medical building that's going to built right in front of its old run down welding and agriculture building

It is just another reminder of where the money is and where it's going. We need our social science alumni to rock the world so the big money will reign down on our campus and we'll get a new sociology building!

Interesting article. Certainly something I've noticed when I've walked around some campuses. There are exceptions, some schools put a high value on cohesive design, so you have to look deeper to see how resources are allocated. You don't have to wonder why hard working humanities majors don't receive the same benefits and privileges hardworking science and business majors receive. Or student athletes for that matter. Even within a meritocracy no one judges you solely for hard work. They judge you based on how valuable the perceive the fruit of that work to be. Business schools and science schools produce graduates who make lots of money because they do things society values or they capture value someone else creates. Cancer drugs, iPhones, GMO crops, hybrid cars, packed stadiums, etc. What is the equivalent product from the social sciences and humanities? Clearly you value the work you do, but why should someone else?

Very interesting article on inequality in architecture.

Great article

nice photos accompanied by great information.


nice article.

inequality in campus is an emotive subject which brings division among various experts

nice article. thanks for sharing.

Inequality is a good topic to be discussed especially in places of work. There are people people who are considered more than others.

great information with inspiring message.

Quite Informative

Wonderful,we appreciate.

Nice information and marvelous photos. Keep posting. Thank you.

Love your blog.keep up the good work

astronomical information with a per-disposition disseminating good knowledge

nice blog!

Never looked at architecture in such a perspective...what an eye opener.

Great article.

insightful article . Thanks for the post

nice article

Great piece.

Great post. Keep sharing and I will inform my engineer students at University of Nairobi.

I also read inequality involve examining how variables such as gender, race, social class, ability, or age help some people advance while holding others back. So this must be stop as sooner as possible.

this is an awesome article. great read

Enjoyed reading the article above , really explains everything in detail, the article is very interesting and effective.

educative article. thanks for sharing.

With good maintenance it really is really good.According to my point of view, adding some protection and security would make it look cool and even better. Great list of roofing blogs to follow! Thanks for sharing.

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