The Administrative Building is a gray slab of concrete. In the summer, when I keep the window to my office open, I can hear undergraduates delivering tours to masses of parents and their nervous children. They say things like “the Administrative building was built during World War Two, and was constructed of the cheapest materials. The university’s patriotic duty at the time was to keep costs as low as possible and not to demand too many resources.”
The cheapest building possible filled with the most expensive labor on campus. The building is a fortress full of vice presidents and senior vice presidents of development, new initiatives, research strategy, campus construction, dining, alumni relations, career services, student life, online learning, and international relations. There is an office dedicated to the construction of new buildings and acquisitions in places like Dubai, Lagos, Delhi, and Beijing. The university builds centers all around the world. I’ve been to them.
In Paris, we own a glass building in the Latin Quarter, constructed by a famous architect who was sleeping with the University President at the time of the bidding (and the inaugural faculty director of the center was the University President’s husband).
In Beijing, we rent an immodest structure less than half a mile from Tiananmen Square that is owned by another university with international ambitions that exceed even beyond our own. Or rather, with means to develop international buildings that exceed our own. I accompanied a delegation of biological scientists to Beijing to meet with a Chinese delegation. We stood awkwardly in the light-filled lobby of our rented building. Our faculty members held their gifts – red neckties from the University bookstore that we had bought hastily upon realizing that it would be an impossible affront not to present our foreign counterparts with gifts.
It felt undignified, standing in the lobby of this rented building, grinning like morons at the group of scientists and their simultaneous translators, impeccably polite but robotic language experts, who spoke English or Mandarin into little microphones. They listened to us talk and at the same time translated what whoever was speaking. Their whispered voices emitted from headphones that we all wore. Ingenious. They trained for years and apparently were paid quite well. It was a prestigious job to work in this capacity, bridging the divide between cultures.
To think of their prestige – of them leaving their villages to serve us – brought tears to my eyes as I listened to them translate the awkward welcome of the sweating Chair of Beijing Special University’s Department of Evolutionary Biology. We were there to dialogue about the launching of a new research partnership. He said something about the air quality not being much better than the average city in the Industrial Midwest of our own United States.
I laughed at this, but replied that he must come back to the Industrial Midwest and see what it meant for a country to be returning itself to nature. In America we were turning our factories back into wheat fields, and ultimately into wild prairie. What a pity it was that the opposite was true here.