Do UC What I See?
How the University Center has brought changes to the quality of student life at Carnegie Mellon University and to the universitys national reputation.
by Carrice Delo
A charcoal mural stretches across the curved walls of Carnegie Mellons University Center rotunda, intertwining Pittsburgh history with Andrew Carnegies academic endeavors. Created by Doug Cooper, a professor of architecture at CMU, the mural is full of stories about people and their memories of growing up and living in the Steel City. Intended to involve both students and natives from the Burgh, it seems appropriate that the mural is located in the University Center, a building designed with the purpose of encouraging social interaction among students and providing a center for community use. Opened in August of 96, the University Center has become a hub for student interaction and has pushed Carnegie Mellons Admissions Office into competition with elite institutions for the nations top students.
Before the opening of the University Center, or the "UC," as students refer to it, the Carnegie Mellon campus offered few attractive, sociable places to interact, relax, or exercise. Students complained about long cafeteria food lines, the limited size of the gym pool, poor workout equipment, and the awkward design of Skibo, CMUs previous student center. Students felt they deserved more in return for the hard work they dedicated to studying. The work ethic that is an inexorable part of CMU tradition attracted many dedicated to students to attend Carnegie Mellon, but like all college kids, CMU students desired opportunities to relax and interact with each other in non-academic activities. The declining rate of student happiness and satisfaction with life on the Carnegie Mellon campus were preventing the university from attracting top international and domestic students.
In 1987, Carnegie Mellon formed a Quality of Student Life Task Force to examine student dissatisfaction. Composed of administration, faculty, staff and students, the 70-member Task Force gave five major recommendations for making CMU a better place to the Board of Trustees. According to Carnegie Mellon Magazine, the recommendations focused on "emphasizing a broader education for students, a recognition of their multiple needs including exposure to a diversity of people and cultures," and most important, a place for all of these needs to be met: a university center. In order for the university to be able to compete "among the group of elite institutions in the nation," a university center that provided social, physical, and intellectual growth was needed to attract "the best available students, faculty, and staff."
Costing $47 million and covering 240,000 square feet of campus, the University Center was to become the hub of campus life and interaction. According to a 1995 Carnegie Mellon Magazine interview with Patrick Keating, vice president for business affairs and university planning at the time, the center "is inclusive; it will encourage people to interact. You will be able to sit and have a Coke while watching a squash game, or attend a movie or visit the bookstore. All of its features will come alive when the building opens." The University Center plans included areas for dining, meetings, recreation, sports, student organizations and activities, and retail stores for the campus. A non-denominational chapel, an auditorium, and a ballroom were other highlights of the centers construction. All sports facilities were created with the rule that the pool, basketball and racquetball courts, and workout rooms would serve intramural and recreational use only.
According to one CMU student, making the UC an athletic resource for all students emphasized the Universitys commitment to improving the quality of life for the entire campus, not just individual groups. "I am not an athlete for CMU, but I enjoy working out and playing racquetball. I think its great that the University Center is supposed to be for everyone and that the sports facilities are not specifically for athletes to use," says So and So, a junior in Anvil Dropping. By combining these facilities under one roof, the University Center hoped to provide students with a place to see other people, take a break from work, and to be exposed to new experiences.
Motivation behind the building of the University Center not only focused on "a commitment to the total development of the student," but also a way to reach out to the surrounding Pittsburgh community. Planners saw the creation of the University Center as a great way to decrease the perception of Carnegie Mellon as elitist by hosting seminars, art shows, and other events that would pull people from outside the campus network into the heart of CMU activity. The UC planners also hoped to create a place for potential student applicants and their parents to visit and observe the interaction of current students.
The planners of the University Center appeared to be right on target with their vision of what would make the Carnegie Mellon campus a more cohesive unit and conducive to student life. Almost four years after the opening of the UC however, student opinion on the success of the UC varies. Students such as senior Julie Obloy, who remember what life at CMU was like before the opening of the UC, have a deeper appreciation for what the building means for the campus. "As a freshman I spent all of my time in Mudge or Morewood. I ate at Pipers and went to Scotland yard, but did not connect with anyone on the other side of campus. I didnt know anyone who lived in Donner or in any of the off-campus apartments. When the UC opened, I finally felt the campus was connected, that there was a center for people to meet and hang out that would pull people from all over." Another student commented that people living off campus find the UC a convenient hangout when they dont want to walk home between classes. Students lounge on black leather chairs in Kirr Commons, talking to friends or getting in a quick nap before their next class.
Not all students believe that the UC has been successful at changing the quality of life on campus, however. "I dont consider the UC very social," says Adrienne Messenger, a senior civil engineering major. "I was expecting there to be more activities for students. At my boyfriends college, they have a bowling alley and arcade. Compared to the UC, it seems more like a place to hang out on the weekends."
What some students do not realize, however, is that the UC contains a number of different activities and resources that are not well-known. Like everything else on the Carnegie Mellon campus, these resources require that students take it upon themselves to find them. For instance, two video arcades are located on two different floors, near eating areas. In addition, the Schatz dining room is open to students for dinner during the school week, offering a hot meal and salad bar, a highly desirable alternative to fast-food vendors.
One of the most interesting ironies about the University Center is that its design encourages the feeling of community, yet manages to alienate some students. Whether eating a sandwich or playing basketball, students can "see or be seen" at all times. The use of glass walls to separate eating and workout facilities make some students feel too close for comfort. One student said that they had never used the UC pool because other students eating lunch would be able to see them in a bathing suit through the windows. Although the open spaces were designed to make students feel a connection with a larger group, they have effectively ostracized students who desire greater privacy.
Despite minor flaws, the UC has attracted more students to Carnegie Mellon. Numerous students say that the UC was influential in their individual decisions to attend the school. "The girls who showed me around campus the day I visited told me what was going to be in the UC," said junior Lisa Bhadsavle. "It just sounded like fun and weighed positively in my decision to attend CMU."
More objective information also points toward the positive effects of the UC. Carnegie Mellon Admission Statistics show that the applicant pool has increased from approximately 8,200 to 13,000 in six years. What is significant about these statistics in relation to the University Center is that the greatest jump in the number of applicants occurred when the UC opened. In 1995, approximately 10,000 people applied to CMU. By 1996, the year marking the opening of the UC, that number had increased by almost 3,000 applications to reach a high of approximately 13,100 applicants. Although no formal statistical research has been collected to directly correlate the increasing number of applicants with the presence of the University Center on campus, it would be difficult to say that the situation is strictly coincidental.
The purpose of the University Center was to help the university compete with other elite institutions for prime students, but also to keep those currently a part of Carnegie Mellon life well-balanced and happy. The University Center has become a hub for social and recreational activities, and has been assimilated into the daily life of students on campus. According to Paul Tellers, the university architect, "the center has changed the social culture of the campus, bringing a badly needed sense of comfort and ease."
Carrice Delo is a junior majoring in humanities and arts at Carnegie Mellon. She brings her lunch to campus each day in a paper bag. :}