Preliminary plans to overhaul Uris Hall reveal a vision that is far removed from the current state of the building, featuring expensive and drastic changes to a currently “claustrophobic and privatizing” space. The renovations would aim to create a space dedicated to modern interdisciplinary research and intellectual community, according to a draft of committee recommendations obtained by Spectator.
In November 2015, University President Lee Bollinger announced that Uris, currently home to the Business School, will be vacated and designated for use by Arts and Sciences, a governing unit which includes Columbia College and the School of General Studies, by 2023. The change comes at a pivotal time for the notoriously cash-strapped Arts and Sciences, which has found itself with little room to grow and not enough financial support to expand its campus in New York City. Among other concerns, the growth in classroom space has stagnated, despite a 35 percent increase in both Arts and Sciences and SEAS student enrollment over the past decade.
In fall 2017, the Uris Vision Committee, comprised of faculty and students, voted to endorse the use of parts of Uris as a “swing space,” or a multi-purpose area that temporarily houses departments whose academic buildings are in desperate need of renovation. The building is also intended to fill many of Arts and Science’s need for modernized classroom space, interdisciplinary work, research, and student recreational space that faculty and students have requested for years.
The University has not released a final edition of these plans, although the most up-to-date draft was submitted to Arts and Sciences faculty for comments last month. The committee will work on the recommended changes in April.
Even though the move will grant Arts and Sciences 200,000 more square feet, a growth of approximately 20 percent, faculty continue to question whether the building itself is even equipped to handle Arts and Sciences’ needs in its current state.
Proposed changes include expansive architectural endeavors, including a new glass facade, revamping Watson Library as a digital hub and study space for Arts and Science and SEAS students, modernizations of existing classrooms as collaborative work spaces, and new spaces for the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Writing Center.
“From the beginning the Uris Vision Committee has seen Uris as an opportunity—not just to solve problems of overcrowding … but rather to rethink how we conduct our teaching and scholarship by facilitating emerging, often collaborative, research projects and cutting-edge ways of teaching, learning, and disseminating knowledge,” the report said.
The preliminary report highlights potential—though insufficient—solutions for a number of current academic space concerns, including the fact that departments “do not even have rooms large enough to hold a faculty meeting of its members,” which many hope Uris’ renovation will be able to address. Uris currently boasts sixteen classrooms and a heavy concentration of high capacity classrooms—with one holding 117, another 266, and four holding 60 or more students.
In an effort to address decrepit research facilities on the Morningside campus, the proposal suggests allocating space on the upper floors, including much of Uris’ towers—the fourth through eighth floors of the building—for short- and long-term faculty research.
Specifically, the committee proposed one or two middle floors be allotted to long-term faculty-generated research projects across academic disciplines and imagined the top floor as The Emerging Knowledge Research Center—a space to showcase faculty research to the public, advance the careers of junior faculty, and promote retention of senior faculty by providing a closer space to conduct research and allow for interdisciplinary faculty connection.
The Committee also suggested the department of African American and African Diaspora studies, recently formed in September 2018, be housed on a floor of the towers, alongside related centers studying urban life, environmental justice, social inequity, ethnicity, race, and justice.
The proposal also outlines significant student-dedicated space, including recommendations that the Uris Cafeteria be expanded and kept open to undergraduates, reversing recent attempts by the business school to exclude such individuals from the space. The report criticizes the Morningside campus as a “food desert” with few and small cafes and hopes to address the issue with the expansion of the Cafeteria.
Additionally, the report called for the entire second floor and part of the third floor to become instructional space during the day and turn into space for student organizations in the evenings.
To address forecasted financial strain, the Committee emphasized that the building will offer naming opportunities through classrooms and the proposed Research Center for Emerging Knowledge for donors. This method of fundraising earned the Columbia University Roy and Diana Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons $250 million and its name just recently in December 2017.
However, the report reiterated the need for greater planning across all spaces on the Morningside campus, even in light of the opportunities for growth in Uris Hall.
“Uris alone cannot address the many space needs of the faculty, departments, centers, and institutes that comprise the Arts and Sciences,” it read. “Doing so will require the development of a comprehensive plan for re-imagining and enhancing the physical structures throughout the Morningside campus.”