It is late one Sunday evening and I am on my way to the third floor of Uris Hall. The elevator opens onto a large commonspace with computer stations on the right, a glass conference room at the back, and golden oak colored lockers framing the wide hallways. The space feels like something from the suburbs, too large to exist on a crowded city campus. Tomorrow, this sleeping giant will house 350 faculty members and 1,500 business school students; today, the radical possibility of such an enormous amount of space feels overwhelming.
But in between today’s silence and tomorrow’s possibility there are many questions that all lead back to the one central issue: In a city as crowded as New York, at a college as cramped as this one, how will Columbia deal with the huge space vacuum that the Business School’s 2021 move from Uris Hall to Manhattanville is poised to create?
All of the students, faculty, and administrators I talk to agree that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—the organizational unit that includes Columbia College, School of General Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, School of the Arts, and School of Professional Studies—needs more space. “There is no department that isn’t squeezed right now,” Scott Norum, vice president for finance and administration of FAS, says.
“Space is everyone’s problem,” Fred Palm, chief administrative and academic affairs officer, echoes.
In these crushing, squeezing, and even—as English professor Jean Howard puts it—“execrable” times, the Business School’s move will provide an enormous and rare opportunity: It will make available 199,107 square feet of space. For some perspective, this is approximately 20 percent of the size of the space that the whole of Arts and Sciences currently occupies; it is more than 50 percent larger than the total amount of space that all of Columbia’s humanities departments combined currently take up.
At the University Senate plenary on October 21, 2016, University President Lee Bollinger promised Uris Hall to FAS. In early February 2017, David Madigan, former executive vice president and dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Palm created the Uris Hall Planning Committee out of a need to plan the use of this unprecedented amount of space. It was comprised of eight faculty, seven deans, including Carlos Alonso, Dean of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and James Valentini, Dean of Columbia College, five students, two members of the Office of the Executive Vice President, and one David Madigan, who served as chair.
Over the course of the last two years, during several one- to two-hour meetings, logistical questions about concrete space allocation have gradually evolved into larger discussions about Columbia University as a 21st-century, interdisciplinary, and collaborative center of education and research, and how Uris can be leveraged to fulfill that vision. Originally, the question was: What do we want to do with the space? Now, the question is: What could we use the space to become?
But ad hoc committees like this one face inherent structural issues such as irregular meeting periods and eclectic memberships that often grapple with nebulous questions. And the Uris Space Committee is no exception. How do 24 subjective and extremely busy people find time to form a shared vision for, plan for, and allocate space? The answer: they rarely do. Even with just one meeting per semester, not everybody shows up. Barbara Rockenbach, associate University librarian for research and learning, estimates that, from meeting to meeting, only as many as 10 members are consistent. The Uris Space Committee did not meet this semester. Indeed, is it possible for any committee to be truly representative and democratic about an issue and opportunity as big as Uris Hall? Despite lack of transparency, varying membership—particularly a high turnover of student membership—and only occasional meetings in Low Library, the Uris Space Committee has attempted to foster collaborative and inclusive discussions. But, in some ways, the discussions about Uris so far still represent what Columbia is trying to move away from in the endeavour of “Reimagining Morningside”: senior administrators and professors discussing large questions behind opaque oak doors and in cramped rooms.
On a map, Uris is wider than Low Library and longer than Schermerhorn; in person, the building looms over Havemeyer, squaring off with Fairchild’s impressive 12-story height. As I make my way down the concrete, industrial staircases that flank either side of the building, I become aware of the various shapes that make up Uris Hall: the tall tower block at the back, the oval library in the middle, the three floors of student space, and lecture halls that stick out at the front.
To accomodate for the strange collection of shapes, the committee split Uris Hall into three sections: the tower (floors four to eight) comprising the first, and the front three floors, comprising the second and what is currently the Thomas J. Watson Library of Business and Economics, making up the third. Each section will have a different use. Most of the planning committee’s discussions so far have focused on the tower section.
In trying to allocate the tower of Uris Hall, the group considered four main options, each with its own tagline invented by the committee. Each option, necessarily, was not just a vision for the practical use of Uris Hall but an assessment of the needs and priorities of the University as a whole today.
The first, “Lots of little stuff,” would provide relief for as many departmental space needs as Uris can accommodate. The miscellaneous space needs would flow over into different pockets of empty space, immediately alleviating current constraints. However, Howard said that the committee wanted to avoid the distribution of space in Uris as a simple “land grab,” in part because even a building as large as Uris cannot accommodate all of the space needs on campus. Thus, immediate but unsatisfactory relief fell out of favor in the spring of 2017.
The second option: “Everything in rental.” The Faculty of Arts and Sciences spends nearly $2,235,778 each year on rental space—for the location of the statistics department on 540 W. 122nd St. and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights on the seventh floor of Riverside Church tower on 91 Claremont Ave., for instance. So why not move all departments and centers working out of rented space into Uris to save money? The second option was interested in money: As different departments and institutes moved into Uris Hall, Columbia would save a large lump sum.
Rockenbach says that it was quite obvious to most members that the “Lots of Little Stuff” and “Everything in rental” options were “not inspiring”and “not very strategic.” In this way, saving money was also quickly cast aside.
The third option, “Center of centers,” envisioned a kind of interdisciplinary hub for interdepartmental initiatives. The collaborative space might position, for instance, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, which currently occupies two rooms in Schermerhorn Hall, next to the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, which currently exists on the fourth floor of Hamilton. The “Center of Centers” would also potentially house pre-existing initiatives such as the Heyman Center for the Humanities and the Writing Center.
The idea behind option three was an especially emphasized commitment to the humanities. But, Rockenbach adds, because A&S encompasses more than just the humanities and because some members of the committee were from the administration—the “Center” option also lost momentum.
What was then left was the fourth and most popular option, which was voted on in the most recent meeting: “Reimagining Morningside.” The initiative refers not just to a physical reimagination but to an ideological and philosophical one. According to Howard, Uris allows for a University-wide move away from the 19th-century opaque and austere department-driven culture to a 21st-century vision of academia and research—a move away from large private offices with thick wooden doors to intentional collaboration and transparent spaces. “Reimagining Morningside” would marry an intelligent use of space with forward-thinking initiatives.
How does Uris fit into that vision? By serving as a “swing space”—a multi-purpose area that temporarily houses academic buildings in desperate need of renovation. As the name suggests, buildings in need of renovation would move—“swing”—into Uris Hall, allowing the newly vacant building to be gutted, renovated and “reimagined” and then “swing” back into their newly refurbished buildings once renovations are complete. Theoretically, this rotational renovation method could move through the whole campus. In this way, Howard says, “we carve out new spaces for departmental needs within existing spaces.”
Toqa Badran, a junior and recently-elected University senator at Columbia College attended the most recent Uris Space Committee meeting as one of three student representatives, and says that the “Reimagining” endeavour uses interspersal of professor, graduate and undergraduate space to emphasize a “closer relationship” in departments that can be stratified by age and status. According to Badran, “it’s not such a hierarchy, more like a web.”
Similarly, Rockenbach describes how “Reimagining Morningside” might also turn part of the Business and Economics Library into a forward-thinking hub for digital scholarship and emerging research methods, using tools such as interactive mapping systems and 3D printers.
Students Monique Harmon and Badran and faculty members Jean Howard and Barbara Rockenbach—all of whom serve or have served on the committee—confirm that in the most recent meeting on November 13, 2017, the committee voted to endorse the use of the tower of Uris Hall as a “swing space” under the purview of “Reimaging Morningside.” Madigan, reached by email, confirms that Uris Committee has recommended using parts of Uris as a swing space.
Howard says the idea was conceived by Palm, although Palm insists that “everybody was coming up with [these ideas].” David Helfand, the current chair of the astronomy department and new member of the committee, says architectural firm, Perkins Eastman’s, mock-up renovation of the astronomy department influenced the idea of “swing space” after administrators in Low Library heard about the model’s success. Helfand, who presented the architecture firm’s findings at the most recent committee meeting, says the astronomy department might serve as a “paradigm” for the future of Uris.
While Palm says that there have been no specific plans made about the the use of “swing space” or the details of the renovations, Rockenbach tells me that the committee was focusing on renovations for the major 19th-century academic buildings on the Morningside upper campus, including Kent, Dodge, Philosophy, Lewisohn, Fayerweather, and Math. Most of Columbia’s upper Morningside Heights campus was built in the 19th century and designed by architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White with Beaux-Arts principles in mind.
But if space is Columbia’s largest problem, then money is the second. In the background of all of these discussions about the future of Uris Hall is the specter of the exorbitant bill. Helfand estimates ten-figure costs—or higher—around one billion dollars. “I don’t know anyone who is ready to write a check for a billion dollars,” he says.
“These people just decided to spend millions and millions of dollars. … It was kind of weird for me to see that happen at once,” Badran adds.
No decisions have been made for the time after the swing space has, so to speak, swung completely. Meanwhile, Harmon and Badran hope that the first three floors might still be dedicated to student space in some capacity. Badran describes how at the end of the meeting, after the decision about swing space was formalized, crucially with little input from undergraduates (Badran had been under the impression while there that the committee had already unofficially decided on the “swing space” in previous meetings), she realized that the front space was, as she says, “still up for grabs.” At this point, Harmon made a pitch for student space in the form of a dining hall or lounge area, for instance, and he says the committee was receptive.
Despite students in the University Senate and student council members repeatedly leveraging for Uris Hall as undergraduate space over the years, Madigan confirmed via email that there are no official recommendations for the rest of Uris Hall.
The committee formally arrived at this decision about “swing space” during the latest meeting on November 13, 2017. The committee, however, has existed for two years.
On the fourth floor, the building’s architecture changes and I walk along empty strips of office and cubicle spaces. The low ceilings are plastered with off-white tiles and grey specks that absorb the waning daylight and soft street noises outside. I pass six, 12, 14 doors on my left and another 12 on my right. Floor after floor, long wings of silent offices unfold before me. I trace the path of the Uris Committee which completed an official tour of Uris two years before I did.
Palm tells me about this tour, about a separate facilities presentation on the building, and about Helfand’s architecture presentation. Some of these PowerPoints and statistics are available on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences website for anyone who is interested. Others are not. In a follow-up email, Eric Meyer, administrative coordinator and assistant to Palm, says that the Uris Space Committee hasn’t kept minutes or recorded attendance for any of its meetings.
Indeed, for most people, the Uris Space Committee is an unknown entity. Ian McLean, a junior at Columbia College and the longest-serving student member on the committee, says apart from one mention as the Uris “point person” in the Columbia College Student Council Google Drive, there’s no evidence that he works on the committee. He adds that most students do not know it even exists.
Rockenbach received her invitation to join the committee on February 2, 2016. The Uris Space Committee has met five times since its inception. The first meeting was on April 4, 2016 in Fayerweather; the second, on November 30, 2016 in Lerner Hall; the third, on March 1, 2017 in Fayerweather; the fourth on April 26, 2017 in Low Library; the most recent meeting was on November 13, 2017, also in Low Library. But hidden away in the depths of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences website, the Uris Space Committee webpage does not reflect the last three meetings—according to the website, the last time the committee met was on April 4, 2016, the very first meeting.
At the bottom of the “Agenda” tag, under the title “Next Meeting,” exists a curious area of blank space. This blank space on the website represents a larger problem: the relationship between the seemingly hermetic committee and the rest of the community, which knows nothing about the upcoming plans and will nonetheless be affected by the Uris Hall renovations.
Nathan Rosin, president of CCSC and Columbia College senior, and Nicole Allicock, VP Policy on CCSC Executive Board and Columbia College senior, interact with the Uris Space Committee tangentially. In their weekly all-school emails, first Allicock and now Rosin occasionally include an application for students to join it. They did this most recently on February 17, 2018.
Despite several promotions to the undergraduate student body, neither Rosin nor Allicock themselves know much about the committee. When we all sit down to talk, Allicock says she isn’t in the loop regarding the committee meetings. Rosin, for his part, is under the impression that the committee is at an earlier stage of discussion, still soliciting different perspectives from constituencies across Arts and Sciences. Both Badran and Harmon are abroad in England and France respectively this semester.
Palm tells me that he and Madigan wanted a committee that was as representative of the diversity within Arts and Sciences “as much as is humanly possible.” This was true, at least in the beginning, when invitation emails were sent out to a holistic portrait of the Arts and Sciences community.
Crucially, students are included in this committee. With representatives from all schools under Arts and Sciences, the committee purported to take student needs into consideration. Since then, student participation has been included only superficially, with no real effort on the part of the committee to ensure an engaged and consistent student membership.
Early in my reporting, I reached out to Didier Sylvain, who, according the Uris Committee website, supposedly sits on the committee to represent the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He emails me back, explaining he never signed up to be on the committee. He then explains how Ruby Cruz, executive assistant to the executive vice president and dean of Arts and Sciences, emailed Sylvain on March 30, 2016 with the abrupt message: “Confirming that the Uris Space Committee will meet Monday, April 4th, 1:00-3:00 in 411 Fayerweather. Thank you.” When he asked her why his name was selected for the committee, Cruz replied: “You were nominated as the graduate student rep. by GSAS.” “Who at GSAS?” he asked. He did not hear back from Cruz. Though his name is still on the website, Sylvain has not attended a single committee meeting.
Beyond Sylvain, students generally feel like they’ve had no real voice in the discussions regarding what to do with Uris. McLean, who has served on the committee for one year, says he doesn’t remember seeing other students at the first two meetings, though he admits he may not have been able to discern graduate students or older students from adults. Again, the lack of attendance records at these meetings make this claim hard to corroborate. At the most recent meeting in the fall of 2017, only three students were present.
McLean describes the student role as “still very malleable.” This seems to allude to the way that different students cycle through the committee every semester and therefore every meeting. Meanwhile, most faculty and administrative members remain. In other words, the students’ role is small because of the way the committee is inherently structured around faculty members, with the most prominent being Madigan.
However, Madigan is leaving at the end of the semester. So what happens when the committee that is already strained for time, that already cycles through various members, loses its steadfast chair?
And so the quest to fill vast amounts of space dissolves into further questions as, finally, I reach the eighth floor and the highest window that looks out onto the roof of Uris Hall. I gaze across the stone crown of Low Library, tracing the Morningside campus as it disappears into the grey reaches of the Upper West Side. Down below, each Columbia rooftop houses a structural maze inside.
The scale of this once in a lifetime opportunity for the Morningside campus seems at odds with the opaque nature of the project to most of the community, though the decisions being made will shape the space future generations occupy, and how future generations will teach, research, and learn on campus.