Social Space continued: Looking Before We Leap

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(Craig Campbell)– I can’t judge the progress of the Keefe transformation because I don’t have a firm sense of its intended result – which is problematic. Nowhere on the Amherst website, nor anywhere else, is the proposed floor plan. We have only the message Biddy sent at the end of last semester, stating in broad terms that the administration strove in its decision “to ensure that Keefe is a space that welcomes the entire student community.” On the last day of finals, when everyone was too sick of the cold to think about Amherst, we received this email announcing that the first floor of Keefe would be the new home to both the Women’s Center and the MRC. Surprise!

Walking into Keefe Campus Center today, an Amherst student should be immediately struck by the visible changes to the interior. The MRC has replaced Dean Fatemi’s spacious office. Walls were painted vibrant colors. New floors were laid. WAMH was given shelves for its CD collection. The Game Room has a new, super swanky space on the second floor.

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“Social space” and the problematic nature of Amherst’s architecture was a popular topic in public discourse last semester. Many students finally articulated long-held but previously unvoiced concerns with physical structures on this campus. As a student body we demanded, and were given, better spaces for two of the most socially important student groups.

In November, I attended the “open forum” on the campus center renovations. The event was designed to foster discussion about AAS’s proposed floor plan. Instead, the night devolved into an apples-‘n’-oranges debate over the merits of the Game Room versus the MRC’s. Game Room supporters argued that the room’s old location allowed for a visible, substance-free space for socializing. In return, MRC advocates cited the continued issue of socioeconomic and racial tension at our school as reason for their entitlement to the space. Unquestioned in the conversation, though, was the need for a new, better location for the Women’s Center and the MRC, both having been previously sequestered in “closets” in the Keefe basement.

Since then, the conversation has continued; in my role as an editor of AC Voice, I attended a meeting a few weeks ago about the future of the Women’s Center. Very quickly, the conversation turned to the question of the center’s future director (while avoiding discussion of the future center’s name). The student leaders present seemed to agree that the candidate should be familiar with Amherst or its peer institutions. He or she should be an expert in gender studies and have a thorough knowledge of sexual respect legislation. He or she should have a record of innovation and creativity.

I agreed with everyone else on these general qualifications for the new supervisor, but couldn’t help but ask, “What will this person do?” When I vocalized this concern, the same general language that I’ve been hearing through all of the Keefe conversations was reiterated to me; the director would be responsible for running the center, and for campus programming, and for engaging resources available through the college, and for offering new resources to students, etc… I wasn’t satisfied with this answer for the same reason I was dissatisfied by the way we have tackled the architecture problem. At the Keefe forum, we talked about new space for the Women’s Center and the MRC while mostly ignoring the issue of what, in particular, would fill them.

We work hard to create these finely crafted containers without much thought to the space they define. We appropriated Keefe space for an MRC before a functional design, leader, or even updated website was in the works. We discussed the qualifications of a Women’s Center director – standards by which we will be selecting a salaried expert – without even comprehending this individual’s prospective job description.

The changes to Keefe were not without consequence. Students should keep this in mind in the future when demanding changes to the college’s infrastructure. For instance, the Fitch Room, which I cited in “Amherst’s Lack of Study Space” as one of the best places to study on campus, was recently converted into a faculty office. I was surprised and personally disappointed upon this discovery, and I feared that the issue of study space is being largely ignored in the shadow of the Keefe renovations and science center construction. Have you heard about the plan to renovate Frost? Didn’t think so.

I’m not asserting that the Keefe project has been poorly conceived or executed – just poorly managed. I have some withdrawals about the loud color scheme, but I do laud administrators for trying to make the best of a bad situation. For example, the availability of walk-in counseling in Keefe was an unsolicited but welcome addition. My concerns about spatial waste, though, linger. The two “lounge” areas on the second floor are completely unchanged and remain just as prohibitive to study as they were in the fall. The WAMH studio is not yet fully functional after more than half of its space was generously donated to the Women’s Center. The area that was taken away from the radio station, which the Women’s Center didn’t end up using, is now stagnating space (see feature image). My hope is that the current spaces are works-in-progress, and that the process of repurposing Keefe is not complete.

Given our Amherst education, we are inclined to theorize, extrapolate, and come to new conclusions about the issues we face as an institution, but I think that too often we forget to use practical, solution-oriented approaches. In the future, as students and faculty, administrators and alums, we must demand that a pragmatic – not philosophical or symbolic – line of reasoning is followed with respect to changes in structures as permanent as drywall and concrete.