Op-Ed: An open letter to the UCR community

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By: Prof. Emeritus Ivan Strenski, Department of Religious Studies

In 2015, I retired after two decades of teaching and service at UCR. I have always been proud to declare myself a member of the UCR faculty. Indeed, it has been the fulfillment of a lifetime’s ambition to be a faculty member of the greatest public university system in the world.

I leave with the feeling of many achievements, but also with regrets. Permit me to take this opportunity to make the case with the campus community about one of them. For some years, I served on the Committee on Physical Resources Planning (PRP) — the committee dealing with the physical look of our campus. My regrets come in the form of what I feel were failures to address successfully, and persuade effectively, enough people in authority of the need for us to make all-out efforts to create special physical “places” of affection as well as a sense of “place” for our campus as a whole. I write to try to persuade one and all that we can do better to create a campus the entire UCR community could say that it “loved.”

To put it more concretely, I think we have not grasped the importance of creating “places” with deep emotional attachment. The old, original Barn once was, but no longer is after its “improvements.” Of course, I realize the planner’s dilemma — as well as the limitations of the old Barn’s dirt floor, there until the early 2000’s! But frankly, with the loss of the old Barn, something special about UCR was lost as well, despite how tasteful and utilitarian the new Barn is. We lost our connection, for instance, to the origins of our campus as being an international center of citrus research and development. That is literally where our roots are — in the practical, work-a-day cultivation of glorious California citrus!

Even the musty old rambling redwood Faculty Club had its merits. No longer fitting into a slick corporate vision that spreads “UCR brick” far and wide, and sitting on valuable real estate, it had to go. But, nothing comparable in any way replaced the human part of the geography it demolished. Campus events were set there in a clubby atmosphere that injected intimacy into the gatherings. It was a special place, but gone forever. A year or so ago, UCLA succeeded in saving its far more “impractical” Faculty Club from “renovation” as a multi-story conference center and hotel. Since we start with so little historical connection to this place, we destroy our history at our own peril.

Other campuses show how history can be channeled into creating a human geography, saturated with affection. Where, for example, is the UCR equivalent of UCLA’s Inverted Fountain — a place that draws seniors together in small groups during finals week to meditate on their days in Westwood, and to face with members of their cohort the insecurities of the future? Where are our campus’ specially, emotionally-charged “places?” The HUB houses excellent spaces for meetings and such. But, who really “loves” the HUB and its franchised food outlets?

Nor indeed have we grasped how important it is to achieve a larger sense of “place” encompassing the entire campus. Other campuses may not need to work at making themselves into a “place” because of their natural settings — UCSB or UCSC have the beach, UCB and UCLA benefit from highly desirable urban locations, even UCD enjoys the benefits of its own village, and so on. But we at UCR have needed to work at matching what these other, more favored campuses have by dint of their good fortune to be located where they are.  Think where we are and the dynamic history that made Riverside what it was — late in the 19th century, the richest city in the nation in per capita income, a massive railroad hub, where powerful diesel train horns still boom through downtown, an international distribution center for citrus bound for all sorts of exotic destinations, where anyone can still walk in off the street into the state’s larger shipper of grapefruit, the Blue Banner packing house, and for a few dollars, walk out with a crate of Rio Red grapefruit. How have we exploited our relation to the mountains and desert? We have not done so, in my humble estimation.

In my 20 years here, I dearly wish I had seen more attention to giving us a sense of place here. We all suffer for lack of this. I do not need to go into details about how Route 60, like an open wound, severs our campus irreparably in two. Nor do I need to dwell on the mediocrity of the “UCR brick.” Good for US post offices maybe, but does “UCR brick” really nurture love and loyalty to our campus? So, we start handicapped. Imagine, by contrast, had UCR been built a few blocks from our ancient courthouse, the newly renovated Victoria Theatre, or near enough to the old opera house and city museums, alongside the Mission Inn. While there is no point moaning about lost opportunities, it is worth thinking what UC campus could have rivaled us for its spectacular sense of place amidst Riverside’s late Victorian splendor, a place endowed with rich, emotionally charged architecture.

Are such considerations merely sentimental? I think not. They recognize the power of human emotions, sentiment and feelings of belonging in the ongoing success of our institutions. Are they impractical? To some degree, yes, since efforts to streamline the design of the campus would have to make room for its human geography. But, consider how practical it would be for UCR to have alumni saturated with fond memories and nostalgic affection.

Lacking such special places on our campus, we cannot expect to excite the level of affection that translates into eager and generous alumni in number, or networks of intense loyalty willing to work to help our campus realize future plans. Nor, without a magnetic sense of “place,” can we hope to maximize the kinds of attachments to UCR that is the stuff of identification with us. Of course, we are blessed with generous, loyal alumni. But, because we may not have exploited the unique location we enjoy, we need to do ever so much more both to make a “place” out of our campus as well as to facilitate the proliferation of specially beloved “places.”

Yours faithfully,

Prof. Emeritus Ivan Strenski,

Department of Religious Studies

PS: As chair of the PRP, I had to fight to make sure that the walkways connecting north and south wings of the Interdisciplinary Studies Building were broad and inviting, rather than the narrow passageways originally envisioned. Those picnic tables and sitting out areas on the landings between wings are only there because I pushed for them.

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