Fixing Our Fences

I often end up lost in the sauce of campus life, so to speak, and for those who know me well, I vacillate between “welp, it is what it is” and “this is mission critical and must be addressed.” I lead with this because I am invested in making a number of points about the various ways small tweaks would likely increase campus usability, aesthetics, and current student life (various areas of improvement include 25Live, chalk in classrooms, SBC, Vehicles, Singer’s lack of a printer, etc.). I am incredibly grateful for the privilege of attending Swarthmore and doing copious amounts of academic work. I am, however, less incredibly grateful for the number of fences that surround our campus. I don’t mean to come off as constantly complaining about my circumstances, because that’s kind of, well … boring, not to mention bad. However, if I am to believe in what is typically marketed and understood as “the vibe” of Swat, it seems like there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that would enrich the student experience.

A positive example, recently, was the sanctioning of a path from the duck tunnel to the dining hall. After many months of students creating a social trail, carving footprints into freshly seeded grass, there now lies a mulch path! Anyone who walks to sharps via the duck tunnel is able to walk on mulch in as convenient of a path that can still exist, given the remaining construction fencing around the dining hall. For the students who lived at Swarthmore pre-pandemic, they know that the COVID-era exit used to be an entrance. And they, like me, may be wondering why it took so long for a convenient path to be reinstated. It’s great, really: I am happy to spend more time eating and doing things I enjoy rather than navigating our campus’ seemingly endless maze of fences.

I wonder, though, why it took until now for a path to be laid out. Did our strategic planning not include thoughts on how current students would navigate the campus as it was being constructed? Did we not strategically plan what to do if there’s rain or inclement weather as students are stuck in a line outside waiting to swipe in? Were the considerations of current students left out of the strategic planning process? 

A clear memory I have that highlights the college’s disregard for usability involved the photographer Swarthmore contracted to get photos of the dining hall. When they came to photograph the dining hall, any semblance of convenience and utility was removed: salt & pepper shakers were taken off tables and all the napkins were displaced, along with the allergen labels that accompanied the bagels and the toaster section. How could Swarthmore possibly market their new dining hall if the photos contained things that made it usable?

However, I don’t want to sit here arguing for maximizing usability and convenience, because I am not interested in perfect efficiency. I’m instead arguing for having a campus that does not seem like it is fighting me every step of the way — or every step around the fence, in our case. (Maybe it’s a mountain out of a molehill, but sitting at breakfast reaching for a napkin and a salt shaker, only to find they were all stacked behind the camera, was annoying.) Dining is just one of the obvious examples of this. The fences surrounding the building (until recently) created a decent annoyance, and there still stands a fence that serves no purpose other than requiring all students to turn 90 degrees into the dining hall path. 

In addition, I don’t think that all the fences should be 8 feet tall and so desolate-looking. (Was part of our strategic plan single-handedly keeping the Philly fence rental economy alive?) If Swarthmore can cover the recently (at least compared to the other fences) installed fence around Mertz with green felt and massive banners, why can’t all the fences be this way? Better yet, if the purpose of this is to prevent trees from getting cut down or damaged, maybe an eight-foot-tall fence isn’t necessary. 

I appreciate a good fence, and I think protecting trees is important, but maybe we’d be able to create the same pause and allow for the wild thought of “Should I really be cutting this tree down” to arise with slightly less insane fences. Swarthmore just installed soft green fences around two trees near the dining hall, and they look great. Near Martin, too, half-height fences have been installed around the trees near the construction. On Mertz lawn, I understand requiring large fences, as there’s a lot of heavy equipment in action (a fun fact about Mertz, though, is that the gate was neither locked, nor the field used, for the entire fall semester, or so I’ve been told). 

I’m not arguing that we need direct concrete paths connecting all of campus — just that, rather than fences that soar above our heads, we could have had shorter fences, like those near the Science Center. Ease of access, among other things, is what we get and pay for at Swarthmore: the convenience of having direct access to professors, laundry, snacks, and campus facilities. While I appreciate that the paths curve and try to follow the contours of nature, planning without accounting for roughly 16% of students who live past the duck tunnel, or 40% of students who engage in athletics, even in the short term, seems pretty wild.

 In every other aspect of life, the institution is supposed to serve the current students; for example, academic departments do not have rollovers in funding year-to-year. The budget they have should serve the current students, and because Swarthmore is a non-profit institution, their focus should be on supporting current students with as many resources as the Board of Trustees approves of (read: the goal is not to run a surplus). I believe the same logic should apply to our physical campus. Obviously, I am not saying we should have abandoned the idea of geothermal energy because I, Matt Gutow, wanted to play frisbee on Mertz Lawn. However, while we are investing in the college’s future, we should remember why Swarthmore has the students it does right now (for me, it was in some sense due to the promise of a graduation in the amphitheater, but that’s a different story). And so I close with this: great, super! Let’s keep going green, but let’s please remember that our campus still needs to be convenient, and maybe, just maybe, we can replace head-height fences with four-foot ones.

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