Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Test

A number of years ago, the students on our campus decided they needed a new student union, so they voted to put money in a pot through an extra fee every year. They've been doing so for a while now; the original students are mostly long graduated, and finally the money is saved up. It can't legally be used for anything else, but the state budget folks keep pointing at it and saying we can't have this or that from the state budget because we have all this money stashed away. (Welcome to one of the the Catch-22s of NWU!)

For the past four or so years, we've been working our way through the permissions process: the university system, the legislature, all the folks who have a say. And the word was finally "yes." So about three years ago, the administration started holding open meetings about what the building should look like, where it should be, how it should be built and so forth. Brains were stormed.

At first there was some hope that we could remodel the current building and save some money. But nope, not feasible, because the current building is so outdated that it can't be brought up to code without basically tearing it down and starting from scratch.

An architectural firm was hired to do planning, and more meetings held, more brains stormed.

In May of last school year, they came forward with a proposal; the drawings look beautiful. The building is to go in a green space near the current union, so that we can use the current union for now, and then take that down and make a new green space there. It's not a perfect solution for a couple reasons, but it's the best the architects could come up with given what we have to work with. They've planned in nice spaces, green technology, and done a good job meeting the needs we expressed.

Earlier this month, the city fathers passed their approval for the building.

And then this week, a complication appeared. I say "appeared" because I don't know how exactly things happened.

Here's the complication: Our campus is built on an area held to be of importance to the Native American people in the region. There was special significance to a tree, and that tree survived the early building and even got put on one of the school icons.

In the latter part of the last century, the 70s or 80s, the tree was toppled in a big storm, but in the last decade, a new tree was planted, blessed by people from the local American Indian tribes who were invited to the planting. A promise was made, we're told, by the administration then, that the university community would protect the tree for seven generations.

And now, it appears, the new building would require removal of the tree. I gather there's some objection to moving the tree, because the tree is there more because the space is sacred and the tree is special because it's the special tree in the sacred space.

As I was crossing campus the other day, I was asked to sign a petition to save the tree, but I declined because I haven't decided where I stand on the issue.

Let me state here that I'm an athiest. When someone tells me the tree has a spirit, I don't see evidence, nor do I think any one tree is more spirit-filled than another. I like trees. I planted trees during my Peace Corps service. I think they're really important. But I don't believe in spirits or gods or a god; I see no evidence and no logic or reason in thinking they're hanging out. And I must admit that I tend to resent that a lot of civic decisions in the US are based on religion rather than reason. Of course, usually they're based on Christianity.

A whole lot of money has been spent to figure this building out, and this is the best spot/plan they've come up with. But money isn't the be-all and end-all.

When I was first thinking about this, and when I read the responses to the local newspaper article, I thought something along the lines of "hey, why didn't they say something earlier?"

In the newspaper article responses, there've been comments about how the objectors waited until the last possible moment. But I don't think so. I know some of these folks, and I think they're people of integrity and good intention. I think they didn't realize until very recently, and then they spoke up.

There was a lot of public planning, but no one involved seemed to remember the tree as an issue during those stages, including all the public meetings. Somehow, despite all those meetings, the people who finally remembered didn't get included or didn't realize that others weren't aware of the tree.

I've been thinking. If the administration back then made a promise, then we should have kept track of that, remembered it somehow. It's not the responsibility of someone else, but of the administration, even though there's always administrative turnover.

I've also been thinking, when we talk about how our students of color don't succeed in some classes, we tend to start by thinking they need to change--to work harder, get tutoring, be better prepared. But then if we think about our responsibilities to work with the students who come to our campus, we have to think about how we need to change--to find ways to be more inclusive, to reduce barriers, and so forth. Those are hard adjustments for instructors to make, and there's probably an ideal balance between making tutoring and such available and reworking our teaching and curriculum. The connection I'm trying to make is that we somehow didn't make the process communicate with all the people who needed to know. And that's our responsibility.

There's the inevitable connection I'm sure you've already made between promises made by a white, governmental authority about a tree, and promises made a white governmental authorities about lands, rights, hunting, fishing, and so on.

It's not convenient, is it, sort of like it wasn't convenient for the US government to respect the treaties it made with various Native American tribes.

I still don't know where I stand. I guess I think the ethically right thing to do is to abide by the promise made, and rework the building somehow. But financially, we're sinking fast.

In the past year, we've actually put our stated commitment to diversity in our goals for the year. It's written down and we've at least talked a little about it. We might be actually making positive changes.

I'm interested to see how our stated commitment to diversity will stand up to this test.


  1. Perhaps I'm not fully understanding... the tree is a symbol of a sacred space.

    The space is sacred because it's (probably -- and this is where I fill in a gap) part of a larger sacred space.

    If the net-effect is moving the building over -- won't another part of the sacred space be opened up as the new green space?

    I also wonder if there is some other way to honor that promise, at least in spirit -- perhaps via the architecture of the new place or the way in which the new green space is created where the old building stands.

  2. I'm probably not understanding and not explaining the issue fully, sorry.

    The tree iteslf is important because it was blessed and a promise was made. For those who practice the religions involved, the tree itself has spiritual significance and is a spiritual place.

    The tree was planted in the space where an important council was held, and thus it's like, say a small, concentrated Gettysburg battlefield. The place holds historical significance.

  3. *furrows brow*

    That is most definitely a sticky wicket.

  4. This would surely take some money and special planning, but here is one suggestion: put an indoor arboretum in the union (like in the lounge area) and have that tree there. Maybe you could even move the tree temporarily while the building is under construction, and then replant it in the same spot once you have the floors, ceilings, etc. all in.

    This is a cheesy example, but you see this in some malls, and I think they did this in the Charlotte NC airport (though I haven't been there in a while). It has the advantage of a)keeping the promise, b)creating a relaxing environment for the student lounge, and c)being another testament to the fact that the building is "green."

  5. Anonymous11:35 AM

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. no idea how far along the plans for the new building are, but probably the building could be designed to leave the tree intact. a tree may not do well in an enclosed atrium, but perhaps a courtyard, a U-shape, or an L-shape, etc.?

    you have a great point about the institution not having a mechanism to remember the promise or include people who did remember. so, lesson for next time. do the objectors have ideas about what to do?