Despite the hard-earned academic acclaim Brandeis receives as an institution it has continuously sat at #48 on the list of the ugliest college campuses in America. As described by the college reviewers from COMPLEX magazine, despite Brandeis hiring one of the most renowned modern architects of the 21st century, Eero Saarinen, his skill was not enough to pull the campus together and make it beautiful. COMPLEX even wrote, “…Brandeis mixed these Modernist buildings with bland, brick structures and a castle to come up with their current campus. This jumble of styles and aesthetics leaves the school looking disheveled and incoherent.” If only those writers were able to see the inside of those buildings and what complicated, dated and in some cases unsafe methods they take to foster student life on campus; it is safe to say that their conclusion of the university may be more scathing than just “disheveled and incoherent.”
I offer this critique of the university and its infrastructure not as an angry message from a student who hates it here; instead, I offer this as a call to action to the administration to change the physical spaces we find ourselves in. It is also important that I begin this column by acknowledging the work the university is doing at the moment and the specific members of the staff who deserve credit for the work they do in the spaces we have currently. The university has created its “Framework for the Future” plan, which seeks to rejuvenate campus life by investing up to $1 billion from fundraising into the physical infrastructure. This plan shows that Brandeis is aware of the slow decay of its buildings and is committed to updating its infrastructure. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused much disruption with fundraising, both for this framework, which was supposed to begin in fall 2020, and in general for the university. As the framework’s schedule is revised due to the implications of the pandemic, the facilities team has been on their A-game to maintain what they can.
The facilities staff are easily the most important workers on campus when it comes to maintaining and keeping campus clean. Their efforts do not go unnoticed, as their swift and timely work to fix whatever hazards arise on campus is heroic. As mentioned before, I bring these points up for two reasons: first to commend the university for the work they have done so far and acknowledge that they are not blind to the issues on campus, and secondly, to show that I am not making this criticism out of pure contempt that nothing good is happening on campus. I understand that the administration is aware of the issues regarding our infrastructure on campus; my goal is to show that the situation is far more dire than they are planning for. This issue is important to me because, at least in the way I see it, this institution can only be carried on as far as its infrastructure will take it. Not everyone can stomach the lamentable living conditions in return for the quality of education. As an individual who believes in this university and the education it provides, so much so that I work in the Admissions office to help prospective students find themselves here, I believe the university can and must do more to appeal to incoming students and improve life for those of us here right now.
Getting to the meat of this article, I would like to begin this column by examining the quad most sophomores and some first-years will find themselves living in. East is a prime example of the harsh reality that Brandeis does not completely offer safe and up-to-date housing but instead offers affordable, unattractive and dangerous living spaces. Combined, the two buildings in East boast a large number of beds: 338 (as published by DCL on the live availability chart from the Spring 2021 selection process). The high volume of student traffic in that dorm creates two issues: student accessibility to facilities and fire hazards. With minimal bathrooms and laundry rooms for that many students it can difficult for residents to properly find available lavatories, washers, dryers and sinks with which to maintain good hygiene: a clear issue in a pandemic as cleanliness and hygiene are key ways to stop the spread of any virus or cold. East forces students to share utilities on an almost rationed basis where finding an open bathroom or washer for your clothes can become a frustrating experience as none are generally free.
But on a far more serious and even deadly note, East is a fire hazard. It is a six-story building with no fire escapes on the outside, and the mess of hallways and corridors is easily confusing to any new resident looking to exit the building in a timely manner. Now, although I understand that in its grandfathered nature it does not legally need to change, when comparing it to current standards the disparities will be illuminating. The revised building code of Massachusetts was published in 2016 and chapter 10 section 1011 sets the standard for hallways. As written there, “1011.3 Width: The minimum required width of passageways, aisle accessways, aisles and corridors shall be determined by the most restrictive of the following criteria: 1.44 inches (1118 mm) where serving an occupant load of greater than 50. 2.36 inches (914 mm) where serving an occupant load of 50 or less. 3.96 inches (2438 mm) in an occupancy in Use Group I-2 used for the movement of beds. 4.72 inches (1829 mm) in an occupancy in Use Group E with more than 100 occupants.” Considering East hosts 338 students between its two buildings, it would need hallways which are at least 72 inches in width to properly serve its residents; simple eyesight can deduce they are not at that width currently. With the number of students residing in that space, if there were to be a fire in the middle of the night, the hallways and stairwells would be too narrow for timely exits. That is only made increasingly dangerous by the fact that sixth floor residents have no external exit from their floors. They would have to traverse the narrow hallways and long stairwells down six floors and allow other students to join them on the way out which is by no means the safest, fastest or most effective way for those students to make it to safety.
As mentioned previously, the administration is keenly aware of the risks, dangers and general dissatisfaction that come from East. In my own opinion, it is far more concerning that they are aware of the present issues. The administration in their Framework proposals had an assessor view East who told them that the quad needed to come down; the university then considered the rebuilding of East as a long-term project.
I understand that the challenge when it comes to rebuilding one of the largest living spaces on campus is like untying the Gordian knot, but when the Castle was deemed a living hazard, students were moved out and Skyline was built. East must follow that precedent because by today’s standards it is a truly dangerous place for students to live, and to know that the university is not yet making headway on changing that is a problem. Now, as much as people want to look forward and away from the pandemic, I think a solution to this infrastructural issue exists in the policies Brandeis and other universities put in place during the 2020-2021 academic year. To rebuild East, Brandeis should rent the rooms in local hotels to house students who would otherwise be living in East. The Branvan under Joseph’s Transportation can be extended to those hotels to offer a shuttle service and students could be offered free parking passes for the year if they choose to live in the hotel and commute to campus. This solution does not cover every contingency but it serves as an idea to get the ball rolling on student input on the status of campus infrastructure.
East is an easy target, hence why it will be the first of this column. East is a physical stain on the image of campus and how students see it, and it is also a stain in the memories of students who have had to live there. Brandeis has an interest in updating infrastructure; it attracts more students and improves the lives of current students. Both of those factors increase the university’s budget as students will be more likely to pay to come here for the good spaces and alumni will donate due to their pleasant memories. The return on investment from infrastructure upgrades are immense, though they may be delayed. The university may not see that money for some time but the investments made now will shape the future and prosperity of this institution. If the current infrastructure remains as it is, the next review of Brandeis’ campus could end with words far more harsh than “disheveled and incoherent”; they could end with “dangerous and deplorable.”