Tuesday December 12
Grinnell College in Iowa is known for leaning to the left. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke here. Grinnell has the highest percentage of graduates in the Peace Corps, and among the student body, conservatives are rarer than a bikini in an Iowa winter. It also has the largest endowment of any private liberal arts college in the country. As it puts the finishing touches on its new campus center, the Joe Rosenfield '25 Center (JRC), students, faculty, and administrators agree that this bastion of liberalism has put its money where its mouth is--sort of. While the campus center encompasses elements of green design and is adequately handicapped-accessible, the project's shortcomings illustrate that innovation is limited when students and experts aren't included in conceiving a campus building from the start of the design process.
Grinnell is not the only college dealing with these issues. Schools across the country are grappling with the imperative to include accessible and eco-friendly features in their new buildings. A January 2006 New York Times article  titled "The Greening of America's Campuses" noted: "Colleges have long marketed their campus amenities, their rosters of scholars, their selectivity and study-abroad programs. To that list, add one more thing: their green credentials." A piece  published in The New Republic last month focused on "the architectural and functional merit of these new student centers." Obviously, American students are concerned about the environmental and architectural footprints their campuses are leaving on the larger community. And that is why students should be included in designing every aspect of a project.
The JRC--which was officially dedicated on Oct. 7--is among the most environmentally-friendly buildings at Grinnell. Its white roof and stone exterior prevent the building from heating up as quickly as a conventional building, said Tom Crady, vice president of student services, who has been closely involved with the planning and building process since it began 11 years ago. "One of the main things the Campus Center Planning Committee argued for was a lot of natural features and a lot of stone," he told Campus Progress. "We wanted to have a lot of natural light in the building," he said, adding that the building achieves this by using "low-heat" glass. Individual rooms also have light sensors in them so that lights go off even if someone forgets to flip the switch.
The dining hall, located in the JRC, also boasts some green qualities. Unlike in the old dining halls, leftover food is now ground up and sent to a local farmer who blends it with fertilizer, creating nutrient-rich soil. The dining hall only uses napkins made from post-consumer recycled materials.
But more could have been done. Many of the requests for more environmental features came from students on the Campus Center Planning Committee, which were then relayed to the building's architects, Caesar Pelli & Associates. According to Crady, it was not until about halfway through the process that the architects brought in a consulting firm, Green Roundtable, to deal with environmental issues. "We realized that it was probably too late to do a lot of the stuff that they recommended," Crady said. "I'm sure we could have done more, but I think we were able to [include] quite a few things."
Eli Zigas of the Grinnell class of '06, who was on the planning committee, agreed, saying that it was hard to implement changes midway though the project. "Every time something was proposed it would cost more than it needed to because we were trying to fit it in rather than design it [from the start]," Zigas said. "I don't think too many of their comments were feasible or cost-effective.... That being said, the [JRC] is energy efficient. It's just not as good as it could be."
Accessible to All?
According to Ralph Savarese, an English professor and co-chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Issues of Disabilities at Grinnell, the JRC is much more handicapped-accessible than the Forum, Grinnell's old student center, which had one narrow ramp and no automatic doors. "The Forum was terribly inaccessible. I love the Forum, but the building was really not meant for anyone with physical disabilities. We now have a campus center that is actually accessible."
But Savarese said the building could have been even more accessible. "There is a big difference between ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]-compliant and ADA-generous," he said. "Even though they might satisfy the letter of the law, they are not really as accessible or accommodating as they might be."
While there are two ramps on either side of the building, Savarese expressed disappointment that there was no ramp going into the front entrance of the building, nor an automatic door at the front. "Why, at the main entrance, where you would enter for dining, where you would enter for the elevators, is there no entrance?" he asked.
According to Crady, that issue was raised during the deliberations with the architect but the choice was to have the two ramps closer to the parking lots on either side of the building.
Wheelchairs are also unable to pass over the railroad tracks on the paved walkway leading from East Campus (the only completely handicapped-accessible dorm) to the JRC. Brianne Benness, '08, who temporarily used a wheelchair after foot surgery, called crossing the tracks "impossible" in an e-mail. "Because of the railroad tracks, I either had to get out of my chair and hop over the tracks (which I was lucky to be able to do) or have somebody push really hard at different angles which didn't always work anyway."
Savarese said the asphalt needs to be paved more evenly. According to Crady, however, there is not much the college can do about it since the railroad company owns that property. "We've tried to deal with that," he said. "We can raise those issues with them but they are the folks who actually have to make the corrections to it."
Despite his criticisms, Savarese praised the administration's receptiveness. "We do have an administration that is inclined to work with us," he said. "We're very fortunate to have administrators who are genuinely sensitive to this thing."
Crady, who has an artificial hip and has used a cane in the past, said the college should make it easier for people with disabilities to attend Grinnell and that the JRC's new features were a step in the right direction. He said that the fact that only two students in wheelchairs have attended Grinnell in the last 25 years is "a concern."
Savarese agreed. "If we want to think of ourselves as a really inclusive, progressive, socially committed place, we have to ask ourselves, what are we doing to include this other segment of the population?" he said. "It's a long haul. I think we're a little bit behind, but I think we can get there. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we could."
The JRC is still a work in progress for progressives. But Grinnell students, professors, and administrators seem committed to making it a place that serves the community even if there are a few bumps along the way. "Everyday we learn something new about the building," Crady said. "We've got a long way to go to learn how to use it."
Ben Weyl is a senior at Grinnell College, where he is editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Scarlet & Black.