Is perception reality at Colby?
Welcome back to Colby College. For those of you who are new here or were gone in the spring, let me get you up to speed. Last May, Relay for Life organizers covered the TV stand and the info desk in Cotter Union with promotional stickers. For a week before the relay, the stickers went up at night and were torn down in the morning by college staff. Apparently, the stickers violated Colby postering rules by contacting the wood paneling of those fixtures.
It says something about Colby that we are tearing down cancer awareness banners just because they are not in an approved place. College is supposed to be the place for argument and discussion, where people of disparate backgrounds hash out ideological differences for the sake of learning. The action sets a bad precedent for when someone is bannering an issue that is controversial.
Of course that’s already happened. Last April, the Bridge was denied the right to wrap the Miller Library columns in the colors of the pride movement.
At the time, the editorial staff of the Echo addressed both sides of the issue. “To wrap the symbol of Colby in the pride flag, visually realizes the flag’s meanings about community, diversity, alliance and affiliation,” they wrote. In presenting the anti-flag argument, the staff argued that the library was a universal symbol of the college, and that pride banners were inherently exclusive. To be sure, the situation makes for great discussion, but it speaks to a larger, institutional issue and raises an important question: what kind of liberal arts college places impediments to student expression?
It’s a question of values, and as one college department’s mission statement reads, “[our goal is] to provide a safe, and sanitary environment for living and learning…in a manner consistent with Colby’s four-fold mission to inspire students’ imagination and creativity; to help them become vigorous thinkers who can communicate clearly; to broaden their knowledge; and to enhance their historical and aesthetic sensibilities.”
That’s excerpt is from the Physical Plant website and it describes a campus that does not exist on Mayflower Hill.
Sterility defines the aesthetic of Colby. Cotter Union and dormitory lounges are both supposed to feel like home, yet they are whitewashed and essentially bare of any artwork. In Cotter, the only examples of student art are cheap event banners and some 8x11 pictures that are almost too small to see from the ground. The new artwork in Lo-Po is exceptional, but completely out of the way of the average student on the average day.
It’s plainly ridiculous to talk about aesthetic sensibilities after the “reaching the world” flags that went up around Cotter columns last winter. The neutral blue flags that replaced them are better, but whoever is in charge of that space should actually try “inspiring imagination.” Ever heard of a painting?
Bareness characterizes facades as well as interiors; there is nothing about red bricks and cream shutters that inspires creativity. Granted, we are not going to start building dorms with blue bricks, but it wouldn’t hurt anyone to wrap colored flags on the library once a year.
On Miller, as in Cotter, when given this opportunity, the school seems to prefer literal and figurative whitewash to actual student expression. If, as the PPD mission suggests, there exists a direct connection between the college aesthetics and intellectual climate, then why is our campus so barren? Moreover, the multitude of rules governing bannering, chalking and postering give a sense that the school is at best not interested in what students have to say. Certainly the College is not making it easy for students to voice their issues.
Whatever the origin of these policies, there is a clear dedication to the aesthetic uniformity of campus. Perhaps there are good reasons (I assume fire codes are sometimes a factor) but when “universality,” and “aesthetic sensibilities” take precedence over student expression, the rules have gone too far. As a new year begins, we should expect the college to loosen such restrictions wherever possible. We should also expect the creation of new spaces for bannering and artwork, especially in dormitories. A sterilized campus stifles conversation and makes students feel that the administration does not respect their causes. In other words, a sterile campus emboldens a sterile civic discourse. To be fair, the College encourages discourse through the digest, as well as through the Pugh Center, Goldfarb Center and many other organizations on campus. These verbal conversations are valuable, but they lack the intrinsic power of visual expression. As long as the administration censors visual forms there will only be an illusion of openness at Colby College.
I assume this is not their intent.
But, as the saying goes, perception is reality.