Is student input shaping design of student center?

By CLAIRE GOUDREAU | September 26, 2019

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COURTESY OF CLAIRE GOUDREAU SCAC hopes that the new student center will be a place all students can make use of.

Last spring, University President Ronald J. Daniels announced plans to construct a student center in the Mattin Center’s current location. Although many students were hopeful that such a building would encourage students to prioritize non-academic aspects of their lives, others expressed concerns regarding the loss of Mattin, which serves as a home for the visual and performing arts on campus and hosts the Swirnow Theater. 

To help with planning, the administration formed the Student Center Advisory Committee (SCAC), which is  currently made up of 25 University faculty members, staff and students. The committee is chaired by Vice Provost for Student Affairs Alanna Shanahan.

Shanahan wrote in an email to The News-Letter that everything currently in Mattin will begin to be moved out at the end of the 2021 spring semester. The demolition will begin after move-outs have been completed, she added, and construction is expected to start in the spring of 2022. 

The University hired architectural firm Shepley Bulfinch to help determine what will go in the student center by running a series of events to collect student input.

Despite the University’s efforts to include student opinion, some students remain unhappy with how the administration is handling the student center. 

Ritika Kommareddi, president of the theater group the Barnstormers, recounted her experience at an official student input event. She stated that she was presented with various choices for potential rooms in the student center. She felt frustrated that none of the options were for theaters, shop spaces, studios or practice rooms.

“That instance alone showed me that they’re not listening to the people that this is going to be affecting the most,” she said.

Student Government Association (SGA) Senior Class Senator Claire Gorman, who is on SCAC, emphasized that student input is crucial to improving Hopkins culture.

“Even if it feels like, ‘What’s the point in getting involved? It won’t be built by the time we graduate,’ it’s important for as many students as possible to make themselves heard,” she said. “If you’re a student now, and there’s a certain space that you’re envisioning that you would feel at home in, there’s some student in the future that would appreciate the input that you have.”

Gorman stated that she was confident in Shepley’s abilities to run these events.

“The architectural firm has a lot of experience collecting student input, and that was actually one of the main reasons that they ended up being selected as the top pick for the job, so I think that based on their past experience they must have some sort of method of making sure everyone gets heard,” she said.

According to Shepley the firm has previously worked on Homewood Campus’ Brody Learning Commons, as well as several other student centers at universities like Georgetown and Lehigh.

Shanahan wrote in an email to The News-Letter that the University also hired Gensler, a Baltimore-based architecture firm, to study Mattin and help identify places to temporarily and permanently relocate services that will be displaced by the demolition.

She added that the University has not yet decided which parts of Mattin will be rebuilt in the student center, and that more community input must be collected before final decisions can be made.

“This process is ongoing and will continue through the fall in order to have the most informed decisions possible,” she wrote. “At this time it is too early in the process to provide any definitive answers on what the final program will be.”

After student input is collected and considered, the University will hire another architect to officially design the building. This architect will be picked via a design competition next year.

Junior Oliver Mccammon, one of SCAC’s undergraduate representatives, told The News-Letter that he felt the administration and the project’s architects were adequately listening to the suggestions of the committee’s student members.

“It’s a very collaborative work environment when the architects come into our meetings. They’re really looking for advice. It’s a student-driven approach,” he said. “There’s an environment where feedback does result in changes to the plan.”

According to SGA Executive President Aspen Williams, SGA representatives are working closely with Shanahan and SCAC to ensure that student opinions are considered.

“We can never represent every single student on campus, but we can do our best to make sure that certain demographic groups that are going to be affected have their voices heard,” Williams said.

Shepley architect Matt Gifford, who has been present at many engagement sessions, stressed the importance of having the project’s architects get direct input from the students.

“We want to gather as much feedback across the campus as we can,” he said. “Just over the summer we did four to six events and had about 200 participants with about 2,000 comments.”

Gifford estimates that, in total, around 5,000 comments will be collected from students over the course of about 20 events.

He explained that participants can share their opinions in a variety of ways, whether through writing suggestions on Post-its or by speaking directly to the architects. 

Advocates for Disability Awareness President Madelynn Wellons expressed a desire for student input events to be more accessible. The first student engagement session was held at the Breezeway, which she said can be an obstacle for students with certain disabilities.

“The Breezeway is super awesome to get a lot of general engagement, but the Breezeway is all stairs,” she said. “They’re only catching select people.”

Senior and SCAC member Brandon Lax said that every single piece of input given at these events is recorded and organized for the SCAC to reference.

“All of the events out on campus, we take what people are saying. Everything is written down, everything is taken and combined together, and we then look at that and try to synthesize stuff,” he said.

Shanahan clarified that Shepley is coding data under themes. Examples of such themes include “social spaces that complement academic life” and “inclusive spaces that support and celebrate diversity.” 

However, not all students were confident in the events’ effectiveness. Junior Michael Diamreyan said that though he appreciated the opportunity to attend one of the engagement sessions, he felt unsure that his opinions were being heard.

“This is the first one I’ve seen, and it’s pretty comprehensive, but I don’t know how much of this they’ll actually take a look at,“ he said.

The team designing the student center has also hosted smaller focus group events aimed at engaging specific groups on campus. Junior Maalson Nyonna, the service and fundraising chair for the African Students Association, described his experience attending one of these focus groups.

“They were truly interested in what we had to say, and they asked follow-up questions to clarify what it was we were talking about,” he said.

Many students, like Kommareddi, expressed concern that the new student center will not properly replace all of the spaces destroyed. Kommareddi worries that, without a center for the arts, the University will deter potential artistically inclined students from applying and discourage current students from following their passions. 

She also stated that, in an environment as academically intense and stressful as Hopkins, even temporarily shutting down or limiting the arts will hurt student well-being.

“Art is what got a lot of my friends through the harder times because it was their outlet, and so I’m afraid that if we don’t have that, that’s going to be eliminating a really big source of stress relief for a large amount of people,” Kommareddi said.

Although Swirnow is not the only theater on campus, it is the only one where student groups are allowed to set up shop for extended periods of time.

Junior and President of Witness Theater Dominique Dickey told The News-Letter that the other two theaters on campus, Shriver and Arellano, were poor substitutes for Swirnow.

“There’s a definite difference in vibe in Shriver. You’re never going to sell it out; it doesn’t feel good to perform to a house that looks empty. You can get a Swirnow audience, but then in Shriver, it looks tiny,” they said. “And then Arellano, it’s just the opposite problem. It’s just a classroom.”

Dickey said that Swirnow offered students a long-term space to work on productions, which would be unavailable with the destruction of Mattin.

“The best part about Witness is getting to see all of this student-designed, student-built, student-executed work, and that extends to set and sound and lights, and I don’t see us getting to do the work that we’ve been doing anywhere else,” they said.

Dickey made it clear that though they felt the construction of a student center was promising, especially if new practice rooms and theaters were built, the interim period was going to be costly to arts students.

“Even if whatever they build is a billion times cooler than Swirnow, that’s still a year of my theater career where we don’t have that space,” they said. “I do believe that the new space could be great, but I’m worried about where we’re going to go in the meantime, seeing how ‘the meantime’ is the rest of my [time] here.”

Although few locations have been finalized, the University is working to find temporary or permanent replacement spaces to everything currently housed in Mattin. 

Junior and Visual Arts minor Ian Waggoner explained how art studios need to be properly ventilated and fireproof, something that would be hard to obtain in any makeshift replacements.

“You really need someplace that’s structured as a studio for it to function as a studio,” he said. “If Mattin is not there, then there’s no good place to make art or have those classes held.”

Junior and Production Manager of the Ballet Company Abbie Bowman expressed similar concerns regarding the destruction of the campus’s dance studio. Bowman said the administration was doing a poor job properly communicating where dancers would be expected to move to.

“Especially for the Ballet Company, we need certain conditions. We need sprung floors, we need mirrors, and there’s so many student organizations on campus that need the same thing,” she said. “I know they’re still working on these pieces, but it’s just hard to know a space is going down and we don’t know what’s happening.”

Bowman is also employed by the University as a student manager and oversees many people who work in Mattin, among other locations. She said that the University has not made it clear how construction will affect student employment.

“It’s hard to navigate how many people you can hire [and] how many people you can continue with scheduling,” she said.

She expressed a desire for the administration and SCAC to become more transparent with their plans, meetings and processes.

SCAC member Georgia Esmond reassured those being displaced that both the University and SCAC prioritized securing adequate relocations.

“One of the first things they talked about was ‘What are we going to do with this space and those classes and students that are in there?’” she said. “We don’t want them to feel displaced and just thrown out into the streets.”

Despite concerns and inconveniences, many students on campus are optimistic about the changes this student center will bring.

Senior Kristin Knight, who attended an engagement session, believes that Brody, the closest thing the campus currently has to a student center, is not ideal.

“I’d like the student center not to be a second Brody,” she said. “It should feel more like a free space to actually have fun, where you want to be there.”

The student center also provides a chance to introduce new design elements to the campus.

Wellons hopes that the new student center will use elements of “universal design,” which would make all parts of the building universally available for the entire student body to use, regardless of disabilities.

“If it’s done right, I think it can be a really great place to bring together all students,” she said. “It’s supposed to be the center, core piece of our campus... If it’s built with universal design, then that might inspire more projects on this campus to be built with universal design in mind.”

Wellons said that though she felt the student center had originally been conceived without much thought for students with disabilities, the SCAC, which Student Disability Services (SDS) Executive Director Catherine Axe sits on, was doing a good job of keeping accessibility in mind.

In an email to The News-Letter, Axe explained that in order to properly include universal design, it must be considered from the beginning of the planning process.

“I look at each project as an opportunity to make things not just compliant but as fully accessible and inclusive as possible,” she wrote. “This means raising awareness consistently throughout the process so that everyone involved is learning about the many dimensions of accessibility and how our own experiences of the way access has worked in the past may not be the best examples moving forward.”

The future student center is intended to be tailored to the whole student body.

Current students will graduate after its construction, but Mccammon called on them to provide input for the sake of their future counterparts. 

“Obviously some students aren’t going to reach out, as hard as we try, but I really urge students to submit their feedback because we want students to tell us exactly what they want from the student center,” Mccammon said. “We don’t want to cater to a small minority of students. We really want it to be a student center that represents and can be a home for every student at Johns Hopkins.”

Sophia Lipkin and Rudy Malcom contributed reporting.

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