Friday, November 07, 2014

The exclusive campus

Lullwater Preserve on the Emory University campus. Photo credit: Alans1948, flikr.com
The term "exclusive" is bandied about willy nilly these days by credit card companies and tourism boards. Every day, millions of people are enticed with direct mail promising exclusive access, an exclusive preview, an exclusive deal. All you have to do is pay and you, too, can join the "exclusive" club with all the millions of other cool people willing to fork over the dough.

In our capitalist society, exclusive is synonymous with "cultured," "fashionable," "desirable," "superior." Advertisers wouldn't use it nearly as much if they thought it rubbed people the wrong way.

And yet, it has always made me uncomfortable. Perhaps it comes from being the great-granddaughter of Jewish immigrants.  Perhaps it comes from being the cousin of a lynched freedom rider. Perhaps it comes from being a die-hard believer in the American ideal that we can create a better nation from uniting and cross-pollinating our cultures.  So many of us fled from places seeking to exclude us from the potential for prosperity and freedom.

Of course, freedom is a double-sided coin. Freedom is affirmative, sure. We want to be free to travel, to speak our minds, to be protected equally under the law, to have our legal tender treated the same as everyone else's.  But for many, true freedom comes with the ability to keep other people out.  Such is the freedom that comes with property ownership.  Owning property means safety from encroachment, protection for our self-expression, (yes, I really meant to paint those lawn chairs bright orange!), a space for our children to play. People own property, and so do institutions.

There are all kinds of entities and institutions in this country.  There are businesses with hours of operation, churches and synagogues with members and visitors, government offices, and of course, universities.  Universities are noble of purpose: they are institutions of higher learning.  Their goal is to advance the human project of understanding the universe in which we live and to train people for valuable roles in society. Some universities are public, and some are private, but all claim to contribute to a "universal" endeavor toward socio-cultural advancement.

It seems to me, though, that interpretations of public and private are regional and cultural.  Universities tend to own large swaths of property and play an unusual role in the communities that support them.  Community engagement can take many forms.  On the basic level, it includes paying appropriate taxes, observing local laws, sponsoring charitable events.  On a greater level, though, it can include providing a welcoming space, an inspiring space for friends and neighbors.

I grew up in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, on the "other side of the tracks" from the fabled halls of Princeton University.  However, I always felt welcome on Princeton campus.  I spent many a pleasant afternoon perched in the elbow of a large metal statue in front of the campus art museum, reading novels or dreaming of music.  We paid for parking, sure, but there was enough parking in the town of Princeton to enable this kind of interaction with the university.  I could pretend I was a college student, admire all the perceived intellectual activity going on around me. (Of course Princeton has a history of exclusion, but it's been doing pretty well on the inclusion front in recent years.)

Atlanta seems to be structured differently. Two weeks ago, I set out on a Sunday morning with my husband and son seeking a quiet forest in which to walk for a few hours on a beautiful fall day. We read about the Lullwater Preserve in a guidebook of Atlanta forests and, since we live only ten minutes from the park entrance, we though we'd check it out for ourselves.  We knew we were townies when it came to Emory University, but we figured that our part of DeKalb County would be considered part of the Emory community.  However, after spending twenty minutes driving around looking for nonexistent visitor parking within walking distance of the entrance to the preserve, I decided to take a closer look on websites for Lullwater to learn more. The official Clairmont Campus entry on Lullwater references the park as a resource for "Emory students, faculty, and staff" but talks in pretty broad strokes about the "Emory community."  However, small print on the Atlanta Trails website notes that Lullwater is only open to Emory faculty, staff, and students with ID.  It seems that visitors who comment on Yelp have ignored this rule with some success, but it's definitely enough to deter a family from a peaceful outing.

Emory University is a fine educational institution with a lot of solid research going on.  However, it is not a welcoming institution. "Emory University's mission is to create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity." But one must ask, is it necessary to exclude some members of the human community from entry into the campus's sacred space in order to advance this mission?  

1 comment:

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