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Assessing Crossroads

| Friday, January 16, 2015

I’m having a hard time with the Campus Crossroads project.

It’s not because it displaces my graduation ceremony or because the sight of a comically giant excavator claw ripping whole trees out of the ground during my comparative politics class last semester was distracting (although it was quite distracting). These are both bad, but ultimately insignificant pieces of the larger issue — a project conceived through a flawed process, rooted in shaky logic and yielding a sub-optimal solution to a mostly imagined problem.

The student response to Crossroads has been muted, while the University’s response to criticisms has been skittish. Most students and faculty I have spoken with dislike the idea, and nobody I’ve spoken to loves it.

After reviewing the project website and the University’s public statements, I’ve come to the conclusion to which I think most people would come: it is unclear what the point of Campus Crossroads is.

“From the beginning, Notre Dame has never let convention limit our dreams,” the project’s mission statement begins. Replace “dreams” in that sentence with “hairstyle” or “use of racial slurs,” and “unconventional” doesn’t sound as sexy. But so far a brave stand against convention is the best euphemism the University can contrive for an arguably imprudent use of nearly a half-billion dollars.

It does not follow from the University’s unpersuasive word choice that the project itself is a bad thing, but the University’s inability to put together a PR effort that makes sense should make us question Crossroads’ merits and wonder how strongly our own administration believes in it. If they did, University officials would be clamoring to be held accountable for the most forward-thinking idea in the history of Our Lady’s University. At the very least, they would have had a public groundbreaking ceremony with some golden shovels.

Instead administrators have flailed in response to criticism and quietly fast-tracked the start of construction. On Feb. 27 of last year, Paul Browne, University vice president for public affairs and communications, submitted a 1,022-word viewpoint gushing over an essay in America by Notre Dame Law School alum Matt Emerson, who was in turn gushing over Campus Crossroads. Of Browne’s 1,022 words, 633 were directly quoting Emerson, and 116 were spent setting up quotes from Emerson. Maybe I’m just bitter that the vice president of communications exceeded the 800-word limit on outside viewpoint submissions, but if he were tasked with defending something defensible, then a man of his qualifications wouldn’t have to lean so heavily on an essay from a guy living 2,100 miles away from the construction site. In his former role with the New York Police Department, Browne had to defend controversial stop-and-frisk policies from immeasurably more criticism than what Campus Crossroads has received. He is not dumb. Crossroads might be.

The primary argument advanced in favor of Crossroads is simply that it’s never been done before. And that is fine. Novelty is often a positive feature, but not a logic on which to base a $400 million investment. Something can be simultaneously novel and ill-advised, and over the course of history, man has rightly shied away numerous times from such pursuits, such as a You Don’t Mess with the Zohan sequel or a manned mission to the Sun.

The University had an occasion to explain its reasoning in greater detail in Alex Herrmann’s Nov. 13 cover story for Scholastic, “Coming to a Crossroads: a conversation with University Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves.” The article is worth reading in full, but I will summarize it here.

At Notre Dame, strategic plans are developed every 10 years in consultation with the faculty, student affairs, “operating units” and athletics to set development priorities for the next 10 years. Crossroads planning began in the 2011-12 academic year with a “need,” as outlined in the 2008 strategic plan, “for a new student center to complement LaFortune.”

The University argues the following: First, we badly need a new student center. Second, Notre Dame Stadium is within five minutes of the flagpole in the center of South Quad and is therefore “one of the most centrally located buildings on campus.” Third, the stadium is a better place for a student center than Saint Mary’s Lake or the middle of South Quad. Fourth, symmetry is important; therefore we should retrofit completely new buildings on the south and east sides of the stadium to balance out the student center/press box on the west side, even if doing so greatly adds to the final cost. Finally, since we are going to have three new buildings on the stadium, we should fill them with the items we listed in our strategic plan in 2008.

Having reconstructed the University’s argument in charitable terms, it still sounds logically invalid. Their first contention on the dire state of LaFortune, if not false, at least paints an exaggerated picture of the student center’s shortcomings. Most of the people I see there seem pretty happy.

The second contention, that the stadium is one of the most centrally located buildings on campus, is certainly false. Having lived and walked on this campus as a student for almost four years, I am confident in the falsity of this statement. At best it is on the edge of a high-traffic area during the class-going hours of 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. But “student life,” the end toward which this whole project is directed, happens some distance away from the classroom buildings — in the dorms, in the dining halls, at the Grotto and in LaFortune.

I accept the third contention. Don’t build Crossroads in the lake.

Taken together, the fourth and fifth contentions show administrators green-lighting buildings in the name of symmetry without first forming a clear idea of how to use them.

Read as a whole, the argument makes Crossroads seem like the semi-inevitable consequence of building up our school. But the idea that we couldn’t meet the “needs” Crossroads addresses by building on other parts of campus is belied by Dr. Affleck-Graves telling Scholastic that we could expand the campus by 40-50 percent without extending beyond its current boundaries.

A secondary argument that is more persuasive but still unsuccessful states that the football stadium is underutilized because it is only used about 10 times per year. Constructing Crossroads, the website says, “is how Notre Dame plans to awaken a sleeping giant and infuse it with life and learning.”

But as any four-year-old who’s heard “Jack and the Beanstalk” knows, not all giants are worth waking up. And giants with an unsurpassed 83-year tradition as a pillar of college athletics require special care.

I am generally pro-stadium expansion. Over fall break, I watched LSU ruin a season for Ole Miss in Tiger Stadium, a 102,000-seat behemoth that has been expanded eight times since opening in 1924, six years before ours did. A billboard below one of the upper decks at LSU reads, “It is the Cathedral of College Football, and worship happens here.”

But if Death Valley, as Tiger Stadium is known, is a cathedral (it is), then Notre Dame Stadium is at least a sacred chapel. Why we would taint it by tacking on graduate student lounges, a dining area, student club offices, administrative offices, another recreation center, a new career center, a 500-seat student ballroom, another food services center, faculty offices, an auditorium, recital/rehearsal halls, a music library, classrooms, “a club/lounge,” the music department and sacred music program, the psychology and anthropology Departments and (my personal favorite) “a large space that will double as a club area and flexible classroom,” is perplexing.

Ambiguous “club/lounges” notwithstanding, desecrating the football stadium with facilities utterly unrelated to football is like putting a fedora on a crucifix or a Starbucks in the Sistine Chapel. It’s sacrilegious, whatever one’s practical reasons for doing it. Why some alumni who rigidly opposed the original 1996 stadium expansion are reportedly okay with the Crossroads project is just as puzzling. At least the addition of 20,000 seats didn’t violate its integrity as a stadium. If Kevin Costner had put a career center on his Field of Dreams, it would have totally ruined the movie.

Professor of Philosophy Curtis Franks spoke to this problem better than I can, saying “Already [academics, athletics, and student life] are run together more than I care for them to be. Each might be important, but the suggestion that they have something to do with each other is probably not conducive to the flourishing of any of them.”

He’s right. Great stadiums like Death Valley and Notre Dame Stadium are great precisely because they do not pretend to be anything other than legendary institutions of higher sport. The idea that sacred music or anthropology have a home in the football stadium is a fantasy and a weird one. Chasing it further confuses, rather than clarifies, the periodically strained relationship between academics and athletics.

In short, the benefits of Crossroads have not been properly explained, and I think it’s because explaining those benefits is a task only achievable amidst the groupthink of the Main Building. The $50,000 jump in per-student spending may marginally help our U.S. News & World Report ranking, but whether it will help our students is quite another debate, one the students would have welcomed when planning began three years ago.

With Crossroads construction in just its second of 33 months I would encourage students, alumni and other Notre Dame faithful to submit comments on the project website or contact John Affleck-Graves directly at jaffleck@nd.edu. Donors can specifically earmark future contributions to Notre Dame for more meritorious causes like student financial aid or the Center for Social Concerns. In a perfect world Notre Dame constructs revenue-generating premium seating and gracefully stops short of turning a sports icon into a Sandals resort. Absent that, I believe it is worthwhile to tell those in charge your thought process, even if they won’t tell you theirs.

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About Alex Caton

Alex is a junior political science major living in the caves and ditches of St. Edward's Hall. He has written for the Viewpoint section since spring 2013

Contact Alex
  • Dun Smythe


    On the one hand, you are correct: the Campus Crossroads doesn’t make sense–for Old Notre Dame. It makes complete sense, however, for ND, Inc.

    The Campus Crossroads becomes the symbolic center–crossroads–of ND, Inc. The football field–representing the business of ND, Inc.–is the holy of holies within the crossroads, which is enveloped by façade buildings that house the façade of ND, Inc. (e.g., music, psychology, and student affairs’ play rooms). At the top, overlooking the football field or holy of holies are the “donors” in the luxury seats who pay the price (they donate themselves, including their names that appear on buildings) to Notre Dame, Inc., which is why they get the best view of the holy of holies. The architecture is done in a Fascist flair to show that ND, Inc. has overcome Old Notre Dame, of which the Sacred Heart Basilica and Main Building were the center.

    The Campus Crossroads truly makes a statement: ND, Inc. is not a means to human flourishing anymore (Old Notre Dame); rather, IT is the end, and you and others are meant to serve it. It is a fabricated fetish. It must be protected and worshipped. The Fascist architectural style of the Campus Crossroads Project shows its triumph and glory.

    The “ND family” is a make-believe, feel-good slogan that conveys the illusion that ND is different and you count; it’s really to entice you to donate (and the Campus Crossroads is really about appeasing and attracting big donors: prime, expensive seats in return for huge sums of money to allow ND, Inc. to compete better with Harvard, Inc., et al.) Students and employees are human resources (you know you’re student number, right?) who are valued to the extent that they aid or at least do not harm the survival/flourishing of ND, Inc. in the higher education market.

    The management of risk largely defines human relations in the secular, public and professional sphere because the value of people is not intrinsic—it is contractual and contingent. Why do think ND’s Risk Management/Campus Safety, Legal Counsel, Human Resources, and Community Standards are so powerful and influential?

    • Guest

      You have just won the internet

  • NDaniels

    Having reconstructed the University’s argument in charitable terms it does seem logical. Perhaps you could contact John Affleck-Graves about your concern regarding financial aid and The Center for Social Concerns, and any other issue that you feel may not have been adequately addressed in regards to the assessing of Crossroads. That being said, there are many generous donors who have contributed to Notre Dame, and many who have poured their heart and soul into Our Lady’s University. How Blessed we are, for their generosity! May Our Lady’s University be a Beacon of Light in the days to come.

  • DignityofWomen

    This does not exemplify Pope Francis’ call to tame our materialism. What a lost opportunity for the Holy Cross to live this message!

  • anon

    And everyone would love it if it came with a Jumbotron.

  • Andrew Scruggs

    You don’t really adequately address the university’s arguments. You lay out their argument, and then your responses to them can be boiled down to “I’ve seen different things!” Well, I’m always disappointed with how horribly crowded and loud laFun is, the lines can be absolutely horrible, and, as a club leader, I hate the process of trying to book a room there. Perhaps a new student center doesn’t need to be in the stadium, but your article doesn’t do anything to convince me of this.

    • Alex Caton

      Andrew–thanks for reading and taking time to reply. Most of the other colleges I visited had bigger and nicer student centers than ours. I’m not necessarily opposed to a new student center, or to putting it in the football stadium. My main argument that the end result of Crossroads (administrative offices, career, center, music, psych, and anthro departments, everything they decide to put ad hoc into the south and east buildings) does not follow from the need for a new student center ((how do we get from “we could use a new student center” to “let’s do a three-building, 750,000 sq foot addition”?)) and that the costs of that end result ($400 million, tainting a sports temple, hellish parking situation) should make us think about whether there isn’t a better alternative. If as Graves says in the Scholastic piece we can expand campus by 40-50 percent without going beyond our current boundaries, then I think there must be.

      And if you’re still unconvinced, that’s cool too.

      • Guest

        “My main argument is that the end result of Crossroads does not follow from the need for a new student center.”

        While ND might not complete the project in good taste, it seems your argument above is flawed; a rec center is not the only reason for this project’s genesis and you mention that in your article. Coming from someone who was a student in the late 00s, I can tell you that I heard presentations from a couple trustee members and the assistant dean of one of the colleges who both lamented the fact that 1.) our stadium and more importantly, the area around the stadium, went unused most of the year and 2.) we had no true student union.

        You couple those two ideas with the need for luxury boxes (which most alumni seem to be in favor of) and you end up with Crossroads. If ND spent $250 million on strictly luxury boxes, do you think that would have been anymore palatable? Do you think $250 million for only luxury boxes would have been a good investment?

  • Eric Bens

    Death Valley is only and has only ever been completely and 100% about football except when it hasn’t.

    “In 1936 capacity was more than doubled with 24,000 seats in the north end zone, turning the stadium into a horseshoe. Money was not allocated in the state budget for the seating expansion, but money was allocated for dormitories. To bypass the legislature and increase his beloved school’s stadium capacity, Governor Huey P. Long ordered that dormitories be built in the stadium, with seating above the student living quarters.[16] Until the early 1990s, the West, North and South Stadium dormitories were featured as part of student housing at LSU. The dormitories were later converted to office space for Athletic Department staff and faculty and studios for the College of Art & Design’s Fine Arts graduate students.”