The Dark Side of Donations: no thanks, Mui Ho: our fine arts library is just fine

By Nadya Mikhaylovskaya

We are used to thinking about donations as helpful acts supporting socially useful causes—for example, buying Girl Scout cookies, investing in higher education for women in Third World countries, being a blood donor, or sponsoring the construction of new hospitals.

Private universities, too, rely heavily on donations. Many expensive buildings (think Gates, Klarman) are built on Cornell’s campus, and different departments acquire the spaces and new facilities they need, all with the help of sponsors.

So, what could possibly be wrong with using donations to expand departments, accommodate new technical equipment, and renovate and restructure historic buildings? Nothing, unless we, students, see such expansions as not just unnecessary, but also as forced and harmful. One of these projects is the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, scheduled to appear on our campus in 2019. Designed to be built on top of Rand Hall, the new project will deprive students of space, facilities, and comfort during and even after the construction period. It will not have the capacity to accommodate even half of all the books—but it will look grand and sumptuous.

“Respectfully restored and radically re-inhabited, Rand Hall will stand as a paragon of continuity and change,” comments Kent Kleinman, Dean of Architecture, Art, and Planning, quoted on the official website of AAP. “It will be a light-filled, 21st century library, glowing from behind the large industrial windows of Rand Hall—a perfect metaphor for conserving the old while erecting the new.” The student community, however, does not share this excitement, as “conserving the old” does not appear to be a real priority. The construction means depriving students of two floors of workspace used for weekly reviews and everyday model-making, revoking convenient access to fabrication shops, and reducing the number of necessary tools and relocating them farther away from students. “I have not met a single person who likes the new library design,” “it is only for publicity,” “a poor use of space and funds,” shared the students of AAP in an online survey about “student satisfaction” with the College.

Art by Fauna Mahootian

I think a university’s priority should be its students, but unfortunately this is not always the case. All the money donated for constructions and renovations are supposed to, at the end of the day, bring students happiness or educational opportunities. The final cost of the library construction has continued to grow since Mui Ho made the original donation and now totals $19.1 million, according to the Dean of AAP. In an informational meeting dedicated to the library project, which was organized in March by student representatives, students found out that the cost of the library would be that high and voiced their concerns: maybe there are more important issues to address, to donate money for? What about our art supplies and architectural materials for which we pay sometimes more than $500 per month? Couldn’t the library be cheaper? And what about the actual purpose of the building, which is not to create convenient access to the book collection for students, but instead to create an appearance that makes it a landmark of our university?

Do we really need a mind-blowing, glazed superstructure with three-story-high book stacks hanging from the ceiling (separating those with acrophobia from art-related books forever), on top of our old building? Is the strikingly unusual interior worth the cost we have to pay? A poll completed recently by AAP students showed that the vast majority of students in the college are concerned about the library project. “If the library is purposed to be used by students, only they have the right to make the decision about it,” says Jane, an architecture student. Nevertheless, conversations that student representatives have had with the Dean of AAP have shown that the department is not concerned about students’ opinions of the library project.

Administrators may argue that students just don’t have enough foresight to imagine the benefits of beautiful renderings brought to life and turned into landmarks. Landmarks, after all, attract money, and that is what private universities need. But we students reply, what good is this profit if the university chooses not to spend it on students’ real needs?

AAP students, who literally study how to build and create, were not involved in the discussion of the project. This is not to say that students should have designed the library for themselves, but there could have been at least some communication among the students, the sponsors, the faculty, and the administration. Instead, students are left unheard, our concerns unresolved, and our money wasted on the exterior, pleasing eyes of passersby.

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