If on-campus were off-campus…

These further iterations are inspired by a recent article (from his book, “Chairs are Where People Go”) in The Paris Review: “Harvard and Class”. Misha Glouberman excellently describes his frustrations with being stuck at Harvard, with the whole of Boston awaiting him unexplored:

“Then when I went to Harvard, the place was full of these nominally smart, interesting people, all of whom at the age of eighteen seemed perfectly happy to live in dormitories and be on a meal plan and live a fully institutional life. And that was completely maddening! This was the opposite of everything I’d hoped for from the environment I’d be in.”

The memoir confirms all of the thoughts I have had concerning why the City/Campus needs to be the campus/city. He especially does well in talking about the social aspects of the University, in that every party, outing, and event you go to is within the School. There is no room for any society beyond the borders of campus.

Here’s a bit of my story:

One day at Washington & Jefferson College, I had one of those moments where you step to the other side and look back and see things differently than you did. Sometimes the world looks suddenly strange if you only step to the other side of the street. This is [not exactly] what happened: My frisbee took a bad curve and a roll and wound up traveling down the hill off our campus. While retrieving it and looking around, I realized I hadn’t really seen this part of the town, or any part of town really. Moreover, I hadn’t seen my College and how it fit into the town and, most importantly, I had no real relationship or interaction with the town, just like the College itself. Nearly every cent I spent in Washington was on my tuition, meal plan, and room.

I had never taken this trek:

It took a while to realize that I had completely segregated myself from the surrounding community and, to be honest, when I did nothing really got any better. I still never shopped or ate in town; I wasn’t up on any local news, and had few relationships that weren’t affiliated with the college. I mean, look at those green lawns! Would you want to leave?

I wrote a short, witty article in the student paper about how eye-opening it was just to circumnavigate the campus and see what was out in there in the wild frontier that was the City of Washington. Now, Washington isn’t a very exciting place… it’s not Boston, but it has a lot of potential. Its buildings are aging but gorgeous, and there were definitely people who wanted things to happen, but just needed the support of, say, 2000 college students. In its day, it was the place for shopping, entertainment, and a night out… but now the majority of its traffic comes from governmental building (courthouse, jail, county extension offices, etc.) and the majority of shopping is done a couple miles away in a number of large boxy super-stores just off the highway.

The question is: what if on-campus was off-campus, and vice versa, lines blurred, no distinctions to be made, unlike this:

How much better would it be for students if they could be a part of a real, non-homogeneous community?


How much better would it be for the City, if the student (and staff) population were walking about the town, spending their money at eateries, groceries, cafes, and shops? Two thousand proximate consumers would go along way towards economic revitalization in a small city like Washington.


In the College we’re envisioning here at The Saxifrage School, this is very much the case. Since we will own almost no buildings and all courses will take place in under-utilized spaces around the campus’ neighborhood, students have no choice but to explore the City as they find their way to class.

Moreover, I am intrigued by what the “student life” department will look like… it definitely seems important to foster good community within the college, but how to do this in a way that doesn’t segregate populations? Instead of working to create internal events for students, the student life department could work with organizations and venues in the neighborhood to improve their offerings and ensure they offer things students are interested in. The college event board will be the community event board, the students could write for the neighborhood rag instead of their own college-centric paper.

Instead of painting each other in the basement of the old gym, they could go to banjo night at the Elk’s Lodge.

Rather than blacking out at the Delt’s house, you could go Parkour or go to the Johnny Cash Day party and drink to the music legend with all your favorite neighbors.

One last quote from The Paris Review:

“the average number of people at a given party who weren’t Harvard students was zero. All of this serves to create a very weird, very contained environment.”

Enough said.


  1. Matt Hauger says:

    How much better would it be for the City, if the student (and staff) population were walking about the town, spending their money at eateries, groceries, cafes, and shops?

    This seems like a no-brainer. You’ve already listed some benefits, but let me add another: such a program would nudge students into independent adulthood in a way that on-campus dining never could.

    Are there any downsides to a university without dining infrastructure?

    • admin says:

      I think the major downside to no dining infrastructure is that it takes time to find/make your own food. The University cafeteria allows students to spend zero time choosing/making their food so they can grab a bite while they finish studying on their way between exams. Honestly, I loved the ease of the cafeteria’s infinite salad bar, sandwiches, and cereal. I still miss it sometimes.

      Of course, the ability to make/find your own food is a valuable skill that students will have to learn when they graduate anyways… why not learn it now, save money, diversify your diet, and support local food sellers.