Students give administration Biggs headache
About 100 students marched to Tuesday’s General Faculty meeting to protest the closure of Biggs computer lab and the exclusion of students from administrative decision-making. Student frustration had been growing since Center for Information Technology Director John Bucher announced the closure in last week’s Review.
The College plans to move ResLife offices to Biggs to make space for faculty offices in Peters’ basement.
Bucher said that space constraints are not a new problem.
“There has been ongoing discussion over tight space for several years,” Bucher said. “Faculty and administration have often looked at Biggs as possible office space. After continuing the discussion, we determined it was a good thing to do.”
Bucher said that usage of Biggs has decreased in the past years.
“At the same time that computer usage has gone up, so has computer ownership,” Bucher said. “We know that 90 percent of [Oberlin] students own computers. The labs are mostly used for convenience and printing now.”
Bucher said usage information came from CIT staff observation, but Biggs is not staffed all night. Assistant Director of Safety and Security Marjorie Burton said that security officers patrolling late at night did not see heavy usage except during midterms and finals.
Bucher said that Biggs was not meant to be a computer lab and was only retrofitted due to a campus-wide need for more computers.
“Let’s not pretend that Biggs was the best facility ever,” Bucher said. “It was designed to be lounge and office space. If we had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have put the lab in a dining hall.”
Bucher said that the administration has considered keeping existing labs open 24 hours but had found obstacles with many.
“Being so open, with so many corners and nooks, makes the Science Center hard to secure after hours,” Bucher said. “If we leave Mudd open, the building is designed to also allow access to the stairs and scholar studies. There is a fire escape door in the computer lab we could put a card swiper on, but fire code still requires more than one exit.”
Bucher said if they could make changes that would keep A-Level open 24 hours at a reasonable cost, they would do so.
“It’s debatable whether you call Mudd North campus,” Bucher said. “But let’s face it, Biggs isn’t really North campus either. It’s more southeast North Campus.”
Bucher said he and President Nancy Dye received dozens of e-mails after the letter was printed expressing concerns, but the wave of student response began Sunday with student senator Vivek Bharathan’s statement in a senate meeting about the administration’s actions.
“I know of no students being consulted on closing Biggs,” Bharathan said. “Students need 24-hour access to the internet and programs required for classes. John Bucher’s letter to the Review announcing closure built the dialogue on [the administration’s] terms. He said the decision has already been made and is only now accepting feedback on what to do. This is a manifestation of the general lack of communication between administration and students.”
Acting Dean of Students Bill Stackman said he was not aware of any communication between administration and students over closing Biggs, but did not view this as part of a larger trend.
“I think we communicate with students a lot,” Stackman said. “When it doesn’t happen is when we hear about it. As compared to other institutions, we do a good job of working with students and compromising to find solutions.”
Forum airs concerns
On Monday, over 60 students attended a forum on Biggs’ closing organized by Bharathan. Students voiced a number of concerns.
“If one person is using it, it isn’t underutilized,” first-year Jasmin Roberts said.
Some students called Biggs’ closure an attack on low-income students who could not afford computers of their own.
“I don’t think they are attacking poor people,” student senator Vorris Mayes said. “I think they just don’t care. The administration has acted shady on every decision they’ve made, from the print quota and putting up a wall in Dascomb. Our resources are decreasing, while our tuition is going up five to six percent.”
Senior Meagan Huelsenbeck said the College had an interest in improving its ratings, which she said had decreased mostly because of its low retention rate.
“Students come here and they can’t afford to stay,” Huelsenbeck said.
Bucher said that the College was concerned about students without computers.
“I know it’s hard for students without computers, but we try to do the best we can,” Bucher said. “We can never make things 100 percent convenient, but we won’t be sending people down to Johnson House to use a computer.”
Students who owned computers said they needed Biggs anyway.
“Biggs is a great resource,” junior Gabriel Golden said. “I used it when I got a virus on my computer and didn’t want to intrude on my friends to use their computers.”
“Even if we have a computer, it’s not fair to keep our roommate up for four nights in a row while we’re writing a paper,” one student said.
Proposals for student action ranged from a letter writing campaign to a sit-in in Cox. One student expressed frustration with students’ reactions to the closure.
“I never use Biggs,” first-year Nayeem Mahbub said. “I have better things to worry about than my papers. Maybe it’s time to ask ourselves what our priorities are. Us giving a shit about computers is symptomatic of how mainstream we’ve become.”
Students continued to debate the issue among themselves over the course of the week.
“Biggs allows students to procrastinate and encourages pulling all-nighters and staying up ridiculously late,” sophomore Samuel Sharp said. “Thus I think Biggs has led to a general decrease in alertness, health and intelligence of many students.”
Roberts said that students needed the option to write their papers late, though.
“Students are affected academically if they can’t write their papers after 2 a.m.,” Roberts said. “But academic ratings also affect the school. Oberlin thrives on its famous alumni. Keeping Biggs open is in their interest.”
Dean of Arts and Sciences Clayton Koppes said that recent additions to the faculty brought space constraints to a tipping point.
“We’ve been able to expand the size of the faculty by about a dozen new positions in recent years,” Koppes said. “This has brought exciting new additions to the curriculum and significantly improved access to classes, but new faculty has to be housed somewhere.”
Koppes said that several post-doctorates supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation and from the College’s partnership with the University of Michigan also need office space. Koppes said between 15 to 18 new offices are ultimately needed, though the number fluctuates with faculty taking leave. Koppes said that currently some faculty members are sharing offices.
Although Koppes said the problem has been growing for some time, he said that students were not consulted on the decision.
“We always want to take student wishes into account, but sometimes we’re trying to choose among various options and not everything can be accommodated as well as every party would like,” Koppes said. “We do need to remember that Oberlin is a small flat campus and that no place is very far from any other place. It’s not like anyone is being asked to walk uphill five miles in a snowstorm.”
Dye said she understood student concerns but emphasized the difficulty of consulting students on every decision.
“I don’t know how many people were informed, but it’s important to realize that there are thousands of decisions made at Oberlin and I don’t know what exactly happened with this one,” she said.
Dye responded to students’ e-mails about Biggs’ closure, assuring students that the College was planning alternative all-night computer spaces.
“The College will provide a facility on or near the north end of campus with the same 24-hour access as the two computer labs on the south end of campus in Kade and Lord Saunders,” the email read.
Some students at the forum said that nothing short of a 24-hour lab with as many computers as Biggs would be acceptable.
“There is an assumption that the computers on South campus are adequate,” junior Baraka Noel said. “They aren’t.”
“It doesn’t make sense to have all of South campus using 12 computers,” Mayes said.
Student senator Ronnie Goines said that having computers available 24 hours was more important than the number of computers available.
At the meeting
Six weeks ago, Bharathan, on behalf of Student Senate, requested time on the Tuesday, May 11 General Faculty meeting agenda to give an address on student concerns. According to Bharathan, it was unclear to him until Tuesday morning that he would be allowed to speak. Students gathered in Wilder Bowl immediately before the meeting to follow Bharathan to the meeting in a show of support for increased student involvement in administrative decisions.
“This issue directly affects us,” sophomore Samina Ali said. “We should be involved in the decision-making.”
Students waited outside the meeting for an hour and a half until its conclusion. Student pooled their print quotas to copy Bharathan’s speech to distribute to faculty on their way out.
Bharathan’s speech was the last item of the long and hot meeting.
“I don’t wish to take up much more of the General Faculty’s time, but what I have to say is vital to the College if it wishes to keep up its image as a community,” Bharathan said. “The decision to close Biggs computer lab is symptomatic of a larger problem: the alienation of students from the process of making decisions that directly affect the quality of our lives on campus.
“Incidents like the process of closing Biggs reflect a fundamental contradiction in ideology between students and administration concerning the role of students in decision-making on campus. The two sides of this contradiction are on one hand the students’ view that we should in fact be included in such decisions and on the other hand, the administration’s apparent view that we don’t need to be included. This contradiction extends to various branches of student life on campus.
“We therefore demand that Biggs be left open next semester, since there is no hard evidence to support the claim that it is underutilized; we demand that next semester CIT gather hard data at all hours that Biggs is open to determine whether or not students actually use this lab. We wish to achieve our goals as cooperatively as possible.
“However, if the administration does not adequately take our demands into consideration, we are prepared, though hesitantly, to take a more antagonistic path.”
Bharathan’s speech was met with applause by the students waiting outside.
In a meeting Thursday between Dye and Bharathan, the president maintained that Biggs would be closed and encouraged students to consult with CIT on other spaces to provide 24-hour access.
“The major issue he raised was Biggs and I think that that is a real issue,” Dye said. “Anyone who knows anything about student habits knows there is a need to provide some 24-hour student access and I don’t know anybody who thinks that we shouldn’t be committed to student needs. I don’t think that needs to be Biggs.”
Bharathan remains skeptical about the administration’s assessment.
“I don’t know how much Biggs is used but the truth is, they don’t know, either,” he said.
For a full transcript of Bharathan’s speech, see www.oberlinreview.org.