A President's Reflections

On the road

Posted on June 25, 2011

I am half way through a week away from campus and at the second stop in my three city tour.  I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin today, one of my very favorite small cities in America.  I’ve come from one of my favorite large cities anywhere: Chicago.  I was there for the annual Board meeting for the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning, the foremost organization working on behalf of adult or non-traditional age learners.  I am the Vice-Chair of the Board and it is one of the most interesting groups in terms of membership.  We have Board members from large labor unions like the Telecommunication Workers of America, corporations like Monster.com and Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Brunswick, large public systems such as the San Antonio Community College System and the Maine University System, four year publics like Bridgewater State U, and privates like SNHU and St. Leo’s. 

There wasn’t a lot of free time, but I did have a chance to walk for a couple of hours on Friday afternoon and was reminded that no city is better than Chicago when it comes to architecture.  This was the city that invented steel frame construction and made skyscrapers and the use of plate glass possible.  The city spawned an all-star list of some of our greatest architects including Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham (known to fans of Devil in the White City), Miles van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright.  Pat and I have earlier done architectural walking and boat tours and we had the same sense we get in museums when we turn a corner and see some great work we have only seen in books, but here the things that take your breath away are buildings.  The Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower, Marina City, the Sears Tower, the Chicago Merchandise Mart, the Harold Washington Library…..it goes on and on. 

What is really cool is that Chicago honors its heritage by continuing to build provocative buildings and public spaces.  Millennium Park, built in 2004, is just a delight with its famous and irresistible stainless steel jellybean (actually named The Cloud Gate) and the playful Crown Fountain.  It feels like the Midwest has a greater civic sensibility than the cities of the east.  This is a people’s park and is full of kids dancing in the fountain,couples dining in the outdoor cafes, and families on blankets on the great lawn of the Pritzker Pavilion watching outdoor concerts.  In contrast, Boston can’t get its act together around the new Rose Kennedy Parkway — such a squandered opportunity.

Chicago’s broad avenues, monumental buildings, and steel bridges evoke a kind of American muscularity, a time of confidence and innovation and abundant opportunity.  I was reminded of that early passage in Dreiser’s 1900 Sister Carrie, when Carrie leaves small town Wisconsin and takes a train into Chicago to follow her dreams, marveling at the city as the train arrived.  Chicago’s downtown still has that feel of opportunity and hope and outsized ambition, though the reality of the city is a good deal grimmer these days with the Illinois state budget in a shambles, deadly crime, and all the problems that come with sprawling urban blight.  Still, if I were forced to live outside of New England (shudder), I could easily see living in Chicago.

Madison, in contrast to Chicago just two hours south, exudes cozy well-being and progressive charm.  Old guys with gray (be nice now) pony tails and tie-dye tee shirts ride the miles of bike trails and lanes, bulletin boards are papered with ads for new age health treatments, meetings against one -ism or another, organic this or that, and there are more coffee shops than you can imagine.  It is said that Madison has more PhDs than any area in the country and the University dominates the city (along with the state capital).  The enormous football stadium is right downtown and we have nothing in the east quite like these flagship Midwestern state universities with their enormous neo-classical buildings that dominate whole city blocks, acresa of student housing, and a pervasive impact reflected in numerous bars, bookstores, pizza joints, and cheap housing. 

University towns — Amherst, Ann Arbor, Austin, Berkley, Ames, Chapel Hill, Madison — are wonderful places.  They are almost always progressive, smart, forward-thinking, and community-minded and Madison has all those qualities and then some.  Other in the state say it is “78 square miles surrounded by reality” and the city was a center of anti-war protests in the 60s, is home to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and lawns are covered with “Impeach Scott Walker” signs, the reactionary governor being latest source of discord in the city.  Best of all in all these cities is the presence of young people who bring energy and delight and fun to the community (even if they sometimes drink too much, pee in one’s bushes, and stay too loud too late at night).

I’m here to give a talk at a higher ed leadership conference (again, be nice) and to also appear on a panel.  Tuesday I fly to DC for a Wednesday event at the Center for American Progress.  CAP is gathering university presidents, foundation heads, government officials, researchers, and writers to discuss innovation in higher education.  In February the Center released a report on disruption (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/02/disrupting_college.html) that is the basis for the upcoming daylong conversation.  Back to NH late Wednesday night.

One last observation: Midwesterners really are nicer (Scott Walker notwithstanding).

One thought on “On the road

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