Editorial: Administrators fail NU community with secretive Lagoon plan

By now the news is sinking in, and anger and frustration are boiling up all over campus. Students are steamed that Northwestern administrators decided to pave over four acres of the Lagoon without any attempt to obtain community input. They ask why administrators waited until less than a month before construction begins to announce a project that will forever change the face of campus. They bemoan the impending disfigurement of one of NU’s most beautiful landmarks and question the wisdom of the university’s ongoing building binge.

By concealing their plans and shutting the community out of their deliberations, administrators have sent a troubling message: Either they are woefully out of touch with the interests of the community they serve or they simply don’t care.

University President Henry Bienen has repeatedly stressed the importance of building “a stronger sense of community” at NU. Someone ought to tell him that community starts with communication. Nearly unilateral decisions about matters that affect thousands of students, faculty and staff doesn’t build community – it squashes it.

Given the lack of interest his administration has shown in students’ opinion of campus construction, Bienen should not be surprised that Associated Student Government on Wednesday unanimously condemned the Lagoon project, lamenting both the lack of community input and administrative transparency. ASG President Jordan Heinz called on administrators to explain their actions at a forum on Tuesday.

They should take that opportunity to start making amends.

After all, this is not just about community input. The plan itself is highly questionable. Most striking, given the great haste with which NU is beginning the project, is administrators’ professed ignorance as to what will eventually be placed on the paved-over Lagoon. The 200 parking spaces, they say, are a temporary benefit. We’re told new buildings won’t be constructed for several years. If they’re only needed in the long run, why such a hurry now?

The administration’s recent track record offers a few dispiriting clues as to what we can expect. The School of Music students who desperately need a replacement for the decrepit Music Administration Building likely could be snubbed again in favor of another, easier-to-fund scientific research facility – or four of them. The proposed “pedestrian mall” seems about as likely to materialize as the long-promised renovations to Norris University Center. And whatever decision Bienen and his staff make, we have little reason to believe it will be made with the community’s opinion in mind.

Perhaps administrators suffer from a bewildering failure to appreciate the aesthetic and emotional significance of the Lagoon. They seemed surprised to learn that students consider the Lagoonfill different than other construction projects. But we do, and it is.

The architects who designed the Lagoon in 1961 called it “an important aesthetic influence on the campus.” University officials were reluctant to give up the space, but the architects saw the Lagoon as a “unique opportunity to create a campus of striking beauty.” Time has proven them correct.

Beyond its role in cooling NU’s power plant, the Lagoon has found its way into the hearts of generations of students, luring many of them here in the first place. On a campus perpetually under construction, beset by buildings plopped down with little regard for unity of design, we see the Lagoon and the Lakefill as oases, off-limits to construction.

That administrators don’t understand this makes us wonder what else they don’t understand. They pay lip service to the importance of teaching and the general needs of undergraduates, but pay distressingly little attention to those now enrolled.

“I ask for your tolerance when I make mistakes,” Bienen told NU in 1995, at his first State of the University address. “And I will make mistakes. Sometimes they’ll be of omission, sometimes they’ll be of commission.”

In this case, it was both. We’re a tolerant lot, but enough is enough.