Are these classrooms really that bad?

Photos of disrepair on campus don’t tell the whole story

I Heart SFU

Every Monday I teach in a classroom that, I must admit, is not my favourite. It has a dusty old chalkboard (I know, chalk!), and several ceiling tiles are missing. A couple of the windows are caked with so much salty residue that one can barely see through them, and a fluorescent light is burnt out. There are two lecterns in the room and both are broken—though one has been hastily repaired with a piece of cardboard.

It’s just not a great room in which to teach.

So I get the motivations of a new generation of staff and students seeking to shame their universities into improving facilities. One prof at Hunter College in New York started tweeting pictures of holes she saw on campus and now has a blog called Holes at Hunter. A similar blog, Classrooms of Shame, seeks to draw attention to such “deplorable conditions.” In Canada, too, blogs like I heart SFU show similar pictures and a prof at Memorial University recently went public with complaints about mould and asbestos on his campus.

Certainly, such efforts are well meaning, and we must admit university infrastructure is important to our overall mission. But the photo-shaming blogs are unfair and don’t help the discussion.

For one thing, photos can only tell a limited spatial story. A close up picture of a hole looks bad, but it doesn’t tell you what the entire room looks like. One hole in a big room is one too many, but it’s not exactly shameful. Even I admit that my unpleasant Monday and Wednesday classroom is not a disaster. Overall, it’s clean, and bright; it has windows that open for fresh air, new blinds, and has just been equipped with state-of-the art monitors for video and slide presentations. But you wouldn’t have known that from my initial and limited description.

Photos also fail to tell the temporal story. Today’s hole may be repaired next week. Or the whole room may be slated for renovation next year. At Memorial, the prof with the mouldy office got moved to a new space, and the asbestos was quickly removed.

Nor does a single classroom tell the whole story. I make do with my imperfect room but am thrilled to be in a newly renovated office. Maintaining even a small university like mine is a constant battle.

And it is a battle that is being fought with few resources. Everyone knows that governments have been squeezing universities and when universities spend money there is always pressure, and understandably so, to put the money into salaries for teachers and librarians and not superficial things like paint and plaster. A common refrain around my school is that budget meetings shouldn’t involve those arguing that they need to buy more grass seed.

The answer, of course, is better funding from our governments, and I suppose one could make the case that blogs like the ones mentioned above could serve that purpose. But I doubt it. They tend to make the schools look poorly managed and irresponsible when most of them are probably doing the best they can. And there’s no shame in that.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.




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Are these classrooms really that bad?

  1. While I get the general point of my colleagues argument he does make a classic mistake when dealing with this issue of deteriorating university infrastructure. His article focuses either on the isolated issues, the moldy office for example, or goes directly to the big picture of decreasing government funding. Now of course decreasing government funding is a problem but lets put that aside as that is its own stand alone issue.

    For a faculty member to start a blog or take a picture is seldom the initial response of anyone to deteriorating infrastructure. Many of these people, like myself put work orders in or raised their concerns to the appropriate university administrator. The response to such concerns, if any, is often a Band-Aid fix, i.e. cardboard lecturn. In my own experience I had a ventilation system that allowed toxic chemicals back into the room. When multiple work orders and emails to the dean did not fix the problem I resorted to one last email to all interested parties including a vice president and an attached photo of the “hole.” The problem was fixed that day.

    The biggest problem I have with my colleagues article is that he trivializes deteriorating infrastructure which include health and safety concerns. For the faculty member that gets moved out of his/her moldy office, how many do not get moved? Under no circumstances should exposure to mould or asbestos be acceptable. The problem is not lack of resources but of priority. In saving money university administrations treat all deteriorating infrastructure problems and health and safety issues the same regardless of severity. Not every broken classroom needs to be fixed but when faculty trivialize deteriorating infrastructure they make it just harder to address the serious health and safety issues and that is a shame.

  2. “At Memorial, the prof with the mouldy office got moved to a new space, and the asbestos was quickly removed.”

    Seems like this was likely a result of their complaining, no?

  3. I think you are making unfair, sweeping generalizations.

    This September the SFU Graduate Student Society’s ‘I Heart SFU’ campaign was covered by the CBC, Global, CTV, etc. Most of the coverage focused on the issue of deferred maintenance, where major problems have been inadequately addressed due to dwindling governmental resources for the upkeep of university infrastructure. I feel like most people understand that it is not primarily the fault of the university, but rather a result of funding deficiencies.

    SFU is in this situation for a very particular reason. It is known as Canada’s ‘Instant University’, with a large portion of the campus having been built within a two year span in the mid-1960s. While this was an unbelievable achievement, it has directly contributed to its problems. Most universities develop over a longer period of time, and as a result, the buildings require maintenance at different intervals. SFU, on the other hand, has a large number of buildings and facilities that were all built at the same time, and are now all in desperate need of repair. SFU is currently doing a number of significant renovations around the Burnaby campus, and yet the problems continue to pile up.

    This is the issue with your post. While in your experience, CBU’s buildings may only have a number of superficial problems that do not impact the larger functioning of the university, the pictures detailing the disrepair at SFU are indicative of a larger problem. You suggest people say nothing in order for post-secondary institutions to save face, and yet, in some cases the awareness raising is warranted. Despite these problems, SFU is a great school filled with wonderful students and faculty. There is no shame in wanting the best for your university and attempting to create legitimate discussion around issues of maintenance.

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