The Mysterious Ways of the Walter Commons

Its look is bold yet minimalistic; its name, the opposite. Although the Otto and Fran Walter Commons for Global Study and Engagement may be a mouthful, the space’s ergonomic aesthetic brings to mind the language of efficiency. The round orange couches make me think “streamline;” the glass-paneled collaboration rooms say “synergy.”

Student reactions to the Walter Commons have been mixed, with some calling the space beautiful and innovative, others comparing it to a “Bond villain’s living room” or a “nineties disco.” The transformation of the first floor of Blaustein, which began with little warning on Oct. 2, 2017 and was completed before the start of the spring semester, raised questions for many. What makes this necessary? Why does it look like that? And how is the College, with its limited budget, paying for it?

To this last question, the space’s long name provides a piece of the answer. The Commons was funded in part by the Otto and Fran Walter Foundation, an organization established by a pair of philanthropists: Dr. Otto Walter, a Bavarian-born lawyer who fled Nazi Germany, and his wife, Frances Doonan Walter, a watercolor painter from New York. In life, the Walters operated their foundation to provide grants to humanitarian, artistic, and educative causes, and the organization now continues to fund projects in the couple’s memory.

Photo courtesy of Max Amar-Olkus

 

The Walter Foundation was the first sponsor of Blaustein’s new look, but its offer was far from enough. At the ribbon-cutting event for the Walter Commons, Dean of Students Victor Arcelus and Dean of the College Jefferson Singer remarked that funding had been a collaborative effort between multiple foundations and private donors, all of which chipped in to the overall budget.

“We did not spend College money,” commented Amy Dooling, Associate Dean of Global Initiatives, Director of the Walter Commons, and Professor of Chinese. She broke the nearly $1.7 million down into specifics, explaining that the College first secured a $375 thousand grant from the Mellon Foundation, which was followed by grants from the Alden Trust, the Hearst Foundation, the Raymond Debbane Family Foundation, and Susan Lynch ’62.

While it may seem to students that the futuristic space materialized overnight, the idea for the Walter Commons has been around Conn longer than any of us. Dooling noted that for “over a decade,” members of the faculty and administrative staff had been engaged in “a conversation about having a space on campus that brought together all the resources that Conn already has,” citing the Language Lab (now called the Global Learning Lab), the Office of Study Away, and the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies in the Liberal Arts (CISLA) as examples.

The Walter Foundation supported the idea from the beginning, and showed it by providing an “anchor gift”—a monetary incentive that promised more funding with sufficient progress—about ten years ago, but progress took a while.

“For a long time, we had no traction on the physical space issue,” Dooling said. “Our sights were originally set on Knowlton.” But once Blaustein was chosen and the remaining funding secured, construction moved quickly. The College hired Centerbrook Architects, a local firm with experience in designing educational spaces, and Babbitt Construction to complete the project.

“We wanted to work with a [construction] firm that had done academic projects during the academic year,” Dooling explained, “it was actually the first time we’d done that.” According to Dooling, the College had never before pursued construction on a building while classes were in session inside, and though classes in Blaustein were sometimes disrupted by noise, Babbitt Construction took extra precautions to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.

The degree to which construction managed to avoid disruption remains up for debate, but I agree with Dooling’s observation that while sometimes the sound was annoying, as construction goes, it could have been much worse. As for the allocation of resources to build the Walter Commons, while grant funding may have made the project essentially free, the hours of work that staff dedicated to seeking and applying for grants reflect a prioritization of the Commons and its mission over other potential initiatives.

“The rationale is really strong,” Dooling commented, referring to the Commons’ emphasis on social justice and civic engagement. Commendably, the establishment of the Commons brings the Center for the Critical Study of Race and Ethnicity into the middle of campus, moving it from its seclusion in the Pink House across Williams Street. The other occupants of the Walter Commons are CISLA, the Office of Study Away, and the Global Learning Lab, none of which experienced as significant of moves. Both CISLA and the Office of Study Away left seemingly desirable locations in Fanning, and the Global Learning Lab is more visible, but essentially in the same place as before. The four groups have been brought together, Dooling said, to foster collaboration between them.

“Space really shapes how people interact or don’t interact,” she said. Speaking to the specific ways in which she imagined groups would interact, Dooling noted that the Commons serves as the site of a new advising program for “off-campus learning.” The advising sessions are intended to help students navigate educational opportunities outside of Conn, including study abroad and local initiatives in New London. The question naturally arises, then, as to why Community Partnerships isn’t there.

“You could make an argument for any entity on campus to be here,” Dooling said, naming Community Partnerships, the Holleran Center, and the Office of Sustainability as potentially appropriate occupants. “Community Partnerships is going to be very engaged here,” she added. “They have standing office hours in the small conference room, which offers a more private space.” If the Commons accomplishes its mission, students will utilize these hours instead of going to the regular Community Partnerships Office, which remains in Cro.

The Commons will also serve as a meeting space for the International Students’ Association (ISA). According to ISA President Lera Shynkarova, Dooling, the ISA, and Commons Assistant Director Melissa Ryan “agreed that [the Commons] should be actively used by international students not only for meetings, but also to showcase the amazing work that international students and alumni are doing.”

A last source of debate, Dooling recognized, was the Commons’ wordy name. The first name adopted, years earlier in the planning process, was the “international cultural commons,” but Dooling said that name “didn’t seem to be as encompassing as we needed.”

“As [the project] was happening we just called it the global commons,” Dooling admitted, but she noted that the idea wasn’t afforded the same merit by everyone on campus. The concept of a “global commons,” or a globally-owned cache of the Earth’s resources, carries different weight depending on a person’s academic field. Some consider the term ignorant of global inequality, as it neglects to recognize the systems of power that prohibit people and nations from accessing a shared “commons,” while other fields accept the term as an ideal for global harmony.

“On other campuses it would just be called a center,” Dooling noted, “but center did not work for us.” Because at Conn, the word “center” is affiliated with a set of specific and exclusive programs, the term seemed inadequate for naming the Walter Commons. Instead, they chose to stick with the language of the commons to imply, as Dooling put it, “resources that belong to everybody.”

“It’s not an uncontested idea,” Dooling admitted, “but we like that.”

To me, the Walter Commons seems like a common trope in projects within academia: a good idea, with decent priorities, whose actual efficacy is yet to be determined. The problem with the language of efficiency, collaboration, or innovation is its generality: sometimes, shiny new projects like this suffer from a vagueness in purpose that makes it difficult to justify their consumption of resources. I hope that the Walter Commons sees high attendance in its advising sessions and actually makes off-campus learning clearer and more accessible, because if it does, it will have served a useful purpose. As for the look, I think it’s a little too futuristic to match with the rest of Blaustein, but overall, nice.

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