The School of Earth and Environment is so new that we don’t have our own assigned building yet. As a geology major, all of my major classes have been crammed into the nearest available space without asbestos actively poisoning the air. I’m not sure what demon convinced the powers-that-be that petrographic microscopes would fit in well with paintbrushes, but somehow our department ended up tossed into the depths of Westby Hall.
The experience, overall, has given me a much greater appreciation for the plight of the Rowan University art student.
Westby, if you’ve never had the pleasure of entering it, is temperamental even on its best days. An ugly chunk of concrete wedged onto the far end of campus (but not so far that it fits in with the gleaming towers of the engineering and business halls), Westby is a building with a vengeance. Doors get stuck, alarms scream for no apparent reason and the temperature of any given room fluctuates about in accordance with the current rate of global warming. The interior more closely resembles a repurposed elementary school than an academic building Rowan would find acceptable for any other discipline.
On the upstairs bulletin board, I once saw a petition for building improvement hung by a thumbtack. Regardless of whether or not it gained any social traction among students, there doesn’t seem to be any measurable resulting action.
Of course, our room is more or less fine. After all, as geology students, we’re entitled to the renovations we’ve received. Right?
When my painting teacher told me that our current geology classroom was formerly the puppetry studio (leaving the puppetry students to occupy a back corner of the painting studio), it became clear to me that we were not, in fact, placed in Westby because it would be the least intrusive place for us. Oh, we’re plenty intrusive. Apparently it doesn’t matter because the people inconvenienced by us are art students.
In any traditional four-year public university in 2019, art students are likely to see themselves marginalized among their peers in more “lucrative” majors. Yet Rowan, in its haste to distinguish itself as a high-ranking science and engineering university, seems to have done an exceptionally effective
job in shafting art students.
Even something as innocuous as architecture speaks volumes in communicating the amount of value that a university places in its programs. For Rowan, the contrast is staggering: students who are studying engineering, science and business are valued here, while those studying art are not. Renovating one single room for the exclusive benefit of science students only adds insult to injury.
Art as a discipline is likely used to being undervalued. The classic “starving artist” trope, in a society which finds merit only in those fields which will yield the most money, does the field of visual arts no favors. Regardless of how mistreated art is as an industry, though, the cultural and social impact of art is far greater than that of many other “practical” majors. In a university setting, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake should be prioritized just as highly as are technical skills, which art students, incidentally, also have, since the amount of studio and personal work required to be a successful artist makes it one of the most time-consuming disciplines to learn.
There are very few ways to justify the peripheral status that our university grants to the visual arts.
The saddest thing, I find, about this disparity is that it only hurts Rowan long-term. Maybe, if our university placed even a fraction of the same worth in arts programs as it does for those in STEM, Rowan wouldn’t just be a “high ranking engineering school” clouded by its own lack of imagination. It would be recognized nationally as a good school in general.
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