THE MAKING OF... : A university township must be a translation of campus idealism and what the larger society stands for
DINKY Town, Minneapolis, Minnesota, the United States is a vibrant community located on the north of the University of Minnesota East Bank Campus.
It was my routine at the university, almost 30 years ago, to walk from my lecture halls — either over the Mississippi River from the Social Science Building in the West Bank, or from Murphy Hall, where the Journalism School is located in the East Bank.
The town is pedestrian-friendly, unlike our so-called “campus towns” all over Malaysia.
University of Malaya (UM) announced last week that as part of its “road to recovery”, it is embarking on massive projects, a shopping mall on its campus, a new private university and the expansion of its UM Specialist Centre.
Apart from attracting quality students from all over the world, the mega projects, according to its vice chancellor Professor Tan Sri Dr Ghauth Jasmon, would ensure that UM emerged as one of the world’s top universities.
It looks like UM is building a town within the university campus with improved connectivity and better transportation facilities.
Already there are comments cautioning the university’s management (see Letters, New Straits Times, Sept 3) on such a move, hoping that commercial and business considerations will not supersede the university’s role as a centre accessible to the ordinary person.
The writer, Halimah Mohd Said, a UM alumna who was both student and staff for many years, described the university’s bid as “out of sync” with the development of a university.
If anyone thinks that UM is being innovative, we have to keep in mind that innovations are at the same time limiting and delimiting.
The status and perception of universities are due to a multitude of factors. Some of the best universities in the world are what they are due to infrastructure and a conducive built-environment, within and surrounding the campus.
There is a strategic integration — by default or design — between the university and the surrounding community. It perpetuates a vibrant cultural and intellectual environment between campus and community — intertwining various functioning spaces.
All of which begs the question as to whether or not we have a concept for a university township in Malaysia. What is a campus town? Is it a natural outgrowth of a university? Is it deliberately planned with the establishment and development of a campus?
Given the growth of universities in Malaysia both in quantity and quality for more than 40 years now, university townships are likened to the forgotten child, or an ill-conceived one.
In most cases, Malaysian universities, with the exception of a few private ones, seem to have mistaken a town in the vicinity of a university, or some part of a larger town, for a campus town.
A campus town emerges as an afterthought.
Some universities look like ghettoes — physically and geographically separating the campus from the community, perched on an elevated piece of land, denying geographical and physical accessibility and engagement by the larger community.
Some seem to be in intellectual and cultural exile having been destined to some desolate place without any apparent signal to geographically “reach out” to its surroundings.
There is no connectivity, no seamless geographical integration and no organic cultural and intellectual climate between the campus and the existent towns in Malaysia. The built-environment does not cater for ease of interaction.
In what I have seen of towns associated with universities in Malaysia, one glaring absence is a good bookshop.
Imagine having a community — academics and students — linked to the university, or having what can be called a community of universities in some areas, but with no semblance of intellectual vibrancy such as a good bookshop — selling new or used books — apart from residential, and cultural spaces.
We do not have that tradition, despite statistics showing a rise in Malaysian reading habits. Where is the reading culture of the campus community?
In perhaps many of us, a campus town reflects what we have seen and experienced in the Euro-American world. There are, of course, many ways to conceive of what a campus town should be.
A university township, to put it simply, must be a translation of campus idealism and what the larger society stands for, never mind how it engages with the community.
More so it is about how the campus community breeds itself outside the campus, and in doing so, interacts with the larger community.
One problem is accessibility and connectivity to buildings and places. I once encountered an American journalist in Petaling Jaya who wanted to go to UM.
She asked whether she can walk to campus. My response was “take a cab”. Petaling Jaya Hilton Hotel would be within walking distance to UM in American townscapes.
I dread seeing signage written as “Bandar Universiti”, “Bandar Teknologi” or similar sounding names. They are a mockery if meant to be university towns. We have not given much thought to this.
University administrators, local councils, architects, town planners and cultural planners, among others, must come together to conceive and actualise a university township.
The dynamics of demography aside, a university town must have space, facilities and connectivity, not to mention sustainability.
Bearing in mind the quintessence of a university, in simple terms, a university town may have some or all of the following:
• Good bookshops, new or used
• Botanical gardens and parks
• Cultural spaces
• Publishing services (traditional/digital)
• Science parks
• Faculties, centres or institutes (part of these can be located outside the campus)
• Cafes and restaurants (or maybe the “mamak” restaurant, kopitiam or fast food. Fine dining should also be made available)
• Sport outlets
• Apparel outlets
• Laundry services
• Sundry shops
• Student and staff residences
• Others businesses, services or industries related to education
Ideally, a university township should not look like blocks of concrete shops or houses with no soul. It should have spaces for walking and not just for those who have their own transportation — contributing to congestion and pollution. It must be idyllic, calm and aesthetically appealing.
It must consume the idealism of a civilised society — unless we do not mind the penetration of merciless capitalism into the university environment.
It must be an archipelago of learning and ethics, consciousness and intellectual life.
University townships should not be machine-dominated. It must practice life at walking speed (See Walk the thought, Learning Curve, Jan 24, 2010).
Furthermore, a university town must generate meanings and connections with students, academics, visitors, residents and businesses. It must privilege itself as such.
At Dinky Town, I had fond memories of visiting my favourite Greek Café and taking a seat by the window where the sunshine streamed in — Minnesotans would say that the state only has two seasons — six months of winter, and six months of summer.
I then absorbed the ambience while revising my lecture notes, wrote term papers (there were no laptops then), or read a good book — occasionally just acquired from a used bookshop nearby.
At the same time, I would enjoy my baklava and a cup of Earl Grey, occasionally glancing at life at walking speed by the window.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Management and Humanities, Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS