Day 458: Conquering Apathy With The Oregon Experiment

originally published April 2, 2013

One aspect that has been lacking from my university experience is activism. Actually, a number of things have been lacking – keep in mind, I’m returning in my 30s to complete a long-neglected academic career, and I have a family, a job, and no desire to drink until I puke ever again. But I got the fun stuff out of my system when it was age-appropriate: the drugs, the frat parties, the keg-stands, the awkward experimental sex with my friend’s life-size stuffed rhinoceros. I’m back for the degree, and for the opportunity to see enough intellectual German art cinema in which people poop on camera so that I can rightly call myself a film snob.

But I’ve watched for signs of activism among my young peers, and I have to say I’m not impressed. Last year there was a planned protest regarding increasing tuition fees, but the savvy University of Alberta staged a free hot dog giveaway at the same time. Most would-be protestors opted for the free anus-meat. Last month there was a rally that marched across the river (well, I’m pretty sure they used a bridge) to protest government cutbacks to education. That one had a good turn-out, especially considering it coincided with the biggest snow storm of the year, likely staged by the University administration.

But I grew up reading about brilliant displays of channeled youth outrage. Stuff that worked. Stuff like the Oregon Experiment.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the University of Oregon in Eugene was like most other campuses around the country: heaving and throbbing with protests and demonstrations. Also with actual heaving and throbbing – it was the Free Love era, after all. Students were upset about a lot of things, like the omnipresent Reserve Officers Training Corps, the logging trucks motoring down a busy street that cut right through campus, and the general state of American foreign policy at the time.

The University’s response was to shut the kids up by using force. After all, these kids were just cloaking themselves in these causes so they could enjoy their long hair, hard drugs and their evil Country Joe & The Fish records, right?

(everything about this photo is a threat to America)

Everything changed after four students were unnecessarily killed at Kent State on May 4, 1970. The University of Oregon administration cancelled classes, and engaged the students in a school-wide discussion to hear their complaints. In what can only be described as an absolute one-off fluke in student-admin dynamics, the University higher-ups decided to listen to student concerns and even act on them.

This extended far beyond re-routing the logging trucks or bumping the ROTC down the road (and far short of ending the war in Southeast Asia, of course). A plan was developed, a plan for the University to grow and evolve according to need. The university had been proceeding under a Master Plan – not an uncommon way for large schools to set up their future goals, but hardly flexible enough to adapt to future needs. Someone needed to usurp the Master Plan. Someone with a vision. Someone from the west-coast beacon-campus of hippie weirdness and innovation. Enter Christopher Alexander from Berkeley, California.

The first thing Alexander did was to bury the Master Plan. No, I mean it was literally buried in the Odd Fellows’ cemetery beside the campus – a cemetery that had been slated for demolition under the Master Plan. Once he had digested that sweet slice of juicy irony, Alexander turned toward developing the university’s future.

His primary aim was mass democracy. Everyone could have a say in what was built and how. No more Brutalist and dystopian architecture, no monolithic projects to dominate the landscape with little practical value. Departments can submit their own ideas for construction. A campus-wide planning committee tips the available funds toward the most worthy and necessary projects, at which point the winning projects get their own committee to oversee its construction.

The key here was to fill these committees solely with people who would make use of the facility in question. Profs, students, and even janitors and other campus staff would all be directly involved in the facility’s design and construction. Naturally they’d work closely with local architects – the drugs were great back then, and no one wanted anything too unfeasible sneaking through.

(hey, check out the new zero-gravity floating dining hall!)

Most of the projects were small, with the focus being on upkeep and upgrading instead of hauling gigantic multi-story monstrosities into being. These tweaks may lack the splash of a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new science building, but they’re significant in that they are the exact tweaks required by staff and students. This is a huge leap from sit-ins and love-ins to end a war on the other side of the world – this is actual change that students could realize and experience.

The Oregon Experiment isn’t over. This wasn’t a one-off attempt to fix a few blunders in the Master Plan – this is still an ongoing plan for the University’s development and growth. Most students have no idea they can initiate plans themselves. But those who spend enough time there, and who take the time to investigate fully the culture of the school, can become involved in a form of activism that will actually yield positive results.

The Experiment’s age has worked against it though. Few people truly involve themselves in the planning process, or in instigating change. Projects are broken down into large projects (modernizing a computer lab), medium projects (swapping out the old carpet in the poli-sci building’s lobby) and small projects (fresher Fritos in the vending machines). But at this point, true community-inspired direction has once again faded into distant theory, overshadowed by the administration who has once again assumed control.

Perhaps this is a symptom of our modern age, a time when passion and determination can be dissipated by the scent of a delicious free hot dog. Maybe it’s time for a student group at some other university to pick up a copy of Christopher Alexander’s 1975 book about the Oregon Experiment and take it to their own administration. The desire for change must still be there within the young academic heart, right?

Just don’t expect much from us well-aged students. Activism without binge drinking just ain’t the same.

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