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Spaces for the Mind


     On Tuesday morning, August 5th, Dr. Steve Hensley, President of A&M-Texarkana, arrived in Laredo, accompanied by Vice-Chancellor Leo Sayavedra and two plane-loads of community leaders from North Texas. The purpose of the visit was a thrilling one. Having just received statutory authority to expand Texarkana's upper-level university to a full-service, four-year institution, these visitors were in Laredo to see how this institution had effected the same transformation. While their questions ranged over a wide inventory of issues, their central concern was to see the physical spaces we inhabit, to learn from us how they might best proceed to create a new, comprehensive university.

     We have, all of us, become very accustomed to visits of every stripe. After all, Texas A&M International University sits on ground that barely ten years ago was raw Texas ranchland. Persons from all over the state and from abroad regularly visit the campus to marvel at its novel conception. For unlike the traditional pattern of university construction, A&M International was designed to be executed as one unit. This campus was not conceived merely to accommodate the needs of the 2500 students who first entered these walls in the fall of 1995, but in anticipation of the large population we ultimately will serve.

     Hosting the visiting dignitaries from Texarkana thus seemed a routine responsibility, a familiar tour of familiar space. "What would you advise us, as we build our new campus?" they asked. "What has worked especially well for you?" "What features do you deem essential for us to include in our plan?" " What would you do differently if today you were asked to develop a university?"

     My first thought that day was how pedestrian and even marginal the concerns with physical space are to the life of the mind. Universities are about academic programs, not spaces, I thought. Moses, Plato, Jesus-the greatest and most widely-studied teachers of the Western tradition-met their students without the support of a campus, or a library, or a travel allowance. And yet the writings gathered around their names are among the most precious of the human record. Perhaps it was the questions our visitors brought, the immediacy of their focus, that quieted my misgivings, making this visit, for me, an unexpectedly profound encounter. To my surprise, and throughout that day, in contemplating these questions and articulating possible answers, I came to understand anew how carefully crafted surroundings become protean spaces for the mind.

     The most important ingredients, we told our visitors, are also the most obvious: you must have adequate land and you must use it to erect buildings of high quality. Unfortunately, modern technology allows the construction of attractive facilities that may not actually be of the highest caliber. A university must exude permanence and stability; structures should be designed so that 50 years hence they continue to serve and inspire those who teach and those who learn.

     But physical spaces can serve for more than to house our books and our papers, to shelter our bodies and our equipment. In its conception and layout, the first building of this campus, our primal academic space, the Killam Library, not only facilitates our mission, it proclaims it. The half-globe embedded in the north façade of the library inscribes our international character. Inspired by a façade of the Belvedere Palace at the Vatican, this design, this half-orb, also gives light and form to the main reading room of the library. A Texas plain stretches north from the myriad array of windows, even as the globe reminds us that this university, and, indeed, education, is a universal adventure.

     As our fine arts faculty continuously tell students, great art always unites form and meaning to create beauty and coherence. "Ensure that in their design, your buildings convey your mission, your reason for being," we told our visitors. I had not fully understood until that moment how successfully the architects, working with administration and faculty, had incorporated form and meaning, beauty and function, into our own first building.

     When they entered the Great Room of the library, our visitors were predictably impressed by its size and beauty. Less apparent was the crucial function that that space served in our first days on this campus. "You must plan a similar space for your new campus," we told them. The Great Room, in truth the main reading room of the library, began as our community room, our reception hall, our recital hall, our banqueting hall, our principal lecture hall, our exhibition space, our preferred venue for all special moments.

     With the opening of the Western Hemispheric Trade Center, the Student Center, and now, this week, the Center for the Fine and Performing Arts, other spaces designed for those multiple needs are now available. It is especially appropriate that students today read and study quietly in a room whose form reifies our mission and whose first days brought students, faculty, visitors, and the community together to learn and to enjoy together the benefits of university life.

     Leaving the library, we entered another space whose meaning and importance to our development I only began to grasp as we explained its use. The large central plaza, the quadrangle formed by the library, and Bullock, Pellegrino, Canseco, and Cowart Halls, has become for us the central square of the community, our amphitheater, meeting place and marketplace, forum and agora. The English often call similar spaces a "circus," and our plaza has often seemed to host circus-like activities. The most exalted function for our plaza, I think, is to provide the setting for our graduation ceremonies, a bounded, academic close in which several thousand people can see and hear the University perform the ancient rite of faculty convocation, student commencement.

     Our tour for visiting Texarkansans continued to the Western Hemispheric Trade Center, the Student Center, and the Center for the Fine and Performing Arts. Each of those marvelous buildings provides ample venues for meeting, for study, for teaching, for practice, for research. When one steps into our Student Center and looks up, the inspiring quotations throughout the building immediately lift us into the life of the mind. The newly completed Lamar Bruni Vergara Memorial Garden brings us the "buen aire et fermosas salidas," good air and beautiful promenades, so important to King Alfonso the Wise as he planned his University in thirteenth century Spain. And no space on this campus more clearly models the importance of adornment and decoration, for its own inspiring sake, than the lobby of the kinesiology building.

     By the end of the day, it had become clear to me what our effort and what our focus for the next two years must be. For the first time since we began occupying this ground, we have a clear sense of how the campus, fully built out, will look---what all the spaces, when they are finally ours, will be. Tonight, we, the University and our Laredo community, formally open and dedicate the Center for the Fine and Performing Arts. The science center is now well under construction, the crystal pyramid-planetarium certainly destined to become a focal point for all visitors to Webb County.

     We will break ground on the 26th of August, next Tuesday, for the first comprehensive residential facility designed for university freshmen ever built in Laredo. And in September, we will begin the plans for completion of kinesiology and athletic facilities of Phase V of the original master plan. All these projects, all these spaces, will be completed in the next two years, the present biennium.

     During these next two years, for the first time since August, 1995, when faculty began to put books on the new shelves of their new offices, we can consider how best to use a completed campus, a fully realized, academic space. In the eight years since we arrived here, most of us have been inhabiting such spaces as were available at that moment, only to be moved to another office as yet another building opened. Beginning this biennium, our fully-realized campus will allow us to pursue the essential community partnerships to support our academic programs and to fulfill our mission to this region. Completion of the Recital Hall in the Center for the Fine and Performing Arts, and the opening of a similar facility at Laredo Community College, have permitted us to invite the Laredo Philharmonic Orchestra to make its home on both campuses, and to make the Orchestra an integral part of our fine arts program. At present, both the Laredo Little Theatre and the Laredo Children's Museum have expressed an interest in collaborating with the University, designing and defining spaces that will allow us all, working together, to serve our students and the citizens of South Texas.

     In literature and in life, certain buildings and the spaces they define become metonymies, vessels of human activity whose very names convey vast domains of human experience: the House of Usher-family failure over generations; Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange-passion and reason in eternal opposition; Howards End-an enduring refuge over time. In the public sphere, The White House, Buckingham Palace, the Vatican, the Kremlin all call to mind, as we name them, their function, their history, and their meaning for us.

     What do we, faculty and administrators, think when we say "the University?" What do our students think when they say "the University?" What do those words mean to the community which surrounds us and sustains us? If our institutional activities honor the spaces we have been given, "the University" is also a metonymy, another word for lives infused with academic freedom and with service to our community. Academic freedom-as beautiful, open, embracing as our Great Room with its orb, our plaza with its productive chaos. Service to our community-a common journey in the arts, in science, in business, in health, to improve and expand human life. Manos a la obra. Let's do it!

(Remarks delivered at the Faculty and Administrative Staff Assembly, August 21, 2003.)