Hard hats are worn by construction workers to protect against the dangers of the job. Apparently they can also prevent the distraction of reality from penetrating one's skull. No one looks better in a hard hat than Judith Rodin. And sure enough, at the groundbreaking of Sansom Common, there she was -- the greatest star of all, donning her day-laborer's garb for all the world to see. The University president views the groundbreaking as "an important step in the implementation of our full campus master plan." This "exciting new development" will mean jobs, she says. It will mean economic opportunities! It will mean a stronger sense of neighborhood! It will mean "an area with a critical mass of retail and public spaces!" Wake up. Cool down. Get real. Rodin's rhetoric is as empty as it is grand. To begin with, there isn't any "master plan." Instead of planning, the Rodin administration operates by "muddling through." Last fall, Rodin's great vision revolved around the implosion of the high rises -- an event many alumni would have returned just to see. By winter, the idea had been scrapped. "I know there have been times when I have been signed up to be the first one to pull the plunger, but studies done now show that we can't afford to implode them," announced Provost Stanley Chodorow, Rodin's court jester ("Demolition of Superblock would be costly," DP, 1/31/97). Instead of the cornerstone being torn out of High Rise North, it was torn out of Rodin's master plan. If so, it is curious that Rodin has nothing concrete to report about it. Her June 26 column in The Summer Pennsylvanian ("Sansom plan big piece of the puzzle") is filled with abstract platitudes, but there is no substance. Rodin writes that Sansom Common "will add 300,000 square feet of retail, dining, and residential space to our campus." That is misleading. Much of the space will be occupied by the Penn Inn. The necessity of a new luxury hotel has never been explained. Regardless, the Penn Inn won't be used by students, faculty, or staff. The "residential" space that will be considered part of Sansom Common already exists. The administration congratulating itself on renovating the Grad Towers is like congressmen bragging about finally balancing the budget; it had to be done anyway, it should have been done long ago, and it is their job to do it. The "retail and dining space" in the Sansom Common plan is exactly that: space. No businesses have agreed to locate in the development. How will the administration attract enough business to fill an "upscale mall" when for three years they've been unable to fill even the old Italian Bistro location? The Food Court at 3401 Walnut Street hasn't replaced the burger and chicken place that went under nearly two years ago, but Rodin thinks she can bring Harvard Square to West Philadelphia. In short, Sansom Common is a project bursting with ambition but sadly lacking in meat. Unless, of course, you count the escargot and venison at La Terrasse. Here is where Rodin's self-described "expansive and fresh thinking" actually becomes harmful. While there was great fanfare when Sansom Common was unveiled, it was much quieter in June of 1996 when the trustees gave Rodin $1.61 million to renovate La Terrasse. The School or Arts and Sciences is in serious financial trouble. The University was forced to close the American Civilization department. Penn is now the only Ivy League school with no religious studies department. A half-decent recreation facility remains on the drawing board. Yet the Rodin administration spends $1.61 million of tuition money, more than twice the amount spent on student activities each year, to renovate a restaurant in whose profits it will not share. A full dinner for two at the White Dog Cafe costs around $80 without wine. Yet White Dog is a bargain when compared with La Terrasse. Nothing beats a good French meal, and I'm sure La Terrasse is delicious. But who will eat there? Who will be able to afford it? While John Fry and Carol Scheman munch on foie gras and sip lobster bisque and sherry, students and staff will be left with lo mein and Snapple from the food trucks -- that is, until they are towed away. Rodin inherited a University which was rising in prestige, planning a first-rate student center, and expanding north and west. With the enormous goodwill that greeted her upon arrival, she had the opportunity to build a legacy for herself by strengthening the University's commitment to its mission: teaching, research and service. But now her legacy will be quite different. She canceled the student center, choosing instead to bring a group of old buildings up to fire code specifications and call it the Perelman Quadrangle. She is presiding over a decline in the University's academic standing. She is building a "public space" with $120 million which would be better spent on building knowledge. She is moving the center of campus eastward. That will make the western side of campus still less "vibrant" at night, making the University even more susceptible to the violent crime that has plagued Rodin's years at Penn. With the money being spent on Sansom Common, we could have gotten more professors, so that a Penn education would be more valuable. We could have gotten more police, so that members of the University community would be safe to teach and learn. We could have credited the money toward undergraduate tuition, so that four years at the University would be more affordable. Alas, Sansom Common will provide none of that. But hey, at least we'll get Starbucks. We are forced to take comfort in coffee houses. That is Judith Rodin's real legacy.Comments powered by Disqus
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