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Exit, Stage Left: Goodbye to Arizona State University

Today I went out to the Great Desert University—which (let it be known!) is in reality Arizona State University, the center of the canker upon the Sonoran Desert known as the City of Tempe—to wrap up my 26-year existence in that place. I locked the laptop the College bought for me into a file drawer; cleaned all my data off my terminal and the shared server; erased everything still lurking in Outlook’s e-mail, calendar, and tasks; locked my keys and my underlings’ keys into a desk drawer; gathered the few things remaining that belong to me; checked to be sure the main entry to our suite was locked; and walked away, shutting the door behind me. From there I hiked to my car, drove to the HR building, parked illegally (risking a ticket: yes! ASU employees, would-be employees, and soon-to-be-former employees have to pay to visit the university’s HR department!), walked inside, and delivered my RASL application to a young woman who was too busy talking with a coworker about her five-year-old’s birthday to break off long enough to look me directly in the eye.

Then I left, never (I sincerely hope) to return.

Can you imagine? T-day—termination day—is the day after tomorrow (and it’s 6:00 p.m. as I write this, so in terms of business days it’s actually one freaking day from now), and not once has anyone asked me where the five sets of keys to our office are, where the Dell laptop and the raft of peripherals we bought for it are, what has become of the god-only-knows-how-many flash drives we’ve purchased. Nary a soul has suggested a walk-through to inspect the tens of thousands of dollars worth of capital investment still sitting there in our offices. Not one word.

Think of it. And oh, my friend, if you live in Arizona and you are a taxpayer, do think of it.

Bemused, I’ve been silently waiting to see if anyone would have anything to say about all the loot we’ve been sitting on. But nothing. I’ve announced to one and all that I’m using up my vacation time, so as far as they know I’m not around and never will be around again. The underlings went out before me, my RA on the 15th and my associate editor yesterday. To all intents and purposes, the crew has abandoned ship.

So today I’d thought I would carry the laptop and the keys over to the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, since IT informed me that the hardware was not their department (uh huh) and since I have no intention of hiking to the Kampus Kops, halfway to Timbuktu (no place to park there, either!) and jumping through a half-dozen hoops to turn in the keys. But after some reflection, I thought why ask for trouble? Why bring myself and their administrative lapse to their attention by dumping the stuff on the student worker who passes for a receptionist over there?

If, I reasoned, the deans think the five desktop computers, the three printers, the high-end scanner, the five phones, and the assorted chairs, desks, tables, reference works, paper, pens, Scotch tape and staples are safe behind a locked door, surely the laptop and the keys will be just as safe. Why not?

So, instead of four traipses around the campus, I journeyed to only two destinations: my office and HR.

The elevator in my building has an odd, unpleasant smell. Normally I walk up the steps, but the wheeled suitcase I brought to drag the computer in and my books out was too heavy to haul up or down the concrete staircase. As I rolled the thing into the lift on the way out, a marvelous thought struck me: I will never have to ride this stinking elevator into this condemned building again!

No joke. I’ve spent the past six years working in a condemned building. When it showed signs of crumbling, the city said it had to be torn down, and the university evacuated the top two floors. But after the dust settled, the administration—whose leadership wished to invest not in another classroom building for the social sciences and the liberal arts but in astronomical salaries and extravagant structures for “star” faculty who teach no one and maintain some part of their tenure at more respectable institutions—these worthies quietly declared it un-condemned. The top floor is still cordoned off, but the rest of it was deemed good enough for the peons. It is, in short, a depressing wreck.

Arizona State University Main is one of the most plug-ugly excuses for a university campus on the planet. I’ve seen one campus that is uglier, and it is in Philadelphia. On the whole, I’d rather not be in Philadelphia. No thought of cohesion or thematic harmony was ever given to the jumble that is ASU, not by a one of any of the multitudes of architects called upon to design structures there. The newer buildings are eyesores. The Fulton Center, which houses the eyrie of our beloved president, Michael Crow: ludicrous, with its absurd and pointless glass flange, which we can only take to be someone’s idea of decorative humor. Give the thing wide berth during a high wind—in a stiff breeze panes of glass blow out and crash to the sidewalk below. The Coor Building, with its hilarious reflected WORD, evidently intended to give some sort of character to yet another glass cube: hideous! Looks like the Borg. The only buildings that are not blatantly ugly only just rise to the level of bland.

It’s a dreary, industrial campus in the middle of a tacky, grubby burg. Except for the faux-warehouse urban renewal effort downtown, the City of Tempe consists mostly of tired 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s bedroom tracts and cheaply built, run-down rentals. A six-lane bridge spewing smog and dirt over a eutrophic artificial “lake” counts as a scenic attraction; a lovely new railroad track a cause for celebration.

This garden spot next to the building that houses HR is pretty typical:

A couple blocks up the road, we have this bit of urban renewal:

Nothing like some fine orange facing to spiff up a concrete rabbit warren, eh? Click on the image to appreciate the actual color: true Hallowe’en orange. Love the way the gray parking lot blends with the architecture.

In a moment of ambitious entrpreneurship, the university’s administration decided to spend several millions of dollars to build a cloister for the students in the honors college. The idea was that honors students would live, attend classes, eat, exercise, and socialize within the nine-acre compound, effectively creating a small, exclusive campus-within-a-campus for the elite amid the tumult of the Great Unwashed. How would you like your kid to spend four years in this concrete bunker?

Nice view out those windows of one of ASU’s finest parking garages:

And the spectacle continues as we drive north toward grody south Scottsdale, one awe-inspiring scenic view after another:

Millions upon millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars went into building this astonishing landscape. Like the balloonish tent up there (yeah, that’s what it is: a tent), it stayed puffed up with hot air until the recession came along. Then, as the tent blew down in the first strong wind, so the whole mess has folded in upon itself. Hugely overextended, the university’s financial structure has collapsed, leaving students to cope with vast undergraduate classes overseen by underpaid, demoralized faculty and throwing thousands of support staff out of work. The way it operates is just about as lovely as the way it looks.

Beautiful sight, isn’t it?

6 thoughts on “Exit, Stage Left: Goodbye to Arizona State University”

  1. Oh, but I liked living round the corner from ASU! While I do not retain any particular affection for my old abode – a shoebox-sized apartment in a grotty complex infested with meth heads and giant roaches – I think you’re being a tad harsh on Tempe.

    Perhaps it’s something to do with being British; to put it into context, I’m currently writing this from a place that was granted its city charter in 924AD. Phoenix/the surrounding area has expanded so rapidly, and I was discomfited by being somewhere that was all so shiny and new and temporary-looking. Personally I found all those “old” 50s and 60s homes to be quite charming next to the packed grids of identikit mini-mansions that seem to cover so much of the rest of the place. I also like strolling places, so downtown suited me.

    Maybe it is Not The Place’s Fault. I think you’re best off out of ASU, though – hurrah, hurrah, hurrah for escaping! Hope 2010 continues for you as it has begun: fresh, exciting and filled with promise.

  2. Wow! That outdoes me: When I was working on my dissertation I lived in a flat in a 17th-century building in London. Other than being incredibly cold and a firetrap (the only stairs were made of wood, and we were on the third floor–i.e., the second storey, in the Queen’s English), it was a nice building. The landlady’s flat was gorgeous.

    “Gorgeous” is not a term that fits anything I’ve ever seen in Tempe, although surely there must be something that’s not too hideous. Somewhere.

    American residential structures in general are rarely built for the ages. You have to wonder what developers and city leaders think is going to happen as square mile upon square mile upon square mile of shoddily built construction starts to fall apart. In our parts, this process starts about 20 years after a tract is built out (some of the newer houses are already falling apart). If you’ve ever driven through some of the maturing tracts around here, you’ll see the standard sticks-and-stucco building does not hold up well over time. A ten-year-old house is considered “old,” and anything that’s upwards of twenty years old looks tired and sick. What we created, in blading the irreplaceable Sonoran desert at the rate of an acre an hour over the past few years, is vast tracts of instant slum. I guess they figure white flight will continue to spread outward forever, leaving an increasingly huge (increasingly dangerous) underclass to occupy an infinitely sprawling “inner city” of worn-out ticky-tacky, elbow-to-elbow junk houses.

    It is indeed to some extent The Place’s fault, in that The Place embodies the leadership and the greedy corporate interests that designed and built it. The entire Phoenix metropolitan area looks as if our city fathers (and mothers!) studied everything Southern California did wrong and then set out to do that.

    Which, truth to tell, is exactly what they did.

    Tempe’s downtown is phony. It is, at least, an effort to improve what was a tumble-down wreck, but the effort pushed out the city’s few real commercial assets. They tore down a historic district (admittedly, a very UGLY historic district) to replace it with fake brick, faux warehouse-style buildings, and they actively invited chain retailers to invade the area.

    The result was that when a much ballyhooed Borders moved in, one of the country’s best independent bookstores was forced to close. Actually, it moved to another part of Tempe, too far to walk from the campus…thereby causing the faculty and students who loved and patronized the store to get in their cars and spew out some more smog. Good for business: put more miles on your car and you’ll have to buy a new car sooner, eh? Most people associated with the campus resented this so much they refused to shop at the Borders, which was just another clone.

    A dim old bar was ripped out, one where many an alcoholic English professor used to hold forth to graduate students. One aging lush, a decrepit, once nationally famed Yeats scholar who crawled into Tempe to die, used to conduct his seminars there.

    You can’t conduct a Yeats seminar in a Starbucks, or in any of the other glass-and-plastic chain restaurants that now characterize “downtown” Tempe. I use the scare quotes advisedly. There’s no such thing as a downtown in these assembly-line suburbs. Commerce exists in an agglomeration of malls. The faux-warehouse area is now just another mall full of clone shopping. You could have the same strolling experience at Scottsdale Fashion Square, Kierland Commons, or Biltmore Fashion Square. They’re all the same. Except that Scottsdale, Kierland, and the Biltmore don’t pretend to be what they’re not. Well…Kierland Commons does, but not with a very straight face.

    Ah yes…the cockroachs. I remember them well: my little room-mates. They live in the palm trees and move in with the humans when they notice the humans have food in their nests. Since no amount of poisoning yourself, your pets, and the immediate environment will get rid of them, you end up having to go with the flow and make pets out of them. Mine used to do acrobatics in the kitchen: they could flip off the wall cabinets and do a little somersault in the air on the way down to the counter. Cute!

    Meth heads, on the other hand, do not make desirable pets. Like wolverines, they can’t be domesticated.

  3. I’m glad to see that you are finally free of the place that caused so much angst and unhappiness. However, don’t bite the hand that fed you for, what sounds like, quite a few years. While you may have been unhappy about a lot bueracratic things that seemed unfair and while it seemed like a lot of money was probably being wasted on buildings and things that could have been better spent elsewhere, keep in mind that this is pretty much the case everywhere. I’ve worked for companies that have been described as ‘mom and pop’, companies that are in the top five in their industry, and in between, and what I’ve learned is that the bureaucracy and waste and bad decisions (and of course the politics) happen at each and every one.

    Also, the overbuilding is something you seemed to get pretty deep into. While there was probably a lot of it going on, keep other things in mind. First, colleges everywhere have spent the last 10-15 years building new buildings. If ASU didn’t, their facilities would be seen as inferior, and would probably negatively influence the perception of the quality of education. Second, the last big building spree in colleges took place, from what I can tell, in the 1960’s. Thirty to forty years later, many of those buildings are showing signs of age, of being cramped, outdated, or not able to serve the same function that they did back then.

    I’m not saying that I defend everything that ASU has done, because I really don’t know enough about it. All I’m saying is that your perception behind your desk was probably different than a lot of people who made those decisions.

  4. So, you spent 26 years in a place that you, apparently, despise. Exactly who’s fault is that? I’m not trying to be completely critical. I spent 4 1/2 years working for a company I grew to hate before I left. But, it seems like you must have been getting something beneficial in return to spend 26 years in a place that you hate.

    • @ Confused: I didn’t hate it for 26 years, nor did I spend all of those 26 years in continuous service, nor were all of those 26 years spent in full-time positions.

      When I began working toward a Ph.D., academic jobs were plentiful, and I was single and could go anywhere. By the time I finished the degree, academic work had dried up — the drought lasted for the rest of my adult life — and I was married to a man who had established a law practice with one of the most prestigious firms in the Southwest. As a young man he earned more than I could ever hope to make at the top of my earning capacity. To marry him, I left the UofA, changed majors, and pursued graduate degrees in a different subject at ASU, which did not have adequate graduate programs in the subject of my undergraduate major.

      ASU does not hire its graduates. This closed off a tenure-track career in higher education for me. After having been exploited for several years as a teaching assistant, made to teach freshman comp classes with virtually no guidance and under absurd conditions, I did not look upon a future of teaching freshman comp in junior colleges with joy. So I drifted into journalism. That’s how I became a widely published writer.

      Twenty-five years later the marriage ended. Because I was probably the only trade-book and magazine writer in the state who also had a Ph.D., I lucked into a position that came open on ASU’s West campus. Little did I know that campus would become the current president’s red-headed stepchild, nor did it matter, because I had to make a living and I didn’t relish the prospect of waiting tables, which was the direction I was headed. Teaching at West was great — I loved the job. But over time politics and the administration’s desire to crush the faculty on the West campus so demoralized staff and faculty there that it became a very bad place to work. Most faculty would come to campus long enough to teach their classes and attend faculty meetings and then would leave.

      Again I lucked into another position, this one a quasi-administrative job on the Main campus. Again, it was great — in fact, it was a dream job. Again, largely because of the administration’s failings in the leadership department, matters unraveled. By the end of my tenure there, friends were leaving for other jobs or retiring early just to get out of the place. Those who were left behind worked in a state of profound demoralization.

      What benefit was I getting in return for staying there, despite the overall misery and a commute that made me sick with stress? Money. I needed to support myself.

      Money was the sole reason that, in the final phase of my employment there, I stayed for 15 continuous years. Believe me, I tried to get jobs elsewhere. For the past seven or eight years of my tenure at ASU, I was on the job market. The job market for Ph.D.s in the humanities has always been comparable to the job market for all the rest of Americans today, as the country’s economy teeters on the edge of depression. I got one offer for a tenure-track position. It would have required me to move across the country, take up residence in the deep South, and accept a $10,000 cut in pay. None of those was an attractive option. I got three interviews with the community college system. One of those jobs was taken off the market when a faction of the college’s faculty decided the job description should be rewritten, in mid-search, to make it a minority hire. One job opening attracted 300 applicants, some of whom were recent graduates of Ivy Leagues. My chances under those circumstances were nil.

      The truth is, I have an entrepreneurial cast of mind. I like to come in, start a program or initiative, get it running, oversee it for a few years, and move on. I was hired at West to found and direct a writing program. After working that job for a few years, it began to taste like old chewing gum. Then I was hired to found a direct an editorial operation unique in North America. That enterprise also was exciting and pleasing; after a few years, I was ready to move on to another challenge.

      And right now the challenge is surviving on next to nothing. 😉 Never a dull moment, eh?

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