The Open or Locked University
“But how will I get in?”
The trip from Johannesburg, South Africa to Vancouver, Canada was going to be long and complicated enough for the young professor, who had never left South Africa before, but her flight was arriving late and she was worried that the gates of the University of British Columbia would be locked and the guards gone for the night.
“But there will be someone at the reception of the residence where you’re staying,” the man at UBC’s security office tried to explain. “Twenty-four hours a day, a receptionist is always there and available to help you.”
“Even so, how will I be able to get access through the university gate?”
Understanding suddenly dawned on the security officer and he laughed. “It’s Canada. There are no fences or gates. The university campus is completely open.”
For the South African professor, it was a revolutionary idea that anyone could wander off the street and mingle with students and enter the buildings where classes were held in lecture halls and laboratories. Yet, her perspective was far from unique. Many–if not most–universities around the world are on campuses where entry is restricted to students, staff, academics, and those who have been specifically invited.
At a university in Barranquilla, Colombia, after explaining that I had come to speak to the teachers of the English Department, a call was made to confirm the invitation. I hand over my passport for safe keeping by the guard but also pose for a photo for their records. At some other universities, my briefcase goes through a scanner and a metal detector wand is passed over my body.
But not at UBC. One can enter the campus by various roads, sidewalks, or even trails leading from the surrounding forest and bordering beaches. As a young teenager, I sometimes jumped on my bicycle and pedalled the 15 kilometers from my home, zigzagging through suburbs, to glide around the campus and visit the art galleries and museums and wonder at the ivy covered gothic style library next to an ultra modern clock tower and the sculptures on campus. I’d visit the Japanese gardens and pretend I had traveled to medieval Kyoto. I’d sneak into the architecture faculty building (or it felt like sneaking; I’m sure no one cared) and see the playhouse-like student models for their speculative projects. Now I take my own sons, wandering through the buildings where I once lived and learned.
There is much to be said for an open university, welcoming the public. UBC has theatre, music, and opera programs and performances are regularly advertised as being open to the public. Professional performances are held at the iconic Chan Centre for Performing Arts which has doubled for the headquarters of various shadowy organizations in more than twenty movies and TV series, particularly science fiction series.
As is the case with the Chan Centre, public attendance to the Anthropology Museum helps support the university both financially and in terms of garnering public support for its mission. The public gets an idea of what goes on at a university and is more likely not to begrudge the tax dollars that go to support it. There is also the advantage of campus exposure helping to attract future students.
Other universities are both open and closed. In China, most universities are walled and have guards at the gates but foreigners often enter with minimal interference. When I lived in Beijing, a favourite winter activity was skating on the city’s many lakes, gliding past old homes and palaces that have escaped development. Beijing University had a nice lake for skating and other universities often had leisurely places to wander and relax away from the crowded streets.
On one summer time visit to Beijing’s Tsinghua University, some friends and I came across a sundial which was donated by the class of 1920 and inscribed in Latin and Chinese with the sentiment, Actions speak louder than words. The sundial has since been restored and repositioned but when we first came across it, it had been turned around during the Cultural Revolution by young red guards who considered the Latin to smack of Western imperialist evils. Of course, turning a sundial away from the sun defeats its purpose so it seemed a fitting metaphor for many of the ignorant and futile actions of those times.
And so one would think that my conclusion was that an open university is the best university. But I might have changed my mind after visiting Tecnologico de Monterrey, in Monterrey, Mexico.
The first thing I noticed on entering the campus were rows of neatly parked blue bicycles. Each had the name of the institute on it and all were unlocked. It turned out that they were freely available to anyone–staff, students and faculty–and could be picked up and dropped off anywhere, either in another bicycle rack or simply outside one’s classroom. Coming out after class, it would likely be gone, picked up by another student or professor cycling to another destination. But not to worry, more than 500 free bicycles on campus meant one was never far from a free ride.
However, on that first day, as I walked to where I was to give my lectures, I passed a pond brimming with ducks and ducklings and other birds. Then I saw several guinea fowl on a lawn by the library. Then I saw a peacock, and another peacock, and then seven peacocks together. In planters, birds had built nests and sat on their eggs unconcerned that any predator would disturb them.
And then I saw the deer.
The deer was not a skittish creature, taking flight at the sight of me but rather it was unashamedly inviting itself to share the lunches of two students trying to enjoy picnic table conversation. The deer manoeuvred its head as close as possible but one of the young woman, without paying it much attention, simply pushed its head away, not even taking her eyes or attention from her friend.
Of course it was the gates and the enclosing fences around the institute that made this miniature Garden of Eden possible and guaranteed that the bicycles would not be ridden away by thieves. The entire campus was imbued with a deep sense of relaxation.
So perhaps a locked university is an acceptable option–as long as it includes free bicycles, peacocks and the odd deer.