There's no place like home
by Leora Baude


       
      College towns are in many ways like Tolstoy's happy families, very much alike in their happy constellation of allurements: their coffee shops, their higher-than-average density of ethnic restaurants, their educated inhabitants with funds of well-informed small-talk. Some schools are better than others at fulfilling the promise implied by these attractions - the promise of a place where the life of the mind is taken seriously. The real core of a university is no doubt elsewhere - in the classroom. But a university prospers according to its success in attracting and retaining the best people - students and faculty - and a lot of that work of recruitment is done, silently, by the professional and cultural amenities that exist beyond the classroom.

Libraries

      When English professor Ken Johnston was doing research for his most recent book, a biography of the poet William Wordsworth, he found, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that what he was looking for was right in his own back yard all along. His original plan was to work in the British Library in London, a marvelous storehouse of more than 16 million manuscripts and books. He even had the chance to stay rent-free in a London apartment. But in the end, says Johnston, "I saw how inefficient the British Library was, and I was getting so much work done at the library here at IU that I decided to stay. There was so much I could use in the collection and through the wonderful ease of inter-library loan."

      IU's main library houses around 4 million books (not enough, in spite of urban legend, to cause it to sink). And yet, being a bit off the beaten track here in Southern Indiana, it is underutilized, Johnston says, for a library of its size and quality - which means easy access to both books and staff. "The library is a very big selling point," he says.

      Furthermore, the Bloomington campus houses some specialized collections, such as the holdings of the Kinsey Institute, that draw researchers from around the world. The Lilly Library of rare books, for instance, contains nearly half a million books and more than 6.5 million manuscripts. Besides its more obvious stars - a Gutenberg Bible, George Washington's letter accepting the presidency - the Lilly Library holds the principal archives of such major American writers as Upton Sinclair and Sylvia Plath, as well as substantial collections from Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. There is a notable collection of children's literature, Orson Welles' radio scripts and recordings, an edition of the first cookbook published in America, and countless other treasures and oddities.

Computing

      For the past several years, IU consistently has been ranked among the very top schools in a Yahoo! survey of how "wired" universities are. Just a decade ago, that computing power might have seemed to many to be scarcely more than an irrelevancy, but today, it is part of IU's lifeblood.

      In a modern university, being connected is a necessity. It permits worldwide collaborations among scholars, making Bloomington, Ind., just as easy to reach as New York or Los Angeles.

      Being connected also allows students greater access to their professors, to information, and to each other. Course syllabi and readings are available online. Dorms and classrooms are wired so that students can easily use their own computers, and computing labs all over campus ensure that everyone can have access to high-end hardware and software, quick connections, and technical support.

      But beyond the convenience of this connectivity, the computing infrastructure established, maintained, and updated at IU has encouraged the development of ambitious research projects that would not be possible in a less wired environment. For example, IU recently acquired the largest university-owned supercomputer in the nation, tripling IU's previous supercomputing capacity and serving as the backbone for a planned genomics research collaboration with IBM. The CAVE, a state-of-the-art virtual reality laboratory (Computer Automated Virtual Environment) in Lindley Hall, serves both artists and scientists, who use it to create new and innovative modeling techniques.

      Jeffrey Hart, chair of the political science department, says that IU's computing facilities provide crucial support for his work. And, he adds, "We are quite competitive with other major universities in offering state-of-the-art computing."

Arts

      According to Hart, non-academic factors are also vital to attracting new faculty to IU. "Many of the people we are trying to recruit come from large cities and need to be reassured that they will still have a rich cultural life if they move to Bloomington. Music, theater, and other cultural events are important for improving the quality of life." Happily, IU is more than willing to oblige.

      Nobody who has been anywhere near the intersection of Jordan Avenue and Seventh Street in the last few years could doubt that theater matters at IU. The IU Auditorium and theater building has always been versatile. The auditorium, which fronts Showalter Fountain, has the largest, most formal of the building's venues, where touring acts often perform. Toward the rear of the original building, the University Theatre has housed a smaller, traditional stage, and, upstairs, the always filled-to-bursting T300 offers more experimental productions. As part of a major new construction project, an addition to the rear of the building, opening this winter, adds beautiful and flexible new performance spaces, classrooms, and workshops, and also will house the Marcellus Neal and Frances Marshall Black Culture Center (named for the first male and female African-American graduates of IU).

      Practically next door to the theater is the IU Art Museum, a soaring glass-and-limestone structure designed by the renowned architect I.M. Pei and built in the early 1980s to house an extensive collection of more than 30,000 works of art. The collection, ranging from ancient gold jewelry and African masks to paintings by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, was developed as an educational resource to represent the major artistic traditions of the world.

      And then, of course, there is the music school.

      "I get tired of saying how wonderful it is," says Johnston, "because we always talk about the School of Music, but it's true."

      One of the best music schools in the country, standing alongside the Juilliard and Eastman schools of music, its faculty and students have included some of the greatest musicians in the world.
       
      For Leanne Dodge, a sophomore Wells Scholar who grew up in Bloomington, the presence of a world-class music school is what led her to choose IU. Academically gifted, she has also studied violin seriously since she was a child. "I knew I didn't want to be someplace with only music," she says, "but I also didn't want to be someplace that was only about academics."
      Originally planning to study biochemistry, Dodge is now leaning toward cognitive science, and she spent last summer as an intern at the Foundation for Economic Education in New York, but whatever she does, her love of music is a constant. "It's always hard to find a balance," she says, "but at IU, I'm limited only by not having enough time; the opportunities are all there."

The campus

      "It's unfortunate," says Johnston, "that recruiting season for new faculty is in January, not October." As he speaks, seated in his book-lined office in Ballantine Hall, the window behind him frames the extravagantly vivid colors of an Indiana fall.

      The beauty of the Indiana University campus is one of its most obvious, but perhaps least quantifiable, assets. Johnston lives just a few blocks from campus and is deeply appreciative of its charms. "This place doesn't seem like as big a university as it is," he says. "It's broken up by all these wonderful spaces - Dunn Meadow, the woods, the Arboretum, and lots of smaller spaces like the green swath by Woodburn Hall. Open spaces are crucial to the feeling of this place. It is so important, in human terms, to have them."

      And the town itself is liveable and lively. "Often, young faculty members don't have families yet, and they don't see at first what an easy and pleasant place it is to live," says Johnston. "The truth is," he continues, "academic life and its routines are not that different anywhere. Professors at Columbia are not going out to nightclubs every night."

      A native Midwesterner himself, even Johnston was surprised by the beauty of this part of the state. "People do find out that Southern Indiana is not like the clicheŽd Midwestern town, flat and full of cornfields. Geologically, we are at the northernmost corner of Appalachia." When Johnston came to IU in 1966, it was a job that brought him. It is the ease and pleasantness of his life here, however, that has made it home.

The College Magazine - Summer 2001 : page's bottom template

The College of Arts and Sciences Homepage