Monday Minute, December 6, 2010


Last week I attended an event for University alumni and donors at the new Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York City, designed by CDes alumnus Yvonne Szeto (BArch, 1978), a partner with the architectural firm Pei, Cobb, Freed. While beautifully done, the building also had a surprising degree of security in and around it, including car-bomb-stopping bollards around its entire perimeter.

And today I responded to a talk by Maurice Cox, University of Virginia architecture professor and former mayor of Charlottesville, VA, and director of the NEA Design Arts program. Cox spoke at the Minneapolis Public Library about improving the quality of affordable housing, as part of a McKnight Foundation-funded effort that Becky Yust and Lyn Bruin (both Housing Studies), as well as some of our adjunct faculty, have been involved with.

Those two events may seem unrelated, but they raised at least two issues in my mind central to our college. First, the economic downturn of the last few years has arisen, in part, from the investment vehicles that firms like Goldman Sachs developed in response to well-intended national policies aimed at enabling more people to afford to buy a home. As our Housing Studies faculty know well, few societal challenges need attention more than the redesign of the systems by which we finance and deliver high-quality, affordable housing, without creating another bubble in our economy.

Second, the gap in income between the investment bankers I rode the elevators with at Goldman Sachs and the millions of people facing foreclosure or financial ruin in this country puts universities in a curious Robin Hood role, in which we try to leverage the largesse of a wealthy few in order to educate large numbers of people so that they can have more productive and fulfilling lives. While going to Goldman Sachs felt at first like going to the heart of the beast, I realized -- as I always do when talking with donors -- that we have a responsibility to level the playing field for our students so that they can thrive regardless of their economic situation or family background.

I mention this because, in the midst of the end-of-the-semester rush, we can overlook the larger role we play in our society and forget the fact that ours is, indeed, a noble calling.