August 15th, 2010

The question of campus beauty

Two days ago, I received a letter (presumably, a form letter) from the president of Hofstra. It highlighted some of the accomplishments of the previous year, noted the appointment of two new deans, and outlined the scope of the celebrations of this year, the University's seventy-fifth anniversary. Notably and unsuprisingly absent: any mention of the three events that brought attention of the wrong kind. (Those would be the ultimately false rape accusation in September, the dissolution of Pride football in December, and the abrupt resignation of Tim Welsh as basketball coach after an alleged DUI in April.)

But there was one other tidbit of information that more than piqued my interest. President Rabinowitz claimed that Hofstra's campus "was recently named in a national survey as one of the Top 10 most beautiful campuses in the country, along with the University of Hawaii, Pepperdine, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton." I had two immediate reactions. First: "Cornell better be in this top ten, or this survey is invalid on its face." I mean, come on! Anybody who has stood atop Libe Slope, at the foot of McGraw Tower and looked out at a setting sun over Cayuga Lake would be obliged to place the Big Red on their short list. Second: "Who did they poll - crack addicts on Fulton Avenue?" But of course, as the subject marinated in my brain, I recalled the importance of setting aside my own biases, and that beauty is a totally subjective concept. Even so, I've been to the three Ivy League campuses mentioned; all of them - and in particular, Princeton - are aesthetically a cut above my current stomping grounds in Hempstead. I also was forced to remind myself that this is a judgment on the beauty of the campus alone, and not the surrounding area. Therefore, I had to put out of my mind the aforementioned Fulton Avenue, which would, if considered, weigh heavily in the negative.

So last night, I set about trying to find the source material for this claim. After going through a couple of lists, I seem to have found it: this list supplied by the Penn Group. In addition to the five named schools and Hofstra (which is ranked No. 8), the other four are University of the Pacific, Wellesley, Michigan, and William and Mary. I'll stipulate to the top two on the list - Pepperdine is in Malibu, and UH is, well, in Hawaii. I saw a little bit of Michigan when I passed through on the road trip, but not enough to make an educated judgment. But once I'd seen the full list, my doubts as to its reliability remained. In addition to my gripe about Cornell's exclusion, Dartmouth can make a serious argument for inclusion. I've walked through Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, and all three of those schools most certainly could hold a candle to Hofstra. As I researched this, I was reminded of another significant detractor from Hofstra's beauty - the gaudy blue nameplate signs in front of every building and framing the campus maps. Apparently, they're a relatively recent installation, and were put in without consulting the student body - as evidenced by the Facebook group "Hofstra University Is Not A Theme Park."

I can continue to spew on about the whole beauty thing until I'm blue in the face and my hands cramp up, but it wouldn't be worth very much. I want to turn to the questionable aspects of the source. I haven't been able to find this particular list anywhere else, so I will assume that it's the original. This isn't exactly U. S. News and World Report or The Princeton Review we're talking about here. There's no explanation on the methodology used to compile this list. For all we know, this could be simply a sampling of the opinions of the membership of The Penn Group. I don't mean to cast any aspersion on them - I'm sure they do fine work helping teenagers get into their top-choice schools. But if Hofstra is calling this list a "national survey," in a letter signed by its president - not so good. Not so good at all. They're passing off as legitimate something that likely wouldn't pass muster in many of their own classes.

As I close this, I'm tempted to find and link to a picture of a ceramic dalmatian. It is, in some Internet circles, a symbol of the pointlessness of an argument. One sentence in a three-and-a-half page letter has generated hundreds of words of blog content, but ultimately doesn't much shift the course of human history, American history, or Hofstronian history. You know what might produce such a shift? Jimmy Fallon losing his composure in front of a capacity crowd at Adams Playhouse. But alas, I won't be there to see that - I've already committed to spend the weekend of Hofstra's 75th birthday party in the Finger Lakes.