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OP-ED: Uniqueness Can Be Worth More than Cash

By James Lyons Walsh | December 4, 2023

Walsh is a UAlbany alumnus who graduated in 2020.

A photo taken on Sept. 10, 2022 of the Massry Center for Business, with a residence tower barely visible, through fog, beyond it.

Photo Credit: James Lyons Walsh

As a UAlbany graduate (PhD, 2020) whose backyard bordered the campus of the College of Saint Rose until we moved when I was seven, who got my teaching credential through that school (CAS, 2008), and who has two members of my immediate family who also graduated from it, I watched the decline of Saint Rose with sadness. Now that the board of trustees at Saint Rose has suddenly voted to close the school after graduation in May, I’d like to share with the UAlbany community a mistake I’ve seen both Saint Rose and UAlbany make.

In the past decade, as Saint Rose responded to the financial impact of its construction program and the demographic trend of declining college student enrollment, the school closed money-losing programs and tried to expand money-making ones. For example, art education was cut and marketing expanded.

Superficially, this might seem a prudent move. However, focusing on its popular programs to the detriment of others shed a large part of what had made Saint Rose appealing to my family members and me, its focus on social justice and its latter-day connection to its philosophical history, though its religious origins were not of interest to us. The retrenchment was not wrong per se, and some good may have come from the decision, but Saint Rose was a boutique school that sought to buy its survival by destroying its uniqueness. In an attempt to make money, it adopted the strategy of selling, essentially, some of the same products as UAlbany at a much higher price. Sealing your doom is bad business.

At UAlbany, the podium was a powerful and unique statement about the equal importance of all the academic subjects. Sure, some departments got larger digs, but they were architecturally balanced, in proportion to the needs of each. I don’t know whether anyone was consciously swayed by this idea. It may not have occurred to me before I started writing this essay. Still, feelings and the subconscious mind come into play in the enrollment decisions of prospective students and the choices alumni make concerning donations.

That inspiring symmetry has been broken. The podium has been joined by the gleaming palace of business that bears the name of Massry, which is to be found on the Saint Rose campus, too. The values expressed by UAlbany’s campus architecture were discarded by people who may not have considered that adding a building can lessen a campus.

Growth itself can be dangerous, and this wisdom may have undergirded the architecture of the podium, the symmetry of which counseled restraint. Too much growth in a school or business can cause bankruptcy. Too much growth in an economy leads to inflation. Too much economic growth in a geographical region causes ecological collapse. The cost of the necessities of life are currently growing out of reach because of excessive growth, with its overuse, and misallocation, of resources. Our civilization is at risk, and hence our species, too.

At UAlbany, my problem is not with the Massry family. I admire their achievements and have no doubt about their good intentions. In fact, I’m sure that everyone who donated toward the building’s construction was out to make the world better. My quarrel is not even with wealth, which can have beneficial effects on society. My alarm centers on truckling to wealth, on the idea that the wealthy will care for the rest of us, and on the harms that emerge from the myriad decisions we make in our own pursuit of wealth. I think people are also clever who manage to achieve their goals in life without becoming wealthy.

Tax the rich; don’t tickle them to extract their money. If you do sell naming rights, maybe require endowments to cover building operation costs. Maybe sell the naming rights for a greater number of endowed professorships, to entice prospective students seeking substance, not meretricious architectural finery.

Perhaps some students are drawn to enroll at UAlbany by the business department’s gaudy pile, but many schools are orienting themselves more directly toward cash acquisition at the same time. UAlbany might well be safer if it zigs while other research universities zag toward the big money. Uniqueness can be expected to correlate with longevity among brick-and-mortar schools in an education world waking to the possibilities of remote instruction.

Saint Rose might not have survived in any case, but by attempting to destroy its uniqueness, the school may have forfeited whatever chance it had. Though I am among its 47,000 alumni, I don’t think I’d have opened my wallet to try to rescue my alma mater, which seems to have contracted its fatal illness several years ago while undergoing treatment by business quacks.

Before he began to study physics at UAlbany in 2012, James Lyons Walsh received bachelor's and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Vermont and a certificate of advanced study in adolescence education from the College of Saint Rose. Because of the good offices of his thesis advisor at UAlbany, James completed the Complex Systems Summer School of the Santa Fe Institute. Since leaving UAlbany, he has written about the global polycrisis, the complex of mutually reinforcing crises that threaten our civilization.

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