Multidisciplinary programs find new home in renovation

The fourteen multidisciplinary programs Vassar offers may get an academic space to call their own in a surprising new location: Baldwin. “Hopefully, a building move will shed the spotlight on multidisciplinary programs,” commented Leah Cates ’20 [full disclosure: Cates is a Contributing Editor for The Miscellany News], the academic intern for the Women’s Studies Program. “Not only in the short term, but also in the long term if the space is appealing, original and practical, and fosters collaboration among the program.”

The multidisciplinary programs at Vassar are perhaps one of the school’s best living examples of how collaborative and complex a classic liberal arts education can be. Majors such as Urban Studies, Africana Studies and International Studies combine resources and professors from various disciplines to create a unique major that, according to the Vassar Catalogue, focuses on a “single problem or series of problems that cannot be approached by one discipline alone.” Students who choose multidisciplinary subjects cite the program’s flexibility and variety as reasons for loving their majors. Since 2013, the Old Laundry Building has provided classroom and office space for multidisciplinary professors and students. Since these programs have become increasingly popular and recognized as necessary disciplines, their home base could be upgraded, turning Baldwin into a Center for Multidisciplinary Study. According to Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann, “The Center for Multidisciplinary Study will provide up-to-date teaching and office space not only for the Multidisciplinary Programs but also for other multidisciplinary initiatives and pedagogies.”

Baldwin House opened in 1940 as an infirmary for the College, and has housed Health Services ever since. A building not known for its architectural beauty, it may be a surprising pick for some students as the site for an upcoming renovation. Yet Professor Director of Urban Studies and Tatlock Chair of Multidisciplinary Programs Tobias Armbrost sees promise in the building: “Under the dust, Baldwin is actually a quite beautiful building that holds so much potential for a range of spaces for all sorts of programs.” Students involved in planning are also excited about what the space could bring. “The classroom and lounge layout might be cool in Baldwin,” explained Cates. “You walk in, and you immediately see the lounge area, which has the potential to be welcoming and friendly, and then the classrooms branch off of that.” While an architect has not yet been selected, the renovation will be an adaptive reuse of the building, meaning that it will be converted into an academic space while maintaining its history and integrity.

If Baldwin becomes a new academic building, what will happen to Health Services? According to Begemann, another significant renovation, currently in its infancy stage of design, is the Integrated Health Wellness, Recreation and Athletics facility. The new facility would include a renovated health services center as well as the counseling center, which currently resides in Metcalf. The new structure would also include upgraded athletic facilities.

While the architectural plans have not been officially designed, students and faculty alike are excited about a building that can foster multidisciplinary community. In the spirit of the multidisciplinary programs themselves, the planning process for their future home base is collaborative and inclusive. Armbrost is a leader in the planning and design of the space, but he is not calling the shots alone: “My main role and concern in this process is to bring the many voices of students, faculty and administrative assistants from the multidisciplinary programs into the early stages of the planning process.”

In an effort to hear more ideas about what students and faculty want from this future space, administration and faculty alike have been organizing collaborative meetings to sketch out potential designs this semester. Sophie Kaplan-Bucciarelli ’20, the academic intern for the Urban Studies department, has been actively involved in the discussion: “[I] think it’s a real step in the right direction with regards to bringing more transparency to Vassar’s planning processes.” In the past, there has been student pushback against renovations that the College has rolled out. For example, with another upcoming construction project, the Inn and Institute, the administration received backlash from students regarding both its purpose and environmental impact. The designs for the Inn & Institute were revised to be carbon neutral on site after a student petition and extended student input to the administration (The Miscellany News, “The I&I will be carbon neutral. Here’s what that means,” 08.03.2019). With this backdrop, the success of this renovation could set a precedent for collaboration with student leadership in future projects the College embarks on.

A new space could be a game changer for the popularity of multidisciplinary programs. While some multidisciplinary majors, like Environmental Studies and International Studies, are popular, others, like Women’s Studies, only had two majors in this year’s entire senior class. Cates is one of these majors, and described her desire for some multidisciplinary programs to be appreciated: “People tend to forget about the multidisciplinary programs or just consider those disciplines as potential correlates.”

Beyond shedding light on the multidisciplinary programs themselves, this project signals the College’s commitment to expanding the liberal arts and social sciences in a time when there is an emphasis on investment in STEM. The last major project for an academic space was the building of the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, which opened in winter 2016.

For now, students involved in the planning process remain excited about spreading the word to other multidisciplinary majors and faculty. “That’s a large part of what makes this project so exciting to me,” explained Kaplan-Bucciarelli, “Students are being invited to participate in the visioning and creation of a building that will outlast their time at Vassar and continue to work for students far into the future.”

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