American college campuses are somewhat of a unique type of place in which the students’ tuition and alumni donations funds the university but those groups are often left out of important decision making processes. It can often manifest in a serious disconnect between the community of students and staff and the executive departments that advance changes which affect students and their on-campus experience. Arcadia University recently had to reckon with this disconnect when the university’s instagram posted some before and after images of renovations that had been made to various campus spaces prior to the start of the Fall 2022 semester. The renovations included changes to the first floor of Landman Library, the renovation of Stiteler auditorium into a space for a Physical Therapy program, and the installation of a new student lounge and computer lab in Murphy hall. The images, posted on November 4, consisted of several slides of photo grids that showcased the recent “upgrades” to those spaces. The post amassed over 350 comments from current students and alumni expressing deep disappointment, anger, and confusion with the changes made. The overwhelming amount of lengthy comments stand in stark contrast to the normal 1-3 comments that can be found under all other posts on the Arcadia Instagram page.
The first slide shows the before and after of Landman Library’s first floor where the older wooden tables and bookshelves were replaced with rows of newer work tables and a variety of funky and organic shaped chairs, stools and couches. The “after” images however seemed to lack intention as they left the space looking incredibly empty and not conducive to a productive workspace. The second slide shows the renovations made to Stiteler auditorium which cannot really be classified as an auditorium anymore because all the seating was removed and the stage cut in half. This was the point of most contention in the comments but before delving into the contents of those comments, there was also the final slide that showed an inaccurate before and after depiction. The before pictures show images of Murphy Hall’s photo lab on the second floor and the after images show pictures of the newly installed student lounge and updated computer lab on the first floor, an entirely different part of the building. This caused confusion as many students and alum thought that the photo lab had been removed altogether. Several commenters also pointed out how the library no longer looked like a workspace but rather an empty lounge area. Yet, it was the changes to Stiteler auditorium, also in Murphy Hall, that caused the most uproar from current students and alumni alike.
The commenters were overwhelmingly upset for several significant reasons. First, it’s important to know Arcadia University considers itself a Liberal Arts School and Murphy Hall is home to the Media and Communications Department, and much of the Visual and Performing Arts Departments. Murphy Hall is also the oldest building on campus and has held a long history as a community space. Actually, Stiteler Auditorium was originally a chapel and up until the renovation had beautiful stained glass windows along the wall that looked out into the Murphy courtyard. The historic stained glass windows were removed during the renovation and not properly handled so when delivered to the Gallery staff who were in charge of archiving the windows, there were many broken pieces. As the comments explained, students and alum all expressed how much they loved and enjoyed the space during their time, their fond memories of seeing performances and club meetings. The overall feeling among the students was that their space and community as students of liberal arts had been disregarded and replaced with a space for something that isn’t a part of that community. Many current students also talked about how their times for performing arts classes and activities are being frequently interrupted by the new users of the space. Students also pointed out a variety of other updates that were truly needed in other parts of campus, especially the need for more accessibility on campus, and the low quality of the housing buildings. Another point of contention was the recent purchase of Bishop McDevitt High School which shut down a few years ago. The property has been a point of interest for the University for a long time but it wasn’t until the school shut down that they purchased the property. Many commenters pointed out that this massive purchase should have been considered as a location for the PT facility rather than taking away the already small space belonging to liberal arts students.
Several alumni even commented that they were no longer interested in making donations to the University because of this oversight. The Arcadia University account made one response in the comments which directed students to read the article with more details about the renovations. The comment was met with more outrage and accusation of disregarding the true feedback from the commenters. Then, about four days later on November 8th, Arcadia University released a statement. Posted to their Instagram page, the statement was directed to the University Community and apologized for their “poor communication and engagement on this issue”. The statement clarified that there is no intent to close or minimize any of the arts programs, and that President Nair met with faculty leadership to plan listening and campus planning sessions for community members. It’s unclear who exactly runs the Universities instagram as in the past it’s often been run by media and communications students but not currently. In any case, the social media channel is one of the largest online representations of the University and it was interesting to see what their strategic response would be to the intensity of the comments.
Their key plan of action was to put together the listening sessions to show genuine concern for the thoughts students and alumni had but judging by the comments left under the statement, many felt it was too little, too late. From what I’ve heard the online listening sessions were poorly attended and people felt like there was no point in discussion because the damage was already done. Since the listening sessions, attention to the issue seems to have faded into the background of campus activity. It’s yet to be seen whether the issues of performing and visual arts students using the Stiteler space will be compromised any further. It’s unlikely that this will be the end of the controversy surrounding Stiteler in particular as the University has made a point of deeming it a “multi-use space”. For now, Arcadia can shift focus elsewhere but it will be important to see how they manage decisions surrounding renovations and especially the use of the newly purchased Bishop McDevitt High School space going forward.