By Benjamin J. Sacks
May is commencement season in American higher education. Throughout the country nearly 4,000 research universities, liberal-arts colleges, community colleges, and specialty schools will graduate hundreds of thousands of students. It is fitting, then, to highlight the fascinating role geography plays in higher education. The American university model is traditionally designed as an all-encompassing environment for academic life, learning, and society. Most institutions are designed with the following characteristics in mind: a central green, or quadrangle surrounded by administrative, departmental, and library buildings. Surrounding the quadrangle lie dormitories, other libraries, offices, classrooms, and facilities. Finally, sports facilities and grounds are added.
The geographic organization of these buildings in relationship to one other, as well as how they fit in as part of the larger ‘whole’ of the university, is sweeping in its variety. In a review of Architecture and Utopia, Isaac A. Meir argued that, ‘Envisioning, designing, and building the ideal environment has been part of the human endeavour since time immemorial. The physical setting in which a society functions is perceived a basic determinant of social interaction’ [Geographical Journal 174 no. 2 (June, 2008): pp. 188-189]. American universities, young in comparison to their European and Asian counterparts, were deliberately designed as utopian landscapes. Such visionaries as Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903), responsible for the layout of the Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, and University of Chicago campuses, molded architecture and landscape together to create fabricated geographies. In so doing, university founders determined the nature of social/academic interaction. Frederick Rudolph’s seminal work, The American College and University: A History, remains the most important analysis of the social and economic forces behind American university geography. Peter Kraftl’s ‘Geographies of Architecture: the Multiple Lives of Buildings’ in the May, 2010 issue of Geography Compass provides new, contemporary discussion of the role buildings play in human geography.
Perspectives on university and geography are by no means limited to the American experience. The ancient universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, Paris, Salamanca, and Vienna, amongst others, grew as an integral part of their urban surroundings. Through gradual expansion concurrent with the development of the community, the geography of the mediaeval university became the geography of the city.