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Shaping the Voices

Today I, along with the rest of the CS department, got a rather amusing and weird letter from the dean of CMU's CS department.

The recent opening of the Gates & Hillman centers represents a major upgrade in the quality and quantity of space in SCS. The new landscaping will also transform the atmosphere of campus. We did have to move into the buildings before they were totally ready, and there is still a lot of work to be done. There will also be continuing renovations in Wean Hall and Newell Simon Hall, so you can expect a certain amount of inconvenience.

That said, I am getting a lot of reports from people who are dismayed when they hear a litany of complaints or a lack of enthusiasm about the new facilities. I'm writing this message to ask you to be both kinder to the people who have been working like crazy to get things ready, and the people to whom we owe these amazing buildings.

I feel obligated, therefore, to give you a review of some basic etiquette. You know that it's not in my nature to make statements like this. Things have to get pretty serious for me to send email to scs-all on this subject.

Here are some tips:

If the president of the university asks you "How do you like your new office?" don't complain about the elevator or AC not working, or that the wrong furniture was put in your office. (Yes, some people really did that.) Don't say something ambiguous like "It's not too shabby." Remember that our administration made a big stretch financing this project to the tune of $98 MILLION DOLLARS. It has involved considerable effort in fundraising, and the university took on a lot of debt that will take 30 years to pay off. We've also moved into what I think is the the most amazing academic building in the world. Instead of complaining to someone who really is in no position to fix an elevator, try saying "Thank you. I really love this place."

When you feel inconvienced by the work that hasn't been completed, or you can't find something, don't get into a tirade with REDACTED, REDACTED, or the construction people. They have literally been working around the clock to get things ready. Try saying "Thanks for your hard work."

I note this because in the next several months we'll have a lot of people passing through. People like Bill Gates, Henry Hillman, Rick Rashid, an many alumni and visitors. These people have also made a big contribution to the welfare of SCS. Expressions of gratitude on your part are important.

Thoughts:I think it's inappropriate for him to either tell us what to think, tell people things that we should tell others about what we thing, or tell us we should have gratitude. It would be fake - one of the things about academic living is a greater openness in what we think, want, and how we live. This is not unique to academic life, and is not absolute, but the academic community should not put on smiles and build a Potemkin village for outsiders. Grassroots opinion should not be manufactured based on the interests of the university.

That said, we should be fair and sensible in the way we think about changes in the university, and particularly how we treat people. The redacted names above are those of people who have put a lot of effort into managing the transition to our new building, and very little, if any, criticism for the move belongs at their feet. Any unhappiness about the new building, the move, or the like should not be spewed at whomever is most visible - it belongs at the feet of those who made the decision.

There is a lot about Gates-Hillman not to like, as well as a lot of things to like. Some corners were cut, some things should've been seen as obviously wrong in the design stage, and some things are just incomplete (the construction company we're using deprioritised GHC because the late penalties for the Casino for the city were more onerous, I have heard). The new building is also ugly (so people can laugh at the Walking-to-the-sky eyesore and then sigh at GHC?) and has kind of a corporate look inside. However, some parts of the new building are pretty kickass. Speaking for my office, it is my second favourite of the four offices I have had on campus over my years here. The whiteboards-everywhere idea is great, the collaborative/open spaces are nice, and the new classrooms look nice. Would I have preferred another Weanlike building? Absolutely - Wean is ugly in a different way, but it was much more functional. GHC has its points though.

I am not the least bit grateful to CMU, nor do I see who should be - to me, CMU is an institution that I will eventually leave, likewise with grad students and undergrads. A new building is not a gift to me, it's just another piece of infrastructure that will be left behind at some point. It's good that they have more space, and some parts are pretty neat, some parts are bad too. It's not by any stretch the most amazing academic building in the world.

In the long run, I think a lack of honesty is not good in an academic environment (or really, anywhere). We're not here to tow the line, nor to give thanks to Bill Gates (a man whose company has as a whole set back software far more than advanced it (although Microsoft Research partly mitigates this with a number of their projects)). Offering a fair analysis of we think is far more valuable than smiles and forced praise. I recognise that perhaps were everyone to actually like the new building in every aspect it might be easier to get more donations, but that's not worth faking. I might have some beef with whomever designed the new building on some of their decisions, but I have some nice things to say as well, and I certainly could (and probably should) express my appreciation to the redacted parties for their much harder workload in the transition than normal. A shame on Randy Bryant for encouraging us to be fake. He could have simply reminded us of the positive aspects of the building and reminded us that the redacted folk have nothing to do with the move-in difficulties. What he did instead was inappropriate, particularly for our open academic culture.


if they wanted me to thank them for doing good hard work, their process should have been properly executed in ways that could easily have been done - for example, "hey students, what sort of a building do you want?" instead, they seem to have just gone and thrown a random building together, and seem intent on pretending that it's the greatest thing. that is not to be commended.

when i worked at google, everything on their campus seemed to have been driven by "focus on the user, and all else will follow". with that in mind, i am left a little underwhelmed by how much more solidly they could have done things.

furthermore: why are we being told what to say when asked our opinion on the place? if we complain, that should be a sign that there's improvement to be done! okay, maybe it's too late now, but asking for covering up of such seems shamefully inappropriate.