Aquatics center sinks and does not swim

The pitfalls of proposed Cal aquatics center

Graham Haught/Staff

On Sunday, April 7, 2013, The Daily Californian ran a story with the headline “Campus announces plans to construct new aquatics center.” It’s unclear from the story just when this announcement might be said to have taken place, since a public hearing on the proposal was held in Berkeley on April 3. Presumably, at least those who organized the meeting knew of the proposal in advance. Still, it’s fair to say that the proposal came as a complete surprise to most of the Daily Cal’s readership — that is to say, faculty, staff and students.

We’re told by Intercollegiate Athletics that the proposed Aquatics Center, to be built on what’s currently a parking lot adjacent to the Tang Student Health Center, is an “extremely generous” proposal on the part of private donors (referred to as “Cal Aquatic Legends”), who have engaged to raise all necessary money. We’re told that Berkeley’s pool facilities pale in comparison with those of Stanford and that the pool facilities we have are too crowded. Forced to share Spieker Pool with other students, faculty and community members, the swimmers and divers who compete for Berkeley on an intercollegiate level can only practice at certain times, which limits their opportunity to elect certain major fields of study.

Why should we look this gift horse in the mouth?

With the new Aquatics Center, intercollegiate athletes would no longer have to share. We’re told that the proposed new facility would be for the exclusive use of intercollegiate athletes and certain illustrious alumni. Thus the proposal is parallel in concept to the recently completed Student Athlete High Performance Center near Memorial Stadium and Memorial Grove. When that project was first proposed, the Cal community was also promised that it would be funded entirely through private donations; in 2006, we were told that $90 million was “in the bank.” We know now that only $29 million was raised through private donations. Instead, the university is in debt for that facility alone (not counting Memorial Stadium) to the tune of $124 million.

It’s probably true that better facilities and resources aid performance. But shouldn’t we be applying that principle first to the 99 percent of Berkeley students who are not intercollegiate athletes, and to the object of academic performance? Instead, a valuable public resource (the land granted to the university to educate California’s citizens) would be diverted to serve the interests of only a few. Even if the construction costs of the proposed Aquatics Center are entirely covered by private donations, the plans for the building effectively monopolize that space, excluding 99 percent of the Berkeley community from its usufruct.

Wherever we turn today, we read that the “bricks and mortar” university is no longer viable – that it’s too costly and denies access to high-quality education. At Berkeley, we’re all too familiar with the crumbling of bricks and mortar; after nearly every winter rainstorm, one can find pieces of mortar or peeling paint along with puddles in some of the campus’s most historic buildings, including the hallways and locker rooms of Hearst Gymnasium, the poor but beautiful elder sister of the Spieker complex. Faculty members try to teach and conduct research in deteriorating classrooms and laboratories. Donors, we are told, have no interest in funding the repair of existing facilities, in upgrading and greening the heating and plumbing systems. And the state’s declining support for the UC system makes even everyday maintenance a financial challenge. To respond to these challenges, the administration tries to find ways to cut costs — diminished library hours, fewer books bought, class enrollments shrunk to accommodate available classroom space and decreased numbers of ladder-rank faculty.

In this context, it’s not just the prospect of turning a parking lot into an athletic facility that galls. It’s the fact that the new facility will be for the exclusive use of a small number of intercollegiate athletes, some of whom already receive support in the form of athletic scholarships. The rest of the student body, as well as the faculty and the community, will still have access to existing facilities. But what’s to guarantee that “access” will actually be any more extensive? Where is the plan to provide more hours for recreational swimming, to pay for the requisite lifeguards and staff? It’s true that the Aquatics Center is planned for a space that’s currently a parking lot — hardly an inspired use of precious space (unless one considers the disinvestment in public transportation, which makes it difficult for many students, faculty and staff who live far from BART to get to campus except by car). But it’s not as if the University has worked with Alameda County to improve bus service or on its own to develop a shuttle service, despite the fact that available parking for faculty, staff and students has been seriously diminished by recent campus building projects. Moreover, the Environmental Impact Report filed for the Aquatics Center acknowledges that the project “conflicts with the existing applicable land use plan” as laid out in both the 2020 Long Range Development Plan and the South Side Plan.

Consider what’s happening here. It’s a perfect case of what’s called “the privatization of public resources.” Often “privatization” is represented as a benefit, the assumption being that “private enterprise” operates more efficiently than public entities that serve a larger constituency and often conform to a greater number of regulations (kind of like the difference between a car and a bus.) But we need to remember to ask who benefits from these supposed efficiencies. In the case of the Aquatics Center, UC Berkeley would be ceding land use — granted by the state for the benefit of all Californians — to a tiny fraction of athletes. Given past history, it is likely that students and taxpayers would end up financing a good portion of the costs.

And what of the net psychic costs? Although universities are imperfect institutions, traversed by all the economic, social and cultural inequalities of their historical moment, they also have their utopian aspect: the “oneness” implicit in the name; the sense that the accumulated resources of a university, intellectual and physical, are shared by all members of its community. That’s why a university’s libraries, grounds and buildings — its “bricks and mortar” — are still important because they provide a space for the exchange of knowledge as a common good and remind us that education is, at its best, a res publica — a public thing.

We should therefore ask the administration to halt planning and construction of the Aquatics Center until intercollegiate athletics demonstrates that it is a) actually, truly fully paid for by donors and b) a good use of collective public university resources at the present time, given that it will be used by a small fraction of the campus community for a nonacademic mission.

Celeste Langan is an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley.

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