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One Potato, Two Potato


Faculty members select offices in the  new Academic Building, revealing an idiosyncratic democracy in action-by Phyllis Graber  Jensen
Among the pile of gifts that Professor of History Michael Jones opened last Christmas morning was an unexpected package from colleague Atsuko Hirai, Kazushige Hirasawa Professor of History. Unwrapping the festively decorated box, Jones found – to his amazement – a gold foil key. The enclosed note informed Jones that the symbolic key would open a coveted first-floor corner office in the new Academic Building, scheduled to open its doors in the fall of 1999.A little history: The two colleagues, among eleven professors with offices in ramshackle Canham House, had engaged in a friendly yet earnest debate to determine whose current office “misery index” was higher. The winner of the misery – index debate would claim the most desirable office space- three windows on two walls and a view of Lake Andrews – in the history wing of the new building.

The debate had raged for weeks. Jones would point out that his first – floor office, facing the foyer, established him as de facto departmental concierge and postal clerk, as the mailboxes are directly outside Jones’s door. Hirai, tucked in the sunless northwest corner of the house, would counter that she suffered from loneliness and isolation.

Then Hirai acquiesced. In response to the unexpected gesture of accommodation, Jones served a rum cake in her honor at the next departmental meeting, toasting her kindness and generosity. “Conflict resolution and gift exchange,” Jones explained.

With the five-level Academic Building dramatically rising on the banks of Lake Andrews, Bates faculty members in the social sciences are buzzing in anticipation of a new way of life: new teaching spaces, new offices with room for students (no more subterranean spaces in Libbey or chilly outposts in Canham House), and new gathering areas for the entire campus community.

Confronted by the inevitable reality of spanking-new offices in a radically different setting, more than fifty faculty members in the social sciences have spent the last few months deciding just who will move into which offices within the 91,000-square-foot structure. Despite the virtually identical nature of these basic nine-by-nineteen-foot rectangles, great attention has been paid to their relative merits and to the distribution of the perceived privileges that each space carries. Indeed, departmental decision-making processes reveal more than a little about the Bates campus culture, where idiosyncratic democracy is thriving.

“In the non-hierarchical academic culture of Bates, it seems central that decisions about space have been made this way,” said Associate Professor of Sociology Emily Kane, a relative newcomer to the Bates faculty, having arrived in 1996. Both Kane and Professor of History Steve Hochstadt mentioned, as an example, the tradition of Bates Commencements, where senior professors often break from their assigned marching order to walk with their friends (faculty are supposed to march according to their professional status). “There is a democratic sense on campus,” Hochstadt said. “You don’t have to be here for X number of years to participate in decisions.”

Concerned with “creating a democratic means” for picking office spaces, the history department abandoned a scheme of giving the best new offices to those with the worst current accommodations in Canham House. Assistant Professor of History Hilmar Jensen suggested that everybody just talk about what they wanted and see how it worked out. Only Jones and Hirai asked for the same space, it turned out, and they succeeded in navigating their straits of negotiation without rancor. “We ended up with lots of happy conversations about topics we normally never discuss,” Hochstadt said.

Take Dennis Grafflin, professor of history. In characteristically linear and whimsical fashion, he provided floor plans and original drawings in a memo to colleagues. In addition to commonsensical approaches to the selection of offices, Grafflin proposed the nonsensical: “We could spread our official photos out in a parking lot and let the gods decide. The winner is the one whose image collects the first bird dropping.”

Grafflin pleaded guilty to distraction: “I found myself lying awake last night thinking about the office selection process.” Other Grafflinesque suggestions included a random process, where “the fickle finger of fate might single me out for glorious preferment.” Hochstadt credits Ernest Muller, professor of history for thirty-eight years before his 1988 retirement, for instilling the department’s democratic sensibilities. Following the lead of its senior members, recruited by Muller years ago, the history department spent several hours in both structured and informal conversation about their move into the new building. They focused on issues of light and proximity to classrooms, seminar rooms, and lounges, not to mention staircases and restrooms. They took walks to the construction site to determine sight lines from their first floor wing, which faces the Bardwell Street tennis courts and wraps around the banks of Lake Andrews.

Not every department engaged in such full-blown explorations of need. Some cut directly to the chase. The political science department adhered to the seniority system, following a precedent set in 1987 when the department moved from Libbey Forum to 45 Campus Avenue. The same seniority system had been used pre-1987 among all the faculty members in Libbey: as offices became vacant, people moved, if they wished, according to seniority.

“Office assignments are made in the same way for members of Congress,” said Professor of Political Science Douglas Hodgkin, an expert in Congressional deportment. “After every election, there is massive moving around,” especially because the quality of Congressional offices varies substantially. Hodgkin points out that prime office space “is a reward for long service to an institution.”

The economics department also demonstrated such appreciation. “We allocated what was seen as the premiere office, with three windows, to Anne Williams [professor of economics] in recognition of her longtime service to the department,” said David Aschauer, Elmer W. Campbell Professor of Economics and chair of the department. The nod to Williams, one of the senior members of the department, served a dual purpose, Aschauer explained: “Explicitly, it was a nice recognition of her. Implicitly, by showing such appreciation we avoided conflict between individuals with seniority who might have had a claim” to the most coveted spot. The remainder of the department listed preferences on paper, negotiating a few conflicts by the flip of a coin, and awarded another desirable office to Maggie Maurer-Fazio, stationed in China for the year and unable to participate in the proceedings.

Pressed by a rapidly approaching deadline for submission of office assignments, sociology’s Emily Kane, as department chair, made a unilateral decision: seniority would be the mode of assignment for her colleagues, scheduled to escape Libbey Forum for the second floor of the new building. The senior member of the department is even-keeled Sawyer Sylvester, who deflected the chance for self-aggrandizement by eschewing a corner office and choosing instead an office right in the middle of the hall. “He didn’t seek the best spot for himself,” Kane said.

A neighbor of sociology in Libbey, the anthropology department made its office selections in the new student coffeehouse, the Ronj. After exploring the relative merits of each location, the group decided to draw lots at random. Members dropped five numbered scraps of paper into a trash can and further debated who should pick first (a statistical irrelevancy, Dana Professor of Psychology Drake Bradley pointed out: “It doesn’t change the odds”). “By the luck of the draw, it worked out that the two senior white men still got first choice,” said Associate Professor Elizabeth Eames, who can barely restrain her enthusiasm about moving. “I’m just so thrilled to get out of Libbey. It’s been like living in a submarine.”

Bradley, a member of the Academic Building Program Committee, “jokingly” suggested to his psychology colleagues that they choose their third- floor office placement by reverse seniority, “the reasoning being that people who will be here the longest will have the most at stake.” This scheme failed to materialize exactly as planned, although the department’s basic egalitarianism triumphed, as the junior people were invited to select offices first, and they worked it out on a consensus basis.

“There aren’t any bad offices in the new building,” Bradley said, “so there really wasn’t much of an issue there. Deferring to the junior members was more a gesture on the part of the senior people,” some of whom actually sparred for the position of last choice. Last in line, it turned out, was Dick Wagner, the senior member of the department. Bradley considered challenging him to a one- on-one match of hoops for the “honor” of last pick, a show of bravado that a female colleague dismissed as display of testosterone “between two males.” According to Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott architect Sandy Howe, in designing the new Academic Building, “Bates did its homework,” thus avoiding a conflict he often encounters with educational clients. “The fight we never had at Bates was over office size, which often gets squeezed in the budget,” Howe said. Bates decided on a slightly larger-than-average office space, in order to provide both personal turf and accommodation for students to work with faculty members in their offices.

While some chose for orientation and others for altruism, Grafflin and Professor of History Elizabeth Tobin chose for each other. A love story? Not exactly. Tobin, chair of the Division of Social Sciences, job-shares a faculty position in European history with her husband, Steve Hochstadt, the department chair. They also share an office in Canham House. After learning they would receive separate offices in the new Academic Building, the couple chose adjacent ones -to maintain easy access to a jointly owned book collection.

The arrangement pleased Tobin, but left another concern unaddressed: she wanted to keep her Canham House neighbor Dennis Grafflin. The two share an office wall, a sense of humor, and a world view. “It didn’t seem rational to choose an office because I wanted to be next to one of my friends,” Tobin admitted, “but after all these high falutin’ committees, I was going to be upset if I couldn’t be next to Dennis.”

Ditto for Grafflin. “I chose my office because it was next to Liz Tobin’s office. I rely on her for all sorts of advice and information, and I was happy to think I would continue to be next door to her. I’m tremendously fond of her, but that’s not it. She’s a real resource for me here at Bates College.”

Faced by the excitement, uncertainty, and profound change brought by moving -”the heaven and hell of it,” according to architect Howe -a taste of status quo certainly seems comforting.


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