Fall 2013 Convocation Speech

"What is this Place, Anyway?": Placemaking in a 21st Century Public University
Margaret Purser
Chair of the Faculty

Fall 2013 Speakers
August 19, 2013

Ruben Armiñana

Andrew Rogerson
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

Margaret Purser
Chair of the Faculty

Mac Hart
Associated Students President

Marybeth Hull
Staff Representative to the Academic Senate

So, once again, welcome back, everyone!  Consider yourselves duly “convoked”.  Because that is what we use our convocation for.   A convocation can be many things, depending on what the institution needs it to be: it is fundamentally just a calling together of a group who belong to an institution for some shared purpose. And as such, all of them are more or less shaped around a ceremony of welcome, a “thank you all for coming”, “I’m sure you’re wondering why we asked you here today” sort of thing.  In our particular case, our convocation has become a ceremony of returning welcome: a getting back together each academic autumn, with enough newcomers and first-timers and guests thrown in to enliven the event a bit, and make things new again for all of us. 

Inherent in that idea of welcome back is the notion of “to someplace”.  Welcome back to here.  To SSU.  So I’d like to focus for a minute on that.  On the university as place.  We’ve done a great deal of talking, one way or another, over the past few years about what SSU is, as a public institution of higher learning in the early 21st century, and what we would like it to be.  But today I want to frame the question a little differently.  I want to ask, “what is this place, anyway?”

Because of course we are by no means alone in our conversations.  There’s a lot of talk these days about what a public university is.  What it should be, but isn’t.  How it can’t be what it was.  How it is doomed by new technology.  How it will be saved by new technology.  How the university as an institution is destined for new greatness.  How it’s destined for the dustbin of history.  How public universities are critical to the success of the nation. How most university degrees are worthless.  (You can just feel the consensus building, can’t you?)

One element that seems to be central to much of this discussion is the notion of universities as physical places, captured in the shorthand phrase “bricks-and-mortar”.   This is often juxtaposed to the perceived placelessness of something like the internet, and particularly online education.  The notion that a conventional university can be located somewhere, complete with google-map directions on how to get there, is more or less taken for granted.  And if you’re just looking at the bricks and mortar, then it does indeed work that way. Follow any one of the tour groups wandering our own campus for even ten minutes, and you can hear people reciting the familiar inventory of buildings and functions: “This is the university library. There are the dorms.  Here is the gym. Biology lab rooms are in that building; art studios in this one.”  So, this must be a university.  Right?

But of course, we know it is not as simple as that.  Most of us would argue that what makes a university a university is some combination of the physical place and what people do in that place.  In fact, that part about “what do you do in this place?” is really what is at the heart of many of these debates about the character and role of today’s university.  Should it continue to be the ‘same’ kind of place it has always been, or should it become a different kind of place?  And if so, then what? 

Well, it turns out there’s quite a bit of research out there on how people make places.  Physical existence is not all there is to making “place”.  Placemaking is not just about the moment of physically building something that converts space into a defined place.  It’s about what you do in that place.  What you choose to do, as individuals, and as a community, in that place. And those actions, the choosing and the doing, they go on and on, long after the mortar has set on the bricks.  It’s that repeated, reiterative process of living in, working in, playing in and passing through a place that gives every place made by humans their connections to a familiar past, and at the same time makes them theaters of the future, as people change what they choose to do, and thus change the place. 

People make places, very intentionally and deliberately, by how they use them, and what they use them for.  And they do not make all places in the same way.  Placemaking is quintessentially about identity, and belonging: about creating a surrounding world that is ‘right’ for the task at hand, whatever that task may be. Placemaking is often a mechanism for creating some new vision of rightness, of a new way of being in the world, as happens with utopian communities, religious groups, gated communities, hi-tech startup campuses, carnival grounds, and many other forms of intentional communities.  But placemaking is also of course a powerful mechanism for connecting with the past, and with heritage and tradition, as seen most evocatively in what are called ‘diasporic communities’: in refugee camps, immigrant neighborhoods, and yes, many college dorm rooms: a physical, material reference to another place left behind or lost altogether.  In recent times we have even become adept at making what anthropologist Marc Auge has called “non-places”:  spaces defined by transience, that are intended to be moved through without holding any real significance for us as a “place”.  Places like motel rooms, or airport gates, or big-box stores.  Hopefully, universities are not and will never be non-places. 

So how is it that people go about making the different kinds of places that shape the spaces we live in, work in, and move through on a daily basis?  As individuals, we tend to inherit most of our built environment from the past, from the way that others before us have built and used space.  Most of us spend much of our lives remaking places out of spaces that were actually built by other people.  So we often think of place-making at that individual or household scale, and as being about things we can see or touch or walk around in; personalizing that office, desk or cubicle.  Or that dorm room. Right? Remodeling our homes again, and again, and again.  Americans will spend about $124 billion dollars this year on remodeling, according to the National Association of Homebuilders.  And that’s actually DOWN a bit from last year.

But we also make places at the scale of our communities.  In some ways, ‘place-making’ here is much easier to see: it is “bricks and mortar” on the grand scale.  It’s where the buildings are.  The city limits. The way the streets run. The landscaping, monuments, memorials, and the public art.  The rules and regulations that define all this, hammered out in the context of some community governance: planning and zoning codes.  Speed limits.  Municipal policies about things like how tall your fence can be, where you can put your garbage, or how many parties you can have, and how big they can be. Communities also create their sense of place with the events that “take place” there:  the big collective, ceremonial events that celebrate and redefine that community again and again through the years in that particular physical place: the county fair.  The accordion festival. The convocation.

What really makes place at the community level are the myriad experiences shared in those places.  And those experiences grow out of what the people of that community choose to do in that space.  Sometimes those choices are not planned. Not scripted.  Not tradition.  Sometimes communities can also act spontaneously and dramatically in ways that change a place fundamentally.   I’ll give you an example.  Last year, we had two events ‘take place’ on this campus that shaped much of our ensuing discussion about who we were as a community.  The first occurred in a campus eatery, with the defacement of a poster for a student organization event.  Part of what made that event so alarming, and why it evoked such a strong response, was the way it played out in a theater of public, shared spaces: in a place where everyone was supposed to belong, some people were told that they did not.  But even more powerful was the way the campus community responded.  Convened within 24 hours by the good folks at the HUB and a number of student organizations, the event in response turned out so many people that it had to be moved from the Multi-purpose Room to the Commons.  On the fly, several hundred people shifted ground; administrators, public safety folks, students, faculty and staff all making this work, getting the Commons unlocked, grabbing chairs, remaking the place to fit the moment.  It was all over in an evening, it was more or less spontaneous, and it will never take place exactly like that again.  

But for the people who participated, and for many who heard about it all afterwards, these two linked  events will always be part of what they remember, and what they think of when someone asks them, what kind of place is Sonoma State University?  Long after the poor old Commons has vanished, people will remember what that room felt like, that night.  Community placemaking is about the things that communities choose to do, and not do, in their bricks-and-mortar reality.  Some placemaking events are momentous, and some are mundane.  Some are official, and many, many are unofficial.  All of them juxtapose an inherited place and ways of doing things against some new challenge, some new direction, some new need to do something different in an old place, and in the process make something new.

Now, we have been having these rich, productive, enlightening discussions about what kind of university we want to be, and where we want to go in the next 10 or 20 or 50 years of Sonoma State’s existence.  We have said that we value and want to foster collaborative, creative experiences for all of us. That we want an active, engaged, outward-looking curriculum that is relevant in today’s world.  That we want to be innovative, and problem-solving, and to create sustainable ways of going forward, for ourselves and for our communities and our society.  That we want to foster diversity and understanding and responsibility and leadership.  My question for us today is, are we making this place a place in which to do those things?  To be that university?  What is this place, anyway?  And how do we make this place be that place?

Well of course the first thing we’ve really got to do is put our money where our mouth is.  Starting with filling the gaping holes in the Academic and Student Affairs budgets. Permanently.  But it will take more than that.  In ways that clearly mirror the national debate over universities as places, we have all spent so much time and energy at Sonoma State in the past decade fighting battles over bricks and mortar that we have, as a community, largely taken place-making for granted.  This doesn’t mean that the battles weren’t legitimate. After all, I have fought them.  And given the same issues, I will probably continue fighting them. But the war has been costly.  And it is time to divert at least some of that energy and passion to looking at the placemaking and community-building that we need to do, and that, in fact, is really going on all around us, and needs our help.


Because far more often than it ever builds buildings, what a university builds are programs. We build curricula and co-curricula and majors and minors and internships and service-learning programs and grants and contract projects and community partnerships and field schools and research programs and lecture series and concerts and exhibits and sports teams and semesters abroad and on and on and on.  This, more than anything else, is how a university does it’s ‘placemaking’.  These things, built of class modules and syllabi and textbooks and labs and performances and studios and workshops and trainings and practices and retreats and committee meetings and endless conversations and brainstorming and planning and scheduling and budgeting and assessment and proposals and revisions and reports and presentations AND practice interviews and group projects and all-night study sessions and rehearsals and quizzes and office hours and final papers and final presentations and final exams and first drafts and second drafts and third drafts and final freakin’ drafts already: this is what we choose to do here.  This is how we make this place.  In fact, this is how we make it a university.  We build these things. These programs, these experiences, this education.  This place.  Together.

And we are doing all this right now.  A lot of it.  All the time.  A lot that is new and innovative and collaborative and that has some of us excited and engaged we haven’t been in years.  But sometimes, it can be hard to see.  Especially if you are just looking at the bricks and mortar.

So let’s see what part of this other kind of building looks like.  How many people in the audience are brand new to SSU, this year?


How many hired last 5 years? (Since 2008)


How many hired last 10 years (Since 2003)?

These are the university’s newest next generation. As a university, our time is always “now”: this is the eternal gift that our students bring us, every fall when they come for the first time to this place. But as students, and as new faculty and staff, they come to a place that is already here; they inherit the office space and the dorm rooms, and the programs and policies and ways of doing things in this place.  And they have to make it theirs.  These are the people whose placemaking at SSU may just be getting started.  May be just beginning to mature.  May be more dream than reality, right now.  Some of them are stepping into new positions that will change both what kinds of places they want to make, and how they get to make them: they may be new department chairs, have new staff positions, or are starting new majors.   So the first thing we can do, to start making the kind of place we have said we wanted, is to walk up to any one of these people, and ask them what they are doing to make this THEIR place. To build the kinds of programs and experiences we have brought them here to build. 

And then, ask them if they need any help.

And if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, well, I’d like to be building a program, I’d like to work with some colleagues and fix this problem, or start this project, or work together on this idea, but I have no clue how to get started, or make that happen, then please come check out this semester’s faculty lunchtime conversations in the Library.  Because that’s going to be the focus for this year.  We’re going to be inviting in people from all over campus who’ve succeeded in doing just that, and have them talk about what worked for them.  Come tell your colleagues what it is you want to do, and we will help you figure out how to do it.

Here’s another thing we can do to make this place work as the kind of place we want.  Can I please have everyone who participates in any aspect of university governance – faculty or student governance, any committee, any level, voting members, ex officio members, everybody – please stand?  We’ve already noted that this academic year we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Academic Senate at SSU.  Fifty years ago, in the very earliest days of the university, when there was a WHOLE lot less brick and mortar to be found around here, people came together to create one of the key institutional elements for building this place.  This is an opportunity to celebrate that heritage; that inherited legacy of how to create and maintain a university as an institution. It is also the opportunity to have a campus-wide conversation, much as we began to do two years ago about the university as a whole, about what kind of governance we want to have today.  What works about the way we do things, and for whom?  What do we need to work on?  How do we help our governance structures and processes become more inclusive, innovative, collaborative, engaged, and sustainable?  What is the role of governance in making this the kind of place we want it to be? 

So what is this place, anyway?  It’s a university. And we have a few bricks.  We have a whole lot of mortar.  Every day we move through a space that is full of beautifully landscaped gardens, paths, open spaces, sheltered groves, and bodies of water, thanks to the tireless and very beautiful place-making work of the staff in facilities, grounds and maintenance.   But what makes this place a university is what we choose to do here, as a university community, all of us.  And how we choose to do it.  So, welcome to the 2013-2014 academic year at this place, Sonoma State University.  Let’s go make it the place that we want it to be.