Ironically enough, our modern world’s improved telecommunications and transportation infrastructure have allowed us to domestically isolate ourselves better than ever before. In its current state, the internet mimics the universe: both are ever-expanding, and, thus, infinite. This continuous expansion allows the world’s population, a comparatively stable number, ever-expanding space-per-person to inhabit and peruse. Limitless options mean that more individuals visit more websites, while being able to have fewer and fewer sites in common. Thus, the mid-twentieth-century’s common popular media, with its resultant common language and decorum, quickly is evolving into individually-customized, less-translatable social infrastructure.
This frayed social infrastructure is one cause of my alma mater, UCSD’s, recent racial disaster. The “Compton Cookout” was not a cause of poor race relations, but just one symptom of a university that feels more like an institution than a community. UCSD students, 30,000 strong, are not inherently less social than other schools’, but La Jolla’s housing laws have forced most students to live on a 15-minute arc around campus. As soon as students finish class, they hop on the silent bus from central campus to a Disneyland-proportioned parking lot, and drive off – not carpooling — to the comfort of their housemates and neighbors.
This de facto segregation allows UCSD students to “other” their peers even more than most of us do in our post-collegiate lives. At its most benign, this othering just results in smaller social circles and more Warcraft. At its most dangerous, this space-induced disconnect creates misunderstanding, resentment, cynicism, hate, close-mindedness, and violence.
Fortunately, UCSD is in an excellent position to rectify its social malaise, as it owns a tremendous amount of property directly adjacent to central campus that could be great sites for more on-campus housing. However, a better option would be to convert its eastern parking lots, spanning dozens of acres and thousands of cars, into a mixed-use university housing community. Erecting even a mere dozen high-rise apartment buildings could allow UCSD to provide three years of on-campus housing, instead of two. Moreover, hosting restaurants, cafes, cars, and other businesses on the street levels would help create a bustling neighborhood primed for social interaction.
In the three years since I graduated, UCSD has built a business school, new retail center, and a medical school annex, among other significant development projects. Instead of spending money on shiny classrooms and retail outlets, UCSD should invest in its students’ sense of community, fostering both school spirit and a more open, academic dialogue.
Shared space creates shared experiences, which give a diverse populace common ground on which to inquire, explore, thrive, and debate. However, UCSD’s current social climate does not foster anything but isolation and petty cliques. Its 350-student lectures, residential diaspora, and numbers-based admissions standards result in an exceptionally inefficient diploma factory – not an engine that produces leaders and public servants en masse.
UCSD’s residential colleges are named after intellectual and social leaders: Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Muir, and founder Roger Revelle. In order to live up to these heroes’ ideals, UCSD must re-commit itself to fostering a safe space for intellectual discourse and all its accompanying social benefits. At the end of the day, the easiest way to accomplish this goal is to create more shared physical spaces that will foster shared social commitments to civility, scholarship, progress, and public service.