I listened to an NPR piece just last week that talked about the comeback of local bookstores. The story did not pretend that local bookstores could compete on the basis of access to content, but instead argued that local bookstores were responding to a need for physical spaces for people to come together to talk about books and ideas and to connect with other interesting people. The story argued for the power of serendipity—planned serendipity—emanating from spaces and places that attract people together to engage the intelligence, imagination, and curiosity of a community.
A question I grapple with on a daily basis is this: What will the most effective residential colleges look like in 10, 20, or 50 years? Are there lessons to be taken from this story about the comeback of local bookstores?
It is absolutely certain that content will come from all over the world, and it will not be uniquely located at any particular institution. But I firmly believe that a defining quality of the best residential colleges will be the degree to which they provide the means and the physical spaces for people to gather together to interrogate ideas; to explore, test, and evaluate lots of different types of information collectively and creatively; to come to “discovery” through the cooperative exploration of diverse ways of knowing. Together. Generously and genuinely. In person. As students continue to blur the lines between learning, teaching, recreating, socializing, collaborating, and reflecting, those colleges that best provide spaces and places attractive to those essential things—spaces and places dripping with human-to-human serendipity—will be the ones that best achieve their missions.
Right now, among the most underrated reasons for the success of a Beloit education is a wonderful campus triangle consisting of the Colonel Robert H. Morse Library, the new Science Center, and Commons in Chapin Hall. Over the course of a day, nearly all students find themselves in these places where they can practice what it means to put their liberal arts education to use with other Beloiters. We learn together, develop together, appreciate our differences together in these spaces. Sometimes people are drawn to the triangle for very specific purposes. More often, they are drawn there because they know something magical might very well happen when they come together with others in the community in those places. Planned serendipity. Physical spaces and physical people together.
Enter the Powerhouse! As great as this wonderful campus triangle currently is, by the fall of 2019, Beloit College students will be enjoying a far more glorious campus diamond that includes the new student union and recreation center. The Powerhouse is on. Green lighted. No looking back. If you were to found a college with Beloit’s mission statement in 2017, you would want to open that college with something a lot like the Powerhouse. In fact, as the construction proceeds, we will celebrate the amazing transformational design, the aesthetics, the building’s remarkable history, and we will be drawn to the obvious glories of the building—the pool, the café, the conference center, the lecture hall, the fitness centers, the multiple hangout spaces.
But we should not lose sight of the bigger picture. All of these specific elements serve a far higher purpose. The building matters because it is dripping with a key ingredient to a 21st century education, dripping with togetherness, dripping with planned serendipity, dripping with the college’s mission itself. Therein lies the real power of the Powerhouse.