Thursday, October 15, 2009

Beyond Brown: Facilities Management

295 Lloyd Avenue: that was our destination. Beyond Pembroke, beyond OMAC, and beyond the perimeters of an average student's cognitive map of Brown lies the boxy, nondescript building of Facilities Management. It is Facilities that manages the Central Heating Plant, the day-to-day operations of the school, the wiring and plumbing of all of Brown's buildings, supplies your dorm with toilet paper and fixes that broken cabinet when you report it.

Yet, we never knew where the central Facilities office was until we looked it up online. Like stitching on an expensive coat, Facilities is the near-invisible thread that holds all of Brown together, visible only when the seams rip or thread unravels. To use another analogy, Facilities is akin to the code that the Internet is based on: so fundamental, yet unseen and easy to ignore until there is a problem. Similar to secrets, the power of Facilities lies in its ability to remain hidden from view.

Location, location, location

Speaking to the receptionist on the third floor, we were told that Facilities has been housed at 295 Lloyd for the last 6 years. Prior to that, Facilities was located downtown for two years, after its building at 60 Olive Street was demolished. Asked why the building was always located so distant from campus, the receptionist provides a very practical answer: Facilities is too big to be elsewhere. Indeed, it is true; walking the corridors, we encounter various workrooms, supply rooms, locker rooms, on the first and second floors, with the third floor devoted entirely to the cubicles and offices of the Management. Yet, the labs of Geochem and the LiSci are far larger than Facilities, and arguably less necessary. However, when one imagines Brown University, the image that comes to mind is an institution of higher learning, and the mundanity of Facilities is incongruent to that image. Facilities lies on the periphery of the student's conception of Brown, and its physical location mirrors that.

@ Brown University

However, the first thing that we see upon entering the building is a stack of Brown Daily Heralds on top of the radiator. It is clear that someone at Facilities/BDH deems Facilities part enough of Brown to warrant receiving daily campus news, student opinions and ads. If we consider the circulation of BDHs as a method of defining the borders of the University, then Facilities is very much part of Brown's imagined community.

But this inclusion seems one-sided. It seems that Facilities sees itself as a part of Brown, while the student would probably not include Facilities in his/her description of the University. This is reinforced by a notice on a bulletin board announcing Brown Facilities' own Tailgate / Football party at an upcoming Brown Bears vs Princeton Tigers game. This is clearly Management's attempt to forge a community amongst its workers, and to strengthen Facilities' ties with the rest of the University: included at the bottom of this notice is a definition and description of tailgating. Evidently, the expectation is that Facilities workers do not know what a tailgate is (perhaps the neighboring notice for a Cape Verdean community organization gives us a clue). Ironically, the vast majority of Brown students have never attended a football game, much less a tailgate. Brown students are confident that they are part of the University without having to attend sporting events (whose purpose is to foster school pride), but Brown Facilities has to continually assert its membership within the the community.

Lining the corridors are artistic photographs of employees hard at work on Brown's campus. Several maps categorize the entire Brown campus (including Haffenreffer!) according to criteria as different as building usage and wheelchair accessibility. Large posters list all the projects on campus. Within the building itself lie many images of the campus, as Facilities' job is inextricably tied to the physical landscape of Brown. Yet, we'll bet that nowhere on campus will one find artistic photographs of the Facilities building. While Brown's academic buildings, labs, and residential units are all part of Facilities' cognitive map of the University, the reverse is not true; a student's cognitive map of the University will not include the Facilities building. Although Facilities is a site of power, in that it exercises control over the basic functions of the University, its low profile also hampers its agency. That is the price of secrecy: secrets restrict the circulation of information by remaining invisible, and are thus unable to exert direct influence in the public sphere. Facilities' power, like the power of secrets, is largely indirect, but undoubtedly present.

Geoff Mino
Jeanine Chiu

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