The Cost of the Most Beautiful Building in Boston

Northeastern University is now home to the “single most beautiful building” in Boston.[1] In February, the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex (ISEC) received the 2018 Harleston Parker Medal, the highest honor from the Boston Society of Architects.[2] The $225 million “innovation ecosystem” opened in 2017 and has been described by Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun as a “research village.”[3][4] The 234,000 square-foot complex accommodates 700 faculty and graduate students whose research receives funding from over 65 private and government organizations, including the U.S. Department of Defense and National Security Agency.[5]

ISEC “signifies a major shift in the culture, history, and trajectory” of Northeastern.[6] It is a testament to the aggressive efforts Northeastern has taken in recent years to shape its public image into one of global collaboration, innovation, and experiential learning—qualities that have also been cited as factors in the school’s unique and rapid rise in the rankings. Northeastern’s success story is intriguing to students and academics alike: how does a school ranked 127th on U.S. News & World Report’s list of Best Colleges rise to 44th in a little over a decade?[7][8]

Evidently, both the success of ISEC and the school’s rapid climb in rankings are products of the administration’s increased focus on attracting and conducting external research. Between 2006 and 2016, Northeastern grew its external research funding by 168%, to $130 million.[9] In 2015, Northeastern joined a group of around 100 universities denoted as “R1,” a lesser-known but equally influential list.[10] Every five years, the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education categorizes colleges and universities in the U.S. into “moderate” (R3), “higher” (R2), and “highest” (R1) levels of research activity. For many academics, R1 is considered to be “the pinnacle of higher education… a shorthand for institutions to identify themselves.”[11] The Carnegie classifications are also used as the basis of the Best Colleges ranking category systems.[12]

“This is an affirmation of our strategy,” said Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun in a 2016 interview with the Washington Post. He said the private university has invested heavily in faculty scholarship in health, security, and sustainability.[13]

Northeastern’s uncompromising drive to grow and orient itself towards external research is showing no signs of slowing. At his annual address to the Faculty Senate last October, President Aoun hinted at a second ISEC. “We have ISEC one, and we are starting to think about an ISEC two,” he said. “By 2022, research space on campus will be completely occupied.”[14] On May 2nd, Kathy Spiegelman, Vice President and Chief of Campus Planning and Development at Northeastern, sent the Boston Planning and Development Agency a letter confirming plans for building a second ISEC.[15]

President Aoun’s prediction and the now official plans to expand ISEC may come as a surprise to many students, ourselves included, who often pace the four floors of Snell Library in search of an open seat. For the many students who aren’t working in ISEC labs, research and study space have been completely occupied for a long time.

“Northeastern has been so geared towards admitting more students, but has struggled to maintain any decent form of upkeep in terms of keeping our resources and spaces accessible,” said Michael Mendez, a fifth-year Media and Screen Studies and Theatre major.[16]

While the external research taking place in ISEC is different from the research and studying students undertake in Snell for their classes, this disjunction lays bare a worsening issue on campus: Northeastern’s failure to balance its responsibilities to students with its external research agenda and relentless pursuit of higher rankings. While ISEC represents Northeastern’s research- and rankings-driven agenda, an overburdened Snell, brimming with students but very few books, represents Northeastern’s failed commitment to providing students with the most basic resources every student deserves. That the administration would move forward with building a second ISEC with no plans for major renovations to our primary library is unacceptable.

The library has long represented an institution’s commitment to academics.[17] “The library is the heart of the university, and nowhere is that more so than at Northeastern,” said Dan Cohen, Director of Libraries.[18] As strong supporters of physical libraries in the age of digital resources, we agree with Mr. Cohen—which is why we are demanding more from the administration. Snell should be the heart of the university because students gather there to use its many resources for individual and collaborative study—not because we have nowhere else to go.

Besides the graduate school’s Law Library, Snell is Northeastern’s only library. In 2015, the average number of visits to Snell exceeded 5,400 per day.[19] That number is sure to have gone up, as enrollment has increased by over 2,000 students since 2015, yet the building still has just 2,800 seats for group and individual study, making private and quiet studying spaces increasingly scarce.[20][21][22]

In comparison, Boston College, a nationally ranked university with just over 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students, has seven distinct libraries complete with quiet studying spaces, group seating, and over three million volumes of books on site.[23] Despite a growing student body of over 25,000, Northeastern currently has no large-scale plans to expand Snell or add additional library space to its campus.[24]

The administration has attempted to meet changing student needs and remedy the demands for more space through less expensive restructuring initiatives.[25] At the beginning of spring semester, students returned to campus to find the fourth floor completely free of books and dotted with bright new furniture. Many physical materials are now housed in an offsite location in Connecticut, and requested materials are dropped off at Snell twice a week.[26][27]

Although Snell staff report relatively low usage of the books relocated to the Connecticut annex, they recognize that some students may not request books from the annex due to the inconvenience. The relocation of books has created one more step in the already stressful research process required of many students for class papers and projects, causing frustration for students such as Mendez. “I needed some biographies to read for my senior capstone project, and I was not worried about having to procure them, seeing that the Northeastern library had them. However, when I went to find them in the library, I was told that it could take anywhere from one to three days to get them in from the annex. I was on a time crunch to work on the project, and I had to venture to Boston University’s library to pick up books that Northeastern has. Something that could have easily taken 30 minutes turned into a multi-hour ordeal.”[28] To remedy this new problem, Snell administration is working to get daily delivery of books from the annex to replace the current twice-weekly schedule.[29]

The space freed from relocating books to the annex has been repurposed as study space. The most drastic visible renovation took place on the fourth floor; colorful new furniture replaced the heavy wooden furniture that had filled Snell since its 1990 opening.[30] Although Snell’s website reports that fourth floor seating increased by 10%, the lack of bookshelves and sparsely arranged furniture (due to fire codes) have left some students confused and wishing they had more options.[31] Furthermore, the fourth floor was previously the only silent floor in Snell. Along with the furniture renovations, it has been newly designated as “quiet study,” configured into zones for both quiet group study and silent individual study. There are now just two corners on one floor of our only library where students can study in peace.

While we agree with Northeastern’s sentiment that the world’s biggest challenges will be solved through collaboration, we urge the administration not to undervalue the role of silent spaces in students’ success. As students, we are lucky and grateful for the wide range of services Snell provides (3D printing, research help, the recording studio), but they are completely separate from our need for more study space. A 2015 report by a major architecture firm on the future of libraries found that the primary reason students visit libraries is still to study or work alone, followed by group work and access to digital resources. The report warned institutions not to sacrifice quiet in pursuit of collaboration.[32]

The worsening issue of inadequate study space is just one example of how Northeastern is failing to meet the basic needs of its students. In order to help students “transition into college life,” Northeastern requires underclassmen to live in on-campus housing.[33] But due to overcrowded dorms, many transfer and students have been assigned housing in 1110 Commonwealth Ave, former Boston University housing that Northeastern now leases. The building is a 50-minute walk from Boston’s main campus, and students have reported concerns of isolation and detriment stemming from living so far from campus.[34]

Students living in residence halls closer to campus don’t always fare better. They are stuck between expensive new housing and old dorms constantly in need of repair.[35] Rather than expanding affordable on-campus housing and lessening its contribution to local gentrification, Northeastern has come up with even more costly solutions like LightView.

LightView, a new high-rise housing development owned and managed by American Campus Communities, looms over Roxbury at the intersection of Columbus Ave and Burke Street.[36] The 20-story building opens in August 2019 and aims to relieve housing pressures in Roxbury and Mission Hill by housing 825 Northeastern students. However, there is concern that LightView isn’t doing enough. Many students cannot afford the exorbitant prices—the cheapest option is $1,334 per month—and some community members are wary of the massive new building.[37][38]

Northeastern faces unique housing challenges: in the last 50 years, it has evolved from a commuter campus to a more residential one and must balance a student body that cycles on and off campus due to co-op, study abroad programs, and Dialogue of Civilizations. We recognize that Northeastern has attempted to address student housing concerns in its Institutional Master Plan (IMP): a 546-page document that details all of the changes Northeastern will pursue between 2013, when the IMP was approved by the Boston Development Authority, and 2023. “Northeastern is committed to meeting the housing demand for its undergraduates who seek housing,” the IMP reports, thereby reducing neighborhood impact.[39]

But if the housing Northeastern offers over the next four years is as costly as LightView, there is concern that many students will still have to seek housing in the surrounding neighborhoods. Northeastern is well-situated to be the institutional leader it purports to be, but chooses once again to pursue flashy measures that do not hold up to further scrutiny.

These issues—lack of study space and affordable on-campus housing—don’t stem from the individuals working to keep Snell, the housing office, or other Northeastern programs functioning every day. We are deeply grateful for the support that faculty and staff show us as students and young people. These issues are instead a result of poor budget allocation on the part of an administration that has allowed for the compromise of basic student needs in favor of more innovation, research, and higher rankings. This is not to say that we oppose the external research being conducted at Northeastern; we undoubtedly recognize its importance and contribution to the world outside of our campus. And we draw attention to these issues not for the sake of criticizing a school that has provided us with invaluable opportunities, but because we want to see Northeastern be the best version of itself it can be. We recognize that as students who pay over $50,000 in tuition each academic year, we deserve a quiet place to study, affordable on-campus housing, and to feel that we are more than pawns in a game of rise-in-the-rankings.[40] We deserve better from Northeastern.

Additional reporting by NUPR’s Executive Board.

[1] “Harleston Parker Medal.” Boston Society of Architects/AIA. Accessed February 27, 2019.

[2] St. Martin, Greg. “Northeastern Has The ‘Most Beautiful’ Building in Boston.” News @ Northeastern. February 11, 2019.

[3] Young, Colin A. “Northeastern University formally opens $225 million science, engineering facility.” The Boston Globe. April 04, 2017.

[4] St. Martin, Greg. “ISEC Opening Ushers in New Era of Discovery at Northeastern.” News @ Northeastern. April 04, 2017.

[5] “Critical Funding Sources.” Interdisciplinary Engineering and Research Complex – Northeastern University. Accessed February 27, 2018.

[6] “About the ISEC.” Empower ISEC – Northeastern University. Accessed February 27, 2019.

[7] Kutner, Max. “How to Game the College Rankings.” Boston Magazine. August 26, 2014.

[8] “National University Rankings 2019.” U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges. Accessed February 27, 2019.

[9] “A Research Powerhouse.” Interdisciplinary Engineering and Research Complex – Northeastern University. Accessed February 27, 2018.

[10] St. Martin, Greg. “Northeastern Achieves Highest Classification for Research Activity.” News @ Northeastern. February 02, 2016.

[11] Anderson, Nick. “In new sorting of colleges, Dartmouth falls out of an exclusive group.” The Washington Post. February 04, 2016.

[12] Morse, Robert, Matt Mason, and Eric Brooks. “Best Colleges Ranking Category Definitions.” U.S. News & World Report. September 09, 2018.

[13] Anderson, Nick. “In new sorting of colleges, Dartmouth falls out of an exclusive group.”

[14] Shen, Dylan C. “Aoun teases second ISEC building at Faculty Senate meeting.” The Huntington News. November 01, 2018.

[15] Schwartz, Deanna. “Northeastern reveals plans for a second, bigger ISEC.” The Huntington News. May 08. 2019.

[16] Mendez, Michael. “Snell Annex Interview Questions – (NUPR).” Email to Jillian Wrigley. March 14, 2019.

[17] Thaler, Mark, Christine Barber, and Tim Pittman. “How do students envision the present and future academic library?” Gensler. 2015.

[18] “Snell Library: Collaborating Without Borders.” Northeastern University. Spring 2018.

[19] Price, Elana. “A Gift of Study Space.” Northeastern University Library. October 19, 2015.

[20] “Common Data Set 2015-2016.” University Decision Support – Northeastern University. Accessed March 04, 2019.

[21] “Common Data Set 2017-2018.” University Decision Support – Northeastern University. Accessed March 04, 2019.

[22] Price, Elana. “A Gift of Study Space.”

[23] “Libraries.” Boston College Academics. Accessed March 04, 2019.

[24] “Institutional Master Plan.” Northeastern University. Accessed March 04, 2019.

[25] Corbett, Hillary. “A New Look For the 4th Floor.” Northeastern University Library News. January 11, 2019.

[26] Corbett, Hillary. “Questions about Snell renovations.” Email to Elena Kuran and Jillian Wrigley. March 01, 2019.

[27] “Request an item from the Annex.” Northeastern University Library. Accessed March 04, 2019.

[28] Mendez, Michael. “Snell Annex Interview Questions – (NUPR).”

[29] Corbett, Hillary. “Questions about Snell renovations.”

[30] Corbett, Hillary. “A New Look For the 4th Floor.

[31] Kim, Yunkyo. “It’s not what it looks like: Snell renovations add seats to 4th floor.” The Huntington News. January 16, 2019.

[32] Thaler, Mark, Christine Barber, and Tim Pittman. “How do students envision the present and future academic library?”

[33] “First-Year University Housing.” Northeastern University Housing and Residential Life. Accessed March 04, 2019.

[34] Clark, Jenna. “ and transfer students dismayed by housing assignment far from campus.” The Huntington News. February 14, 2019.

[35] Billman, Glenn. “Willis Hall apartment ceiling collapses.” The Huntington News. September 06, 2017.

[36] “FAQ – Individual Leases.” LightView. Accessed March 04, 2019.

[37] “Floor Plans.” LightView. Accessed March 04, 2019.

[38] Rodriguez, Laura. “LightView towers over Roxbury, bringing mixed reactions.” The Huntington News. February 20, 2019.

[39] “Institutional Master Plan.” Northeastern University. Page 1-3. Accessed March 04, 2019.

[40] “Cost and Financial Aid.” Northeastern University Undergraduate Admissions. Accessed March 04, 2019.

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