The Untimely Construction on the Steps of Old Morrison: The Senior Perspective and an Interview with President Lewis


The 2022 senior class here at Transy has yet to have a year that even hints at normality. With nearly a year and a half online, three different cafeterias, never having a full year with an open campus center (until we began moving off campus), one and a half years without music or theater, two and a half years without study abroad possibilities, a year without a May term, and never mind the detrimental effects of the online year which we all know created real problems connecting with professors and administration. Now, despite our stunted Transy experience, the class of 2022 has apprehensively begun to be excited about graduation, albeit through compulsory rose-colored glasses.

However, in late November, rumors began to circle about upcoming construction on the steps of Old Morrison. This looming construction could mean that the 2022 commencement ceremony may very likely be moved from its traditional place on the steps of Old Morrison.

The class of 2022 has demonstrated its ability to endure many things, but to simply allow the individuals in charge to remove this final rite of passage while feeling justified in doing so, is both a shock and extremely disappointing.

For me, the decision to come to Transy came with a sense of excitement and a promise of adventure. However, it also came with a guarantee of rather severe student debt. But, when you’re 18, student loans seem far away and really only a problem for the college educated versions of ourselves, who we imagine making millions in a passion-filled career. Now that I have reached the end of my time in college, I regret to inform myself that I’m probably not going to be making millions.

The year online brought a lot of misfortunes, one of which is that it put a halt in my search for a discipline I am passionate about. Furthermore, not being on campus also induced the loss of connections to other students. This, along with not having a campus center for half of our freshman and all of our sophomore year, has hurt the “sense of community” Transy boasts. Therefore, you can imagine our sustained disappointment at finding out that our graduation, our final chance to say goodbye to our ragtag nontraditional class, could be altered too.

Graduation does not belong on the steps of Beck or in a campus center the class of 2022 hasn’t known. In addition, the class of 2022 rightfully has hang-ups about the ceremony taking place in front of a big chain-link fence and caution tape even if it were possible to keep graduation near Old Morrison. The inconsistency of the information being provided to students about the timeline is frustrating and simply unfair.

We chose to spend these four years at Transylvania University. Many of us, including myself, have chosen to go into extreme debt just to experience everything that made Transy stand out when choosing a college all those years ago. I want to introduce the caveat that I do not want to come off as some spoiled college student who is just so upset that graduation might be altered. I fully understand, and have seen first hand, that there are factions of our society that were hurt and abandoned much more holistically by the pandemic than a bunch of privileged college students. However, I think it is important that in the realm of our own university our voices and struggles matter. So instead of a juvenile college student, I want to be understood as a severely indebted adult who was shocked at the lack of consideration that came from the administration I chose to guide me through arguably some of the most formative moments in my life, when we asked them to hear us.

While it is true that the steps need some work, the structural issues do not need immediate attention. To the class of 2022, it seems obvious that the construction can and should be postponed until after we have taken our rightful place on the steps of Old Morrison clad in caps and gowns.

The sheer disappointment and anger the seniors are feeling is justified. Therefore, to answer some of our questions and hopefully put our minds at ease, I sat down with President Brien Lewis to learn more about this untimely construction.

Lewis’s office, located on the second floor of Old Morrison, felt prestigious and decadent with its overwhelming presence of chocolate brown surfaces and Transy publications. I was equally as excited as I was nervous to query the head of our university and have our most pressing concerns for graduation cleared up.

My first question aimed to straighten out the timeline on which the construction is running. I felt this was an important starting place amongst the varied information about the projected completion time. President Lewis explained that when arranging the schedule for the project their “overriding imperative [was] to have the Old Morrison front steps ready for graduation. The first question on everyone’s mind was graduation.” President Lewis explained to me that there are many more facets of this construction than meets the eye. In totality, the construction on the steps of Old Morrison will most likely not be finished until July. However, the portion of the construction that would affect the graduation ceremony is on schedule to be finished in time to keep with tradition.

The biggest issue that could affect the timetable of the construction is inclement weather. For this reason, beginning the construction during the coldest part of the year seems like a strange choice.

The administration has also heard our concerns about the alternative locations mentioned, such as the stairs of the Beck Center, the back of the new campus center, or the steps of the Carpenter Academic Center, and have agreed that in the case of inclement weather affecting the timeline, graduation will continue to be held in front of Old Morrison and the construction site will be covered and the space made elegant.

While most of our concerns were answered by this information, I still wanted to learn more about the decision to do the construction now amongst so many other projects and secondly to better understand why our demonstration was so easily ignored.

I learned from President Lewis that the construction on the steps has been a project under consideration for the better part of a decade and while President Lewis has only been a part of two of those years, he was still eager to get the project underway. While I jested that couldn’t they have waited a few more years in order to give the non-traditional classes affected by construction and COVID-19 a traditional graduation, after all, what’s a few more years amongst a decade? I was met with the answer that there would really never be a perfect time. The construction would always either affect graduation, pumpkin mania, or the July 4th concert. While to me, graduation seems a bit more important than a summer concert I have never heard of, I can understand the desire to keep pumpkin mania a priority as it has become a Lexington staple that directs a lot of attention to our university.

Be that as it may, the main reason to not push construction until after the class of 2022’s graduation is that it would be difficult, time consuming, and potentially expensive to rearrange contractors, material, and supply chains. However, in the end, President Lewis did assure me that he understood the plight of current college students saying, “I certainly get that [the current classes have struggled greatly in these unprecedented times], and especially the senior class, has had disruption after disruption after disruption and I am very sensitive to it. I have two kids in college myself … and I’ve been on that journey with them.”

Broadening our viewpoint however, because of all of the other construction sites on campus, it is plausible for someone to wonder how taking on yet another project makes any sense at all. Especially when there are so many other, and arguably more important, buildings on campus that may need work more than steps we hardly use. For example, I’d argue that making the Mitchell Fine Arts Center (MFA) more compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is more valuable than touching up the steps. It would also be really wonderful to see MFA or the Shearer Art Building get renovated to show the Transy community that we are just as dedicated to the arts as we say we are. MFA and Shearer both are very architecturally interesting buildings that have been neglected and I’d love to see them used to their full potential.

Furthermore, why take on the steps project when construction on Strickland, the 4th st apartments, the Bourbon st. in totality, and Hazelrigg Hall are still under construction? President Lewis explained to me that the decision was warranted because Hazelrigg Hall and the Bourbon st. area are both at a bit of a standstill. They can not proceed without more funding and proper planning. Now, why couldn’t the funds that are being used on the stairs go towards these projects? I’m not sure. However, the Old Morrison steps project has begun and students have once again been faced with one of Transy’s all too familiar trademark construction fence banners, this one, no longer urging us to “pursue bold paths”, but instead features the cheeky slogan “improving our campus one step at a time.” All while the silhouettes of the leftover tape from our protest signs are still vaguely visible behind the thin red banner.

As for beginning construction on MFA in order to make it more ADA compliant, President Lewis assured me that Amber Morgan (Title IX Coordinator) and Deidra Dennie (Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion) have begun a comprehensive disability audit to take inventory of the places on campus that need more attention and thought.

Another point in our collective concern that I was eager to bring up was the sheer lack of attention and so called “sensitivity” that was given to the demonstration held by the student government association (SGA) to have our frustration and opinions of the construction heard. To put this disregard into perspective,
the day of our demonstrationwas the day the construction fence went up. The tone of our protest reflected this frustration, as Dalton Teegarden (SGA senator) mentioned in his address, we feel like children nagging our parents to listen to us when we are the ones they are supposed to care about most.

While I agree with the point made by Teegarden and I remember the collective chuckle I took part in at this comment during his speech, I want to remind all of you of something that I needed reminded of myself: the administration works for us and should have our best interests at heart. It feels so counterintuitive to begin construction now, and not during the summer when students are off campus to allow for at least one year without a construction site obstructing our campus. Ever since rumors began in November, I can not for the life of me figure out the rationale behind this. Through my discussion with PresidentLewis, many of my questions were answered. I understand that they couldn’t change the construction timeline to accommodate our concerns. I just don’t understand why they scheduled it this way in the first place.

When I asked President Lewis how a school like Transy, one that preaches to us to fight for what we believe in and that our opinions matter, could be so blind to these opinions when they are put into practice, he explained how he encourages student voice saying, “I take very seriously the ideas of students and student input. Have I been involved in protests myself? Yes I have!” He goes on, however, to explain how his position makes it difficult toaccommodate only one side of a debate, “where you stand depends on where you sit. If I were a senior I would be expressing those concerns and making sure they are heard. But in my role, I have to factor in everything we have talked about, economic elements, impact on other constituencies, impacts on other events like pumpkin mania, etcetera, etcetera, and try to find the best possible solution.” This brief yet powerful moment in our conversation explained well how the administration is trying to keep with promises of solidarity with the students.

Finishing this portion of our discussion, President Lewis quotes George Bernard Shaw, “the biggest problem in communication is the belief that it has taken place”. To the senior class and to those who stood with us at the demonstration, I’d imagine we’d argue wecommunicated quite thoroughly, yet no one was willing to listen. While in the end, our graduation ceremony should be alright and contingency plans have been put into place to make sure of it, the demonstration and petitioning felt unheard and I think that hurt the morale of the senior students.

I realize the above may seem a bit harsh, but we are only willing to listen to inconsistencies and disregard for so long. President Lewis answered all of my questions thoroughly and thoughtfully and I greatly appreciate that. He also mentioned quite often that his door is always open to a student needing to feel heard. Dialogue and conversation is the best way to move forward on debates according to President Lewis and I have to agree. Thanks to SGA President Lindsey Steffen and all those who helped draft her and President Lewis’ conversation last November, the construction on the steps will not end up affecting our graduation to the point of relocation.

Though I, and those at our demonstration, felt demoralized and juvenilized, our voices were heard and accommodated. Now all we have to do is cross our fingers for sunny skies and no rain this May because after all this I’d be rather disappointed to have our ceremony moved inside. However, I don’t know about you, but at this point, I think I’d rather just get wet.