Campus Life

The Utah State Campus: Then, Now and To Come

When college President Jeremiah Sanborn strode across the Quad in 1890, it was a barren field waiting for the college's new-fangled agricultural experiments. Barns, chicken coops and a piggery were scattered about the fields east of Old Main. The field was also used for military drills, an exercise required of all students, and for sporadic football games.

"It wasn’t much of a game, but then it wasn’t much of a field," said Bob Parson of the field that is now the Quad.

Parson directs Utah State University Special Collections and Archives, which houses the 1912 campus master plan — the plan that defined the campus on paper long before fields were plowed, foundations were laid or trees were planted. The present day Quad and its surrounding buildings were designed that year by a professional architecture firm, with most of the buildings going up during the First World War. During the 1920s, Old Main Hill and the Quad were planted with trees and grass, and the campus began to take on the look of a proper university.

For hundreds of thousands of Utah State students, the Quad has been central to memories of their experience here. In fact, many students became "true Aggies" on the Quad when they were kissed under the full moon.

Alumni have memories of Old Main Hill as the place where they skied or played hooky "right under the president’s nose," found romance under spring blossoms, attended Greek theater and evening lectures or first read Socrates. Some of the trees on the hill are older than the oldest alumni, and cottonwoods and evergreens have grown in almost as tall as the tower on Old Main.

It's no surprise that the campus has nurtured a number of well-known nature writers. Utah State students don't just read about "sense of place" in academic journals; they experience it every day walking the shaded campus walkways set in a circle of forested mountains.

A Sustainable Future for Campus

Now there is talk again of what constitutes a "proper" university and, especially, what is appropriate for a school in the arid West faced with ongoing drought and severe budget cuts.

Amidst worldwide discussions about a sustainable future, President Kermit L. Hall has established an Environmental Campus Task Force, chaired by Jack Payne, vice president for University Extension. Subcommittees will look at water use, energy conservation, waste management, and policies and practices.

"Utah State University should lead the way in being a good citizen with respect to the environment," said Hall. "As the state's land grant school, we should become known as one of the most environmentally responsive universities."

Campus landscape architect Jim Huppi has already begun the process of designing more diverse campus plantings, and landscape manager Ellen Newell recently upgraded the Quad with a state-of-the-art sprinkler system, a necessity given the dearth of rain and snow in recent years. The new system will use far less water. She is also improving campus irrigation systems to allow the future use of drip irrigation.

Campus landscapers go easy on pesticides and fertilizers, said Newell, using spot treatment rather than blanket coverage in an effort to promote a healthy landscape and protect groundwater.

"We're not one of the chemical salespeople's best stops," Newell said.

New Landscape Committee Forms Vision

Roger Kjelgren, associate professor in Plants, Soils, and Biometeorology, chairs the Landscape and Grounds Committee for Hall's new task force. "Landscape values shift over time," he said.

"The extensive use of bluegrass was the norm that worked well in past generations when water was cheap," he said. "Tastes are changing, and Utah is no exception. People are realizing that the norm is no longer sustainable in our state given the anticipated population growth. More and more people want diversity in their landscapes. Perennials, ground covers, shrubs and naturalized plantings are becoming increasingly popular."

The Landscape and Grounds Committee, composed of faculty, students and campus landscape professionals, is in unanimous agreement on many goals.

For starters, they believe that campus planners should, in Kjelgren's words, "honor the existing landscape." That means holding the green, open space of the Quad and Old Main Hill sacrosanct, nurturing the 100-year-old Austrian pine near the education building and recognizing that the mature trees across campus are one of the most important parts of the university’s institutional heritage.

Landscape architect professor Craig Johnson said, "The Quad is a beautiful centerpiece of campus and a cultural icon that is important for alumni."

Campus Landscape as a Teaching Tool

The committee is also looking toward low-water-use and cost-efficient landscapes that are not only attractive, but can serve as outdoor teaching labs for Utah State professors. Committee members believe they can preserve the much-loved, traditional areas of campus while promoting the outdoor campus as a teaching tool for sustainable landscape practices. Interpretive guides and signs could help explain the campus landscape to the public.

Education professor and committee member Tim Slocum would like to see the campus landscape be a selling point of the university, a feature that distinguishes it from other universities.

"I would like people to travel here to learn about xeriscaping and biodiversity," he said.

Kjelgren agreed. "It shouldn't just be a physical destination, but a conceptual destination," he said. "This is an opportunity to bring more mindfulness to our campus landscape. We live in a desert; we need to respect that. We want some traditional looks but also need diversity."

Committee members believe that one useful tool would be to assess the different areas of campus, define levels of importance according to pedestrian patterns and visibility and develop micro-climate zones — areas with similar water, shade and sun requirements.

State Extension forestry specialist and committee member Mike Kuhns pointed out that the campus is not just one landscape. "It's a whole variety of landscapes," he said. Not every element of the landscape has the same value or use.

Diversity in plantings will be important. "No one wants a monoculture," said Newell, who believes that diverse plantings provide more interest, variety and beauty.

Huppi said that a standing committee could help define those areas and advise planners upfront, before new building plans are too far along for input and landscaping plans get locked in — before landscaping becomes an afterthought.

Looking Toward the Future

The challenge of budget cuts, drought, rising temperatures and changing public perceptions will require careful stewardship of our campus landscape. The Landscape and Grounds Committee and campus landscapers hope to set the stage for the next century, defining and enhancing the 400-acre campus we think of as home away from home.

Or just home.

What Has Campus Meant to You?

As campus officials focus on the future look of Utah State, we invite you to reminisce about its past. Campus has been a place of new beginnings and significant happenings for many. What makes it significant for you?

In the box below, please write your recollections of campus. What important moments in your past are linked to campus landmarks? What is your favorite garden, shady walkway or green space on campus? When you think of your time at Utah State, what images come to mind?

Once our readers have had a chance to reminisce, we plan to review your comments and write a follow-up story featuring your memories of campus life and post it to this site in the next few weeks. Please check back.

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