Editorial | UCSB’s Munger Hall is a mistake, not a model

The proposed Munger Hall at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Image via University of California, Santa Barbara

The proposed Munger Hall at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

Many universities across the country are looking for a release valve to house their growing student populations. Pitt, for example, overshot this year’s enrollment goal by more than 880 students, forcing the University to lease a hotel.

More students equals more money, but those students need a place to live, and building new student housing isn’t cheap. Pitt’s most recently constructed residence hall, Nordenberg Hall, was built with a projected cost of $59 million.

The University of California, Santa Barbara has found a creative solution to this problem — if you define creative as inhumane and flying in the face of well-established research. The university is preparing to spend $1.5 billion of Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles Munger’s money to construct Munger Hall, a roughly 4,500 unit indulgence of the billionaire’s architectural reveries.

Of these thousands of modularly constructed units, 94% will be windowless. Combined with the small size of these rooms, this deprivation of sunlight is meant to encourage students to get out of their dorms and into the common areas throughout the building.

Giving this concept more than five seconds of thought raises some alarms. But we don’t need to rely on our amatuer architectual instincts to refute these plans, even if Munger seems to have full confidence in his own. Dennis McFadden, an architect — that is, with a degree — serving as a consultant to UCSB, resigned in protest after Munger Hall was announced. In his resignation letter, he sharply criticized the lack of “natural light, air and views,” as well as the unprecedented density and shortsightedness of the project. His point on the concentration of students was particularly shocking — Munger Hall would be the eighth densest neighborhood in the world.

Research backs up McFadden’s critiques. A study published earlier this year found that access to natural light correlates with better physical and mental health, including something critical for success in college — quality of sleep.

Munger’s previous largely windowless project at the University of Michigan, which also emphasized density and a collaborative environment, is its own case study on the detriments of designing dorms closer to prisons than proper housing. One student bluntly summarized the issue with this style of dorms, saying, “I would much rather not have depression than collaborate with my peers.”

There’s no denying that UCSB was in a bind. They needed the money, and Munger was happy to part with it to see his out-of-touch vision once again made a reality. He’s not the first or last person with more money than God and convinced of his own genius. 

But students deserve some humanity in their housing — college is tough enough as it is. The failure of Munger’s previous project at the University of Michigan and the backlash to his UCSB one should be a lesson to all schools, including Pitt. These failures must be kept in mind as the University’s Institutional Master Plan, which provides for a net increase of nearly a thousand student beds, transitions from the drawing board to reality.

If a university can’t afford to make room for its paying students without a billionaire’s intervention, then perhaps the blame falls squarely on the institution’s shoulders in the end. Either way, students shouldn’t be the losers of new on-campus housing.