Since UB was rated #1 for "dorms like dungeons" in the Princeton Review's ranking of America's "331 Best Colleges" earlier this fall, many students and faculty have questioned the study's validity, especially in light of the university's ongoing mission to create a large-scale community through increased on-campus housing.
The Spectrum reviewed information and interviewed staff from UB's sister SUNYs, as well as several private institutions, to gauge UB's living environment and see how or if its residence halls measure up.
This is the first of a three-part series examining six aspects of the report.
Architecture: UB vs. Bryn Mawr College (#1 "Dorms Like Palaces")
Charles Lamb, director of university residence halls and apartments at SUNY Binghamton, believes UB's reputation for less-than-luxurious housing is solely and unfairly based on the Ellicott complex.
"Ellicott is very large and very functional," said Lamb. "But it's very difficult to maneuver, it's aging and it's challenging to keep up the maintenance."
Contrary to rumor, when Ellicott (known to many students as "Lego Land") was constructed over 28 years ago, it was not modeled after a Chinese prison nor designed to be riot proof in response to the massive student protests of the 1960s.
According to Dennis Black, vice president for Student Affairs, Ellicott's decentralized design was modeled after Oxford University, each of whose residential buildings is an independent college, complete with its own housing, office spaces, cafeterias and classrooms.
"We've used the buildings differently than what they were intended since day one," said Black. "Students weren't supposed to go back and forth from quad to quad. ... It was spread out instead of having a central location."
Black said one of main reasons for Ellicott not fulfilling its original purpose was the fact that the complex did not reach full living capacity until the mid-1980s.
"We didn't come anywhere near filling that bed space," he said.
Lamb praised UB for its "first-rate" housing staff, particularly Joseph Krakowiak, UB's director of university residence halls and apartments, and Kevin Ahuna, senior staff associate of the university residence halls.
"[Residence hall staff] know what their issues are and it's very difficult to overcome decisions made over twenty years ago," said Lamb.
Bryn Mawr College, the namesake of its quaint, rural Pennsylvania town, was given the Princeton Review's best rating for its residence halls. Unlike Ellicott, which was constructed in the early 1970s, Bryn Mawr's 14 residence halls were designed by Cope and Stewardson, pioneers of the architectural style that later became known as Collegiate Gothic.
Bryn Mawr also boasts famed architect Louis Kahn's Erdman Hall, a slate residence hall in which single bedrooms surround one main living area.
In contrast to the ultra-modern scheme behind UB's North Campus, Lauren Hoyt, Bryn Mawr's assistant director of residential life, attributes the beauty of Bryn Mawr's residence halls to their "odd-shaped rooms" and the way each building has maintained its "older features" while becoming more "up-to-date."
"Facilities have done an exceptional job of keeping the old look but renovating [the residence halls] so they look much more like a hotel," said Hoyt.
All rooms available at Bryn Mawr are singles with the exception of eight quads, triples and doubles. The college's Web site boasts features such as decorative fireplaces, hardwood floors, window seats and contrasting woodwork.
"We go to great lengths to make the dorms have a homey environment," said Hoyt.
UB's South Campus academic buildings, which were all erected prior to 1960, are more comparable to Bryn Mawr with their traditional design and stone materials. The South Campus residence halls, while not as classically styled as its academic buildings, are what Black called "standard dormitories" because of their long, connected corridors and central lounges.
"[North Campus and South Campus] are two different eras of construction," said Black. "South Campus is like almost every other campus in the country."
Every university has a different budget and time span in which it can conduct maintenance and renovation projects of its residence halls. According to Krakowiak, UB reviews plans for residence hall rehabilitations every 10 years.
"You have an aging structure," said Krakowiak. "Everything everywhere is aging, including you and me."
Regular maintenance includes updates to UB's campus computer network by replacing components such as hubs, routers and security systems nearly every year at a cost of approximately $400,000. Facilities maintenance includes about $200,000 annually in new carpeting, and will involve sub-dividing quads into split doubles during the next two years for nearly $350,000 per summer. Currently, the university is seeking to repair roofing over the next four or five years, an endeavor that could ring up a bill of approximately $23 million.
In terms of remodeling the residence halls on South Campus, Black said the only changes that could be made would be to ceilings, doors, furniture, elevators and air-circulation systems because design and construction materials are fixed.
"Regardless of how many coats of paint you put over it, cinderblock always looks like cinderblock," said Black.
Such rehabilitation endeavors are costly and time-consuming, especially for a large institution like UB, whose residence halls are completely reliant on state funding and student tuition.
"If I could raise everyone's tuition by $1,000, that would make the experience closer to what you had at home," said Krakowiak.
SUNY Stonybrook is working to complete an $80 million, seven-year renovation project to its residence halls, according to Roseanne Howell, SUNY Stonybrook's student community development assistant. The rooms are being totally revamped, complete with brand-new carpeting, fresh paint and brand-new furniture.
"When you walk in the building it looks like you're in a hotel," said Howell. "That project should be wrapped up by the end of the semester."
Eileen Simmons, coordinator of housing at Syracuse University, said the university has a 4-year renovation cycle in which each room is given new furniture, paint and carpeting. Overall, Simmons said students are pleased with the quality of their rooms in the residence halls.
"Some of the students say 'this is nicer than home,'" she said.