Student center shows off UB's new direction

Gathering place symbolizes president's desire to update the university

April 14, 2006|By JOE PALAZZOLO | JOE PALAZZOLO,SUN REPORTER

Robert L. Bogomolny will tell you that University of Baltimore's new $20 million student center is a striking example - in both form and function - of progress.

For an urban university in the midst of updating its image, the modern, glass-laden building is a gleaming symbol of both Bogomolny's efforts over the past 3 1/2 years as president and his aspiration to increase the student body by almost a third in the next decade.

The building's complicated architecture departs sharply from the brown-brick, boxy look of many of the campus' other buildings in upper Mount Vernon - much as Bogomolny's managerial style and plans for the university veer from what his predecessors sought to do.

For students, the new five-story center at the corner of Maryland and Mount Royal avenues - which replaced the historic Odorite building amid much community angst - represents something more basic.

"You don't have to be a genius to figure out if you've got hundreds of students roaming around campus during the day, you need someplace where they can come together," said Bogomolny. "This is first-class space for the students."

Dedication for the building, which opened last month, is Monday.

On the center's first floor, Dennis McIver was poring over an ethics book before his evening class. McIver, a graduate student in the legal and ethical studies program, sat at a table behind a wall of glass that extended from floor to ceiling.

A month ago, if he wanted to study next to a window on campus, he'd probably have had to do so in true commuter fashion: in his parked car. Until last month, UB was among a dwindling few American universities and colleges without student centers.

"Students need a place to gather," McIver said.

The 38,000-square-foot building houses a 200-seat theater, a game room, a computer lab, a coffee shop and a cafeteria, in addition to student organization suites and a banquet room on the fourth floor. Planted throughout are furnished study nooks. At least four plasma-screen televisions hang in various corners. Recommendations from student focus groups informed the building's interior design.

McIver said that the student center was emblematic of a transformation. "It's part of UB's coming of age," he said.

Bogomolny's goals, both for the student center and the commuter university, have been characterized at times as both visionary and narrow.

In 2004, when the university announced it would demolish the historic Odorite building - constructed in 1915 as a showroom for the Monumental Motor Car Co. - to make way for the new student center, neighbors and preservationists fumed.

Claiming that the university had not adequately consulted with them and that the building's historical roots entitled it to protection, members of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association and the Maryland Historical Trust sued the university. A Circuit Court judge dismissed the case.

When Baltimore Heritage and community groups pleaded with Bogomolny to incorporate part of the building into the design for the student center, he refused, saying that it would cost students an additional $1.5 million.

Funding for the student center comes entirely from tuition increases spread out over five years, said Peter Toran, the university's vice president for planning.

Bogomolny said that his budget cuts and his emphasis on financial self-sufficiency earned him detractors early on. But in the case of the student center, the university, though part of the statewide system, was immunized against state interference because no public funds went into its construction.

A former corporate senior vice president for G.D. Searle & Co., Bogomolny said that his time in the private sector gives him a "forward-looking" perspective that he has brought to bear on his current job.

"I was away just long enough to have lost the pace and rhythm of a university," Bogomolny said.

Since arriving in 2002, Bogomolny has replaced about 80 percent of the administrative staff, which is why, he said, the past 3 1/2 years have seen such drastic change on the university's side.

Up a coil stairway on the second floor, sitting at a table off to the side of the cafeteria, Gloria Brown stared out the window as students strolled up and down Mount Royal Avenue below. Brown, a 1989 graduate of the law school, said this was her second visit to the new center.

"It's nice. It's so airy I think it will attract a lot more day students," she said. "This is a great school. There's no reason it shouldn't have a higher tier rating."

Bogomolny shares Brown's optimism. He has been trying to broaden the university's image from a night school for professional students to that of a more traditional four-year university.

About 50 percent of UB's 4,896 students attend full time, and about 60 percent take night classes, according to university officials.

Since 2002, enrollment has jumped by about 400 students. Bogomolny said that he envisions the student population growing to about 7,000 in the next decade.

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