Technically speaking, you can find the University on a map. It sits adjacent to a small town, just beside the interstate that runs north to south between two big cities. To visit it (and you likely will; it’s a destination unto itself), you will turn off the interstate and proceed along a road bordered by trees whose grandeur and regularity bring to mind a Roman colonnade. You will pass over the lake the steel baron built. No grand sign will greet you, because no sign is needed.
But although it can be found, like any other place, in relation to the interstate and the train line, the University has a unique relationship with the rest of the world. For one thing, the events that have transpired here have influenced disproportionately the course of history beyond its campus. Its college is one of the oldest in the country—during four tumultuous months in the Revolutionary War, it was even the seat of the colonies’ government. Presidents studied here, as did timeless writers. The physicist who reinvented space and time lectured on relativity in a hall that has been preserved in his honor.
The University also affords greater power to the people privileged enough to be a part of it. The mention of its very name evokes intelligence and excellence and prestige. Ambitious students everywhere want to make it here, and the students who do make it can, in turn, go anywhere. Its name enables a world of possibilities for those lucky enough to march through its gates.
Above all, the University is distinguished by its vision. It teaches students to see the world with a systematic and inquisitive gaze. This faculty of observation allows the students to understand how the world works, and to change it as they see fit. Such is the power it bestows.
In many ways, however, the University itself seems to defy such critical inspection. Is anything exempt from its ability to see? And what—or who—makes its remarkable vision possible?
I meet Dave Wagenblast early on a cold November morning. It’s before sunrise, and the sky is emitting a gentle light, like the latent glow of a sleeping computer screen. I walk from my dormitory down Elm Drive, past silent dormitories. Orange Kubota utility vehicles putter by, their beds piled high with white trash bags. The dining hall workers are just arriving for their breakfast shifts, and an eighteen-wheeler is beeping its way towards the loading deck below Wilson College. I have read that the human brain does its most important work when the rest of the body is sleeping; the same seems to be true of the University.
I’ve been told to meet Dave in Lot 17, which I can only locate by consulting the University map. There’s a reason I’ve never seen it before: it’s concealed behind a green-netted fence between the tennis courts and the field hockey stadium. It’s a wide lot with a mulch shed, a bulldozer, several portable generators, a cherry picker, a fleet of Super Dutys and two permanent trailers with a blue-brushed boot scraper beside each door.
Dave sees me through the window and steps out to greet me. He is short and sturdy. He wears steel-toed boots and a sun-bleached pink hat reading “Flanders Pond, Maine.” “Nice to meet you, Peter,” he says. “I don’t get to meet students much. So, what exactly are you doing here?”
We students of the University have a common obligation: to use our education “In the Service of the Nation, and in the Serve of Humanity.” It says so, at least, on a medallion carved from Virginian black slate in the walkway leading from the University’s iconic gates to the front doors of its oldest building, Nassau Hall. As the University President told my incoming first-year class, the University attracts students with the potential to “make a greater difference beyond our campus, and do more to help communities less fortunate than our own.”
Indeed, “beyond our campus” seems to be the University’s focus. Its list of academic departments reads like a World Atlas’ table of contents: African Studies, African American Studies, Contemporary European Politics and Society, East Asian Studies, French and Italian, Hellenic Studies, on and on. The fluted lamp posts that line campus walkways bristle with posters advertising lectures entitled “Venezuela’s Migration Crisis,” “Korean Ceramics: Not Your Usual Story” and “Russian Politics and the Strategy of Russian Opposition.” This is the nature of the University’s mission: those who call campus home are always looking beyond it. The campus itself is a neutral zone, a special place made separate from the world from which students can look outward towards the Nation and the Humanity they are supposedly called to serve.
Gabriella is from Brazil. She is a senior in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She is blond and, at the moment, bundled up to the corners of her wide smile, which she flashes to the tour group from below the white ionic columns of the admissions building. As she speaks, the loose cluster of students smile self-consciously. Their parents stand behind them, shoulders raised against the cold, nodding their approval.
“I’ve been walking backwards for two years now, but I’m still very clumsy,” she tells us. “If I’m about to walk into someone, I’m counting on you to let me know.” Obligingly, the group shouts and points at the Facilities van that has inched up behind her. She turns, and laughs. “That’s a University car,” she says. “They’re used to this.”
Perpendicular to Clio Hall is Morrison, home of the admissions office. On the second floor, past windows thick with ivy, a team of red-penned readers is culling applicants at a rate of roughly one lucky student to nineteen unhappy ones. The University has gone to great lengths in recent years to accept students from all different backgrounds. To this end, they offer need-blind admission, even for international students. She grins. “Obviously, being from Brazil, that was a big plus for me.”
Dave is from around here. He was born six miles down Nassau Street and went to Franklin High School as a kid, back when Central Jersey was mostly farmland. Although he lived just twenty minutes away from the University, he never thought to visit. Why would he? His family bought their groceries to the north, in New Brunswick.
Dave’s father was a landscape architect for a large local business, meaning that Dave spent his days on the company’s fifty-five acre plant nursery. “With dad’s influence, I always loved plants,” he told me once, with his face deep in a winterberry bush. He got married nearby and worked as a golf-course landscaper, as well as a few other jobs, before ending up at the University.
“It’s a good place,” says. After a few weeks sitting in the passenger seat of Dave’s white Ford Super Duty, I will learn that this understated optimism is foremost among his many charming qualities.
Dave is one of the University’s three full-time gardeners. One morning, he takes me to the greenhouse complex, across the lake and to the south of campus, to retrieve a set of keys. He parks his white Ford Super Duty in the lot, amid sacks of “Pine Bark Mini-Nuggets,” overturned yellow wheelbarrows, stacks of black plastic pots, corrugated tubes for rainspouts, four-foot metal spikes, red plows lying at the ready, and a green John Deere.
This sort of functional clutter is unimaginable in the groomed public spaces of the University. Perhaps this is because the plows and wheelbarrows with which Dave and his team maintain the campus are promptly spirited away to this hidden patch of land across the lake when they’re out of use. All the tour groups see are the roads clear of snow and a fresh layer of mulch below the hydrangea’s. Like magic.
Dave finds the keys and swings back into the truck. “How about we take a look at the garden?” he says.
“The library is bigger than you might think,” Gabriella tells us. We’re standing in the plaza, between the University Chapel and Firestone Library. “From here, it doesn’t look like much, but Firestone actually extends all the way to Nassau Street and three stories underground. In fact, we’re standing on top of the library right now. Here’s a fun fact: they say that if you told one student to walk along every bookshelf in the library and another student to walk to New York, the student going to New York would finish first.” The tour group looks down past their feet, past the grounds swept free of leaves earlier that morning, into the air-conditioned silence of the library, imagining books laid end-to-end all the way to New York City and into the Hudson.
The scale of libraries and their contents can be deceptive. “The universe (which others call the Library)…” begins one story written by Jorge Luis Borges, in which he imagines a library so vast that it constitutes the universe in all its infinite possibilities. Even the University’s library (which is “bigger than you might think,” but by no means endless) seems to contain the entire universe in its miles of stacks. It is a paradox: at once part of the world, outside the world, and capacious enough to hold worlds within it.
The University gives the same impression. Space and time telescope here—the Russian Revolution transpires over the course of a forty-five-minute lecture, and conversations around a seminar table globetrot from Antigua to Kenya to the delta of Bangladesh. In this attempt at an all-encompassing vision, the world beyond campus nonetheless appears smaller than it is, as if seen from a distance.
From the greenhouse, Dave drives up Elm and turns right before the Art Museum, crossing east towards the student center. As Dave backs the truck the toward the garden gate, a honeysuckle branch catches on the rearview mirror and then whips back into place. “We need to do some pruning on this,” he remarks to himself.
Prospect is what Dave’s team calls a “high-vis” spot, meaning that on any given day you can find tourists wielding selfie-sticks or students in high-heels taking candid pictures amid the asters. The first order of business is cleaning up the garden, which sits between the dormitories and Prospect Avenue, and thus squarely in the path of every weekend night’s debauched undergraduate migration. Today, the ground is confetti-ed with multicolored dollar bills, remnants of a Monopoly-themed party the night before. “Let’s see what kind of trouble happened last night,” Dave says, pulling a long-reach gripper (the same tool that convicts in Day-Glo vests use to collect trash from the side of highways) from a rear compartment in the truck bed.
We walk around Prospect House to the front driveway, where the rain has melted the funny-money into a watercolor plaster on the dark concrete. “Sometimes you gotta get a little rowdy on these nights,” Dave says, almost apologetically. He scrapes the bills off the ground—10’s, 20’s, 50’s, and a stray condom in its wrapper. “There’s worse things you guys leave around,” he says, without elaboration.
On most days, this act of clean-up is the most direct exposure Dave has to the student body. (He does tend the hives for the students’ Honeybee Club, although he notes that membership declines steeply after the first week of every academic year.) This separation is due in part to the Facilities work schedule: Dave and his team put the key in the ignition of their Super Duty’s by six, three hours before the typical student snoozes their alarm.
But while the Facilities team notices the student community from afar, the students tend to not notice the Facilities team at all. In reality, the workers who care for the University are everywhere: pruning the ivy on Nassau Hall, repairing the Chapel’s slate roof and clearing fallen branches from the previous night’s storm. But for the students who see the University as it was meant to be seen, these workers and the very fact of their labor are simply part of the landscape.
In this respect, the University obeys a different set of entropic principles from the rest of the world—from the students’ perspective, the campus equilibrates towards meticulous, curated order. This order is evident in photographs of the campus on the University website, which present the University as it was meant to be seen. In one photo of the engineering school, the day-lilies are the foregrounded protagonists. Beyond them, the grass is trimmed to the University standard of 3.5 inches and framed by a fresh layer of mulch. The ivy clinging to the sandstone face of Nassau Hall in another picture is neatly trimmed and the stone walkway is swept clean, not a person in sight.
In fact, all of these landscape photographs are conspicuously uninhabited. It’s not that the University website doesn’t show students. They just happen to appear in particular situations: grinning over a bookmarked collection of Horace’s Odes or peering at their MacBook’s in a wood-paneled common room. Professors, too, appear at whiteboards or flanked by a bristling assemblage of wires and computer screens.
Not everyone is equally absent from these depictions of the University. The students and professors are beyond the trimmed ivy and the newly cleaned windows, deep in study. The only people who are truly omitted from this sparkling campus are the ones who made it that way.
The first snowstorm of the year arrives on a Thursday night. At six the following morning, I zip my jacket up to my chin and head down campus. Already, the walkways are salted, and the flashing yellow lights of the Kubota’s whirring by in the darkness suggest that Elm Drive, too, is clear of snow. The dorms are quiet, and even the flat white ellipse of Poe Field is momentarily untrodden. Down at Lot 17, the trailer is empty. Dave has already attached the plowing to his Super Duty and begun his rounds.
As I shiver by the door, Stefanie, Dave’s coworker and the University’s arborist, appears from around the side of the trailer. She’s wearing the standard-issue khaki jacket with the University Crest and her name stitched in white cursive and looks amused to see me. “You can find him,” she says, from within her hood, “but I promise you it’s going to be a long, boring, cold morning. If I were you, I would never have gotten out of bed.” In that case, I tell her, I’ll check back next week. She nods, saying, as if to herself, “I wish I could go back to sleep.” As I plod back up campus, I check my phone. It’s six-thirty. Stefanie lives an hour away, near the shore, and the highways are probably still snowed in. I try to do the math.
Secretly, I’m thankful for the cancellation. I have work to do, although the library doesn’t open until eight. With the toe of my boots, I nudge a clump of snow off the salted sidewalk onto the pile at the edge of the road. The streets are already clear—somewhere out there, Dave is working too.
Gabriella leads the tour group down the hill towards the student center, and then over to Prospect Garden. It’s winter, so the 9,500 technicolor tulip bulbs that attract crowds every March are still dormant. “Trust me, in the spring this is one of the most beautiful places on campus,” Gabriella says. “The gardeners take it very seriously.” This is the first mention I’ve heard of the University’s workers. “People love to get dressed up and take pictures here.”
The garden is to Gabriella’s right. To Gabriella’s left is its mirror image, reflected in the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Prospect House Garden Room, where the University hosts visiting dignitaries and other speakers. Just last year, Ameena Gurib-Fakim, the president of Mauritius, ate breakfast here with faculty and students, and expounded on the challenges of agriculture in a world threatened by climate change. With the garden behind her, she addressed the room. “Over millennia, humans have depended on plant diversity, both wild and cultivated, to meet their needs… Conservation of biodiversity must span the entire spectrum of activities and locations, on-farm, off-farm, in seed banks, all the while drawing on the wealth of local, indigenous knowledge.”
Dave’s outlook is less cosmopolitan, and he’s happy to admit it. “I don’t know the world. I know Central Jersey, that’s it.” Still, he is full of local knowledge, and the garden that provided the backdrop for Gurib-Fakim’s sweeping vision is evidence of his expertise. “I’ve been adding more native varieties of plants to Prospect since I’ve taken over in the last three years,” he said.
“Dave comes to the garden almost every day,” Stefanie tells me. “It’s absolutely his spot.”
At the moment, Dave is cleaning up one of the beds along the transverse walkways that, from a birds-eye view, resemble the black chevrons of the University crest. Standing beside him, I smell the sharp peppermint breath of cut stems. “I have a war every year with these asters,” he says. “No matter how much you chop them, they grow back.”
Indeed, the garden requires Dave’s and his team’s constant attention. “Everybody sees the university and says, ‘Oh wow, it’s so pretty!’” he says. “But we care for it, and we see the overgrown grass and the fallen branches. We see an insurmountable amount of work.” Stefanie interrupts him to ask if she should transplant a hydrangea to the other side of the garden or just take it down to the nursery. “Better take it down,” he says. “We can plant it in the spring.”
The garden behind President Gurib-Fakim is different from the one Gabriella visits on her tour, and from the one Dave tends to every day. Of course, it’s the same plot of land, but to each viewer it represents a different relationship, and from each viewer it demands a different degree of attention. For the students and faculty eating breakfast with Gurib-Fakim, the garden was a pleasant splash of evergreen, inert and ordered beyond the double-paned glass. For Gabriella’s tour group, it’s one spot on an hour-long tour, worthy of a pause and perhaps a photo. For Dave, the garden is an endless eruption, the object of unerring attention and a place he sees months and even years into the future. He takes the garden home beneath his fingernails each night.
Would President Gurib-Fakim’s global vision be possible without Dave’s attention to errant vines and unruly asters? Or was Dave’s garden perhaps a mere scenic backdrop for her presentation?
The University’s mission depends upon the illusion that the campus from which students observe the world is somehow separate from the world they’re observing. This illusion arises from the way that the campus as a physical space appears to follow its own set of rules. These rules dictate not only what the physical space provides (miles of books, coffee-shops around every corner), but also what it elides: fallen branches disappear overnight, litter vanishes from the quad, and the flowers bloom in the spring as if by magic. Like the heavenly bodies observed by medieval astronomers, the University that students are conditioned to see is bright, flawless and immutable through a conditioning process that begins the moment a prospective student first steps on campus for a tour. Meanwhile, the effort and attention, the plows and wheelbarrows required to create this illusion are almost entirely invisible. For the students, the clearest message is the one that goes unspoken: the work that we’re supposed to do, the important work, takes place elsewhere.
After giving us a moment to observe the hedges and hollow stalks, Gabriella leads us towards the opposite gate. As we leave, I notice that the soil beside the walkway is dotted with divots, subtle previews of the tulip bulbs that will bloom come springtime. By the gate, three piles of sawdust in the grass suggest that one of the tall pines has lost a branch. A Twix wrapper glints from within the ivy.
“I kind of like staying in the background,” Dave tells me, as we drive back downhill toward the greenhouse. “I prefer to be a shadow.” The University celebrates the facilities workers once every February, at a catered party featuring one of the student acapella groups. Some workers even bring their families. It’s a good time, but Dave isn’t motivated by the awards dispensed at these sorts of events. “It’s not just eight hours to me,” he says.
For someone with Dave’s skills and interests, the University is a good place to be. He particularly enjoys working in the garden—“understanding the ecology of it”—and undertaking projects without having to worry about making a profit. There are benefits, too: the University will pay up to eighty percent for employees to continue their education. A few years ago, Dave studied ornamental horticulture at the Rutgers Agriculture School. Because the degree aligned with his job at the University, he graduated without paying a dime. “I could have taken up rocket science, though,” he adds.
The University administrators might not have had Dave and his team in mind when they drafted their mission of education “In the Service of the Nation and in the Service of Humanity.” The University’s workers, after all, are the only people who dedicate their attention explicitly to the campus, to the supposedly neutral space that exists separate from the world beyond.
Still, Dave feels a strong sense of purpose in his work. “If it wasn’t for the education of the kids, no matter how much trouble they’re causing, we wouldn’t be here,” Dave said. “Maintenance is maintenance, but when you’re connected to a place with history like this… We feel like we’re part of something bigger.”
Is the “something bigger” aware of all its parts? For the students and faculty of the University to cultivate their distinguished relationship with the rest of the world (with “the Nation” and “Humanity”) requires a good deal of abstraction. This omission of certain details, this partial abbreviation of narratives, is essential to its academic mission. More often than not, the University’s professors begin every semester by acknowledging the simplification that makes their work possible. Thus, the refrain of every introductory Macroeconomics course—all models are false, but some are useful—or the anthropologist’s admission that our understanding of other cultures is colored by our own. Recognizing the limits of one’s intellectual discipline is what a good scholar does, and the University is full of good scholars.
But even the most self-conscious gaze has its blind spots, and the University’s blind spot is the very space where these exercises in abstraction take place. Our campus’ status as a world of ideas is laboriously constructed by workers who retrieve the trash before dawn and plant flower bulbs in the dead of winter. These workers are invisible, not because we cannot see them, but because we learn not to. It is their engagement with the world of things, with the world of wheelbarrows and fallen branches, that allows the rest of us to remove ourselves from it. And it is the very nature of their work to protect us from the discomfort of this fact: that ultimately, what we do and don’t see is determined not by the configuration of the world we are looking at, but by what we are looking for.
For a community distinguished by the power of its vision, what is the cost of the people made unseen?
As we head up campus, Gabriella leads us through an archway, whose vaulted ceiling suddenly amplifies her voice. A dark wooden door in the archway leads to the largest lecture hall on campus, which fills literally to the rafters when great writers and actors and recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize come to speak. Carved in stone above the door is the verse that generations of students recall long after leaving the University for the world beyond: “Here we were taught by men and gothic towers / democracy and faith and righteousness / and love of unseen things that do not die.”
The seedlings would have frozen in the cold if Dave hadn’t spotted them in the garden by the Dean’s house. They’re scraggly and bare, little more than woody roots. Beside the greenhouse, he digs six neat holes. The earth is just hard enough to part cleanly beneath his spade. “I like to save these when I can find them,” he says. “It’s our version of sustainability. They grew here, we don’t need to ship them here or anything. All they cost is a little bit of labor to plant them.” He lifts the tangle of seedlings from the yellow wheelbarrow and pulls one apart gently. “If you pinch it, it splits,” he says, clipping the end with the red shears he wears in a leather holster at his hip. “More roots this way.”
Dave fills in the dirt around the seedling and pats it down. It doesn’t look like much, not compared to democracy or faith or righteousness. Still, there’s a certainty in these frail things.
“They’ll wake up in the spring,” he promises.