It Matters How You Build It by Dr. Dafina Lazarus Stewart

Recently, I had the honor of being asked to speak to a group of almost 600 student leaders at San Francisco State University for their 5th Annual Student Leadership Symposium. After my keynote address, I had about an hour before my workshop with a small group of advanced student leaders. During that time, I had the pleasure of getting a campus tour from Kevin, the Associate Director of Residence Life.

I was struck by the beauty of the campus and all kinds of campus environment design principles came to my mind as we walked along. SFSU has great examples of green space, wayfinding, territoriality, and placemarking. However, these did not stand out to me as much as SFSU uses its architectural features, primarily the naming and décor of exterior areas, to signal its commitment to social justice and inclusion.

The campus student center is named for Cesar Chavez and the plaza in front of it is named for Malcolm X. My tour guide Kevin explained that the Malcolm X plaza was the free speech zone on campus and where the student organization fair is held and groups use the space to recruit and advertise their upcoming events. The Cesar Chavez Student Center is not an ethnic student center, but is THE student center. Naming the campus center and free speech area for two champions of racial and economic justice, such as Cesar Chavez and Malcolm X, makes their legacies and those cultural lineages an integral part of the daily life of the entire student body, faculty, and administrators – not just for those who share in those cultural lineages. It puts racial and ethnic diversity and social justice consciousness in the center, instead of on the periphery.


Murals are part of the décor of many of the main campus buildings, adding beauty and artistic expression to what would otherwise be typical concrete and glass edifices. Beauty matters at SFSU and you can tell just by seeing the gorgeous art all around you, but the content of the murals also matters at SFSU. Here’s an example a mural located on the opposite side of the Cesar Chavez Center from the Malcolm X Plaza. This mural is dedicated to honor Native American and indigenous populations and their contributions to SFSU.

In the bottom left corner, the artist painted the words “WE ARE STILL HERE.” At once both a call to remembrance and a defiant declaration of (self-)determination, the mural helps to locate SFSU as a space for indigenous culture. At a time when traditional higher education can seem antithetical to indigenous value systems and knowledge, the mural serves to help bridge the gap.

Finally, I think the most beautiful place on campus is the Garden of Rememberance, a memorial dedicated to the Japanese American students at SFSU who were forced to leave their college studies during World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Not only was this beautiful garden built (pictured below), but a bronze plaque recording the internment and the names of the 19 Japanese American students (U.S. citizens), who were expelled and forced to internment camps and other colleges in the Midwest (some of them the small, private liberal arts colleges I am studying during my sabbatical research). I was deeply moved by this site and remained in this place for a bit just soaking it all in.



Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pedersen, and Allen (1998) discuss the need for faculty and administrators concerned about improving the campus climate for racial and ethnic diversity to attend to four aspects affecting that climate. [It’s my belief that the framework developed by these authors is transferable and applicable to other social diversity issues beyond race and ethnicity.] Usually campus administrators are only concerned about structural diversity, how many of this group or that group are enrolled (Hurtado et al., 1998). Student affairs administrators may also be tuned into inter-group and intra-group dynamics, the behavioral aspect of campus climate. However, demographics and group behavior are only two of the four aspects that Hurtado and her colleagues include. The other two are the institutional context or its legacy regarding inclusion and exclusion and individual perceptions of the campus climate.

Campus architecture, both physical design aspects and décor, can have a significant impact on both of these facets. What names are on the buildings, the artists who produce paintings and sculptures that decorate the interior and exterior of buildings, and the content of that art all can be used to communicate the institution’s legacy and future orientation toward inclusion and exclusion. Moreover, those physical design characteristics can affect how members of the campus community (students, faculty, and staff) and visitors (from the local community and folks like me!) view the institution and shapes their expectations for how the institution is going to live up to the values it has nonverbally communicated. Although architecture and art are symbolic, symbolism has power.

At SFSU, this former “Footloose” campus (so nicknamed by staff because dancing was banned on campus for 30 years due to the decision of a former dean of students) has chosen to use its architecture to communicate honestly about its social justice failures, as well as its desire to build toward a more inclusive present and future. I believe that all too often institutions are more afraid of bad publicity than they are of taking a stand for justice and equity. Moreover, setting the bar high may lead to failure and disappointment. However, I believe higher education is called to take those risks in the service of creating a sustainable future characterized by justice and equity.


Hurtado, S., Milem, J. F., Clayton-Pedersen, A. R., & Allen, W. R. (1998). Enhancing campus climates for racial/ethnic diversity: Educational policy and practice. Review of Higher Education, 21(3), 279-302.

Originally published on the CSJE Blog on Tumblr.

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