Santa Clara University has been ranked among the top 5 most beautiful college campuses in the country in Newsweek, College Rank, and the Huffington Post on several occasions. At tours, prospective students and parents are guided through the sparkling new buildings and walkways outlined with roses, lilies, and pansies in vibrant colors. When I tell people I go to SCU the first thing they say is “that’s such a beautiful campus!” Beauty, however, is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder believes there is a big difference between beauty and unnatural neatness.
At SCU the grass is always green and perfectly mowed; the rose bushes, whether they are in bloom or just a bundle of thorny branches, are always trimmed to fit into each other and around pathways. All shrubs and trees are a certain height and are shaped meticulously. Gardeners are often seen driving around in lawn mowers, pruning bird of paradise trees and rosemary bushes, planting violets, chopping down old palm trees, or removing any dead leaf in sight.
It says a lot about a university to be well groomed and maintained. It makes it look put together and cared for, which creates a very positive image. But aesthetically it seems unnatural. It feels like a house that is up for sale, sterile and staged with bland furniture and decorations; and even though it looks appealing it doesn’t look lived in, it looks fake. The purpose of having such a generic aesthetic is to ensure that prospective buyers won’t dislike the house, and that it will appeal to the majority.
This is not to say that the extreme care, planning and work put into the campus’s landscaping is a bad thing. Maintaining a good image is important for the university when trying to reel in high school seniors and their parents. And being ranked one of the most beautiful campuses in the country certainly holds bragging rights. But the image they paint is too perfect and too clean-cut to the point where it’s uncomfortable.
Despite my personal cynical feelings toward the unnatural ‘beauty’ of campus (and the spike in my allergy symptoms in the spring), there is a lot to appreciate about the work of the gardeners. In an interview with Ricardo, the gardener in charge of the area from Graham Hall to Brannan, he explained that he works eight-hour days, five days a week. His daily to-do’s include trimming, mowing, pruning, shaping, and caring for the plants and grass in his designated area.
He can trim the plants in the area the way he wants, but they have to meet a certain standard set by the head of the gardening department. Ricardo mentioned that even though he originally did not have much interest in gardening, after 40 years on the job it has grown on him. He cares for the plants and is very proud of his work.
The level of obsession SCU has with aesthetics is slightly ridiculous. Gardeners can spend hours on a couple of bushes to get them the perfect shape. The university spends too much time and energy on aesthetics. Because the greenery is over cared for, even if they were to give it less maintenance, it would still be well kept. And the time and energy spent on it could be used on something less superficial.