by Con Chapman
DUBUQUE, Iowa. This town was the primary location for “Field of Dreams,” the movie that turned the phrase “If you build it, they will come” into a mantra for seemingly hopeless causes. “That film really spoke to me,” says Dr. Norbert Clesko, president of Eastern Iowa University. “To me it means you have to spend a lot of money on an apparently stupid idea in order to realize your vision.”
In 2010 a newly-hired Clesko made a pledge to EIU’s trustees: he would turn the school into a world-class institution in four years, “or die trying,” he says without a trace of humor. What he found, however, when he threw six-figure salaries at potential faculty hires ensconced in more cosmopolitan locales was that money wasn’t everything to some big names. “These people want to buy expensive coffee and read The New York Times in froofy cafés,” he says as he shakes his head in bewilderment.
But Clesko’s personal hero is Clark Kerr, the UCal-Berkeley administrator who famously said the job of a college president is to provide “football for alumni, sex for undergraduates and parking for faculty.” “There is so much wisdom in that saying,” Clesko muses in a voice that suggests he doesn’t realize Kerr’s remarks were said in jest. “I told myself, if you want to get top-notch faculty you’re going to have to give them parking they can’t get in Cambridge or New Haven.”
And so EIU embarked upon a construction job just slightly less massive than the pyramids of Egypt: to build the world’s largest faculty parking garage at a time when other schools were cutting back on capital planning due to declining demand.
“It will be the first faculty parking garage visible from outer space,” Clesko crows, as he rides a girder to the roof for the symbolic “topping-off” ceremony. “We’ll have piped-in classical music, and you’ll have your choice between floors where you can hear Italians like that Mr. Vivaldi or Germans such as Ludwig van Mozart.”
The biggest skeptics are the very people the garage is supposed to attract, however; academics with impressive CVs. “I think he’s confusing cause with effect,” says Anil Mehta, a psycho-linquist at Stanford who has earned several prestigious fellowships in his short career. “You have to have a reason for people to come and park, not just the spaces with yellow lines.”
But Clesko isn’t buying that bill of goods. “That’s what they all say,” he snorts. “Until they see the handy little cards that remind you what floor you parked on.”