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Enrollment inspires expansion at Washington & Jefferson

| Sunday, May 9, 2010

Taylor Eddens feels at home when he walks through a breezeway in the new John A. Swanson Science Center at Washington & Jefferson College.

With motion-sensor lighting in classrooms and Italian marble pillars adorning its three-story atrium, he finds it a comfortable place to study.

"It's definitely an improvement," said Eddens, a 21-year-old junior at W&J.

The 54,000-square-foot science center is the latest edition to the private, liberal arts college campus, which added 10 buildings in Washington over the past decade.

"We're not building to attract new students," said W&J President Tori Haring-Smith, even though that's what happened. "What we're doing is enhancing the value of the degree students earn here."

The center, named for John A. Swanson, a philanthropist and member of W&J's board of trustees, was built for $33 million and dedicated April 30. It replaces the aging Lazear Chemistry Hall and Thistle Physics Building.

W&J's campus-wide construction costs since 2000 totaled $100 million, said Jim Miller, director of facilities and planning.

Other buildings:

• Howard J. Burnett Center, completed in 2001. It houses the departments of Economics/Business, Modern Languages and Education, and W&J's Entrepreneurial Studies Center.

• The Technology Center, opened in fall 2003, a 74,000-square-foot facility that is home to more than 200 computer work stations, "smart classrooms," and a Global Learning Unit.

• 10 "theme houses," or residences used by fraternities and sororities.

• Two suite-style dormitories with common areas, key-card access and air conditioning.

W&J also constructed a soccer and baseball complex several miles from the campus, along Interstate 70.

Money for the construction projects came solely from fundraisers and donations, mostly from alumni, said Haring-Smith. Tuition did not rise to cover construction costs, she said.

College officials say the buildings are needed to accommodate enrollment, which jumped nearly 50 percent since 2000 to 1,514 students today.

"In a lot of ways, this isn't the same campus it was 10 or 15 years ago," Haring-Smith said.

It's not the same as it was even three years ago, when Eddens walked onto campus as a freshman.

A biochemistry major who wants to study medicine, Eddens took his first science classes in Lazear Chemistry Hall, which opened in 1940.

One February day in his freshman year, the hall's heater died. Classes continued, however. Eddens and other students conducted experiments while wearing heavy coats and hooded sweaters.

"It shows they're dedicated to the improvement of the department and the college," Eddens said about the new science building.

Construction of the science center began in September 2008. Classes started there in February.

Swanson, who delivered the commencement speech at the University of Pittsburgh earlier this month, his alma mater, donated $10 million to construct the center.

Fred Winter, senior director of the Office of Advancement and Leadership for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, called W&J's fundraising effort "impressive" and said it demonstrates the college cultivated "great institutional loyalty."

It's rare for a liberal arts college W&J's size to raise so much money in such time, Winter said.

"They're raising money for tangible investments: buildings they need," he said. "These are logical points of construction at a time when the teaching agenda and environment have changed dramatically."

Michael Behrens, code enforcement officer for the city of Washington, said W&J's continuous building projects hasn't interfered with city traffic and operations because the work took place on private property. The improvements are well-received by residents.

"Whenever you tear down old, dilapidated buildings and replace them with something that's more attractive, it's going to be pleasing for everybody," Behrens said. "They've done a lot."

Steven M. Malinak, an associate professor of chemistry, thinks the construction proves to the public the college is making education a priority, particularly the sciences.

"We've always been teaching students to become good scientists, even in 80-year-old buildings," he said. "But this (new center) is the piece to the puzzle that had been missing."

Additional Information:

Washington & Jefferson College

Founded: 1781

Enrollment: 1,514

Land space: 60 acres in Washington

Endowment: $101.1 million

Tuition: $35,000 a year

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