Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: SJSU Takes Big Step a Metropolitan University

San Jose State's Interdisciplinary Science Building should help bring the university into the modern age.

Last week, a gala groundbreaking hoedown for the new Interdisciplinary Science Building (ISB) at San Jose State University unfolded to serious fanfare. Clocking in at eight stories and $181 million, it is the first new academic building on campus in 30 years. They even had ice cream.

The ISB will transform the status of several academic departments, offering a refreshing update from crumbling facilities and decrepit buildings left over from 50 or 60 years ago that many are forced to tolerate. In the new building, teaching, research and collaboration will converge in ways previously unseen in the old, outdated structures.

Perhaps a few hundred people attended the ceremony, many enduring the direct sun to sit in chairs and listen to the speeches. The event unfolded right where the new building will soon break ground on Paseo de San Carlos, right in front of Duncan Hall. This is the same spot formerly occupied by the University Police Department and the historic Scheller House, a structure that for most of the 2000s also included the office of Fountain Blues Festival founder and local live music booking pioneer Ted Gehrke, who'd been at SJSU since the early '70s. Sadly, Gehrke died in February.

Last January, the 200-ton house was lifted in dramatic fashion, then moved into the street and transported all the way around the campus to an empty parking lot where it now sits—all just to accommodate the new science building. While commendable, the process only highlighted the goofy musical chairs nature of campus development.

The Scheller House was constructed in 1904 at the corner of Fifth and San Carlos, back when SJSU was known as San Jose State Normal School. Ninety years later, the house had fallen into serious disrepair, with only feral cats interested enough to check it out. University president J. Handel Evans tried to destroy it, only to be stymied in court by the rabid preservationists at Preservation Action Council San Jose. At the same time, when San Carlos Street still went through the campus, the university police department was located in a Spanish-style bungalow with a red-tile roof, just steps from the rundown Scheller House. As the university prepared to close off San Carlos, that bungalow was destroyed and the police moved to a new facility inside the Seventh Street garage. In 2002 the Associated Students, with alumni help, raised enough money to restore the Scheller House and rotate it 90 degrees so it could function as the new Associated Students headquarters facing the now pedestrian-only Paseo de San Carlos. The house also doubled as the Fountain Blues Festival headquarters before the festival moved off campus.

Now, as time marches on, that same splotch of land will get a new science building and a new botany garden to replace the old one. Beginning in 2022, students will have access to modern science labs, research facilities and collaborative learning environments. Meaning, students can take classes and then walk down the hallway to see lab research taking place in the same building, whether it's organic chemistry, molecular biology or high-performance computing, all of which will be more integrated than before. Everyone will get to see what everyone else is working on.

All of which makes sense. If SJSU wants to be taken seriously as "Silicon Valley's metropolitan university," and foster industry collaboration and entrepreneurship, then it can't continue with crumbling labs that were out of date 20 years ago. And with certain people already talking as if SJSU will eventually include doctorate programs, then certainly the time is right.

Not to rain on anyone's parade here, but I can't help but observe that the College of Humanities and the Arts never gets anywhere close to its fair share of funding or hotshot millionaire donations like the rest of the campus. The music and art buildings, as well as the English faculty offices, are some of the university's most archaic structures, yet still greatly contribute to campus and city life.

In any case, the ghost of Ted Gehrke will poetically watch over the SJSU campus now and forever. He will make sure that musicians, artists and poets all get their fair share. I'm counting on him.