Phone Boxes

By Mac McKerral

I recollect encountering my first genuine, fire engine red British phone box in Alabama.

It turned up courtesy of Mrs. Jack Hawkins Jr., the wife of the president of what at the time was called Troy State University. The second and successful attempt to rename the school changed it to Troy University, the switch predicated on making people think it was a private not a public institution.

Making things appear what they are not happens all the time at colleges and universities.

As to the phone box, it remains on the TSU campus (I refuse to call it TU), just a short walk from the building in which I taught, the Hall School of Journalism. The junction where the phone box sits used to hold an intersection with traffic control. Now it features a roundabout.

You might see a trend developing here.

A few weeks back, a student alerted me to a photo posted on a social media site — the smiling face (what else would it be?) of Dr. Craig Cobane with three genuine, fire engine red British phone boxes. Caption information stated that these would adorn the almost completed Honors College and International Center. It will hold all things honors and all things WKU “reaches” — until our Chinese “partners” get their own building.

For purposes of transparency, I offer two statements:

  • I am longtime supporter of the Honors College and all its appendages.
  • I am a longtime opponent of the construction of this building at a cost of $22 million-ish. For the past several years we have been told the university is broke. Add to the multimillion cost annual maintenance, upkeep and HVAC for the building — a “fixed” cost — and the price of three genuine British phone boxes, and you might understand my position.

“It just gives everyone a sense of belonging,” Bryan Russell, chief facilities officer told a reporter from the College Heights Herald.

Quite frankly, I feel left out.

My next encounter with a phone box came when I taught at Harlaxton College in England during the spring 2015 term. A phone box sits close to the college’s Office of Student Development. It offers free local phone calls, a step down from the Phone Boxes Trifecta pictured above, which I have subsequently learned come with Skype capability. Of course, in my travels throughout the United Kingdom the past spring, I saw a lot of phone boxes, usually with tourists crammed inside them taking advantage of photo opportunities, not Skyping.

But I know that the phone boxes have become collector’s items because of the advent of mobile phones, and BT Group PLC (formerly British Telecommunications PLC) will sell and ship them to anyone.

This comes from a story published in 2012 in England’s Daily Mail newspaper:

“The K6 (phone box) was introduced in 1936 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the coronation of King George V and these boxes reached the landmark of 75 years on the streets just last year. The “Jubilee kiosk,” as it became known, was designed by English architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. It became the first genuinely standard telephone box to be installed all over the country and there were some 70,000 on the streets by the time production came to an end in 1968.”

The cost to get one in 2012: £1,950 (plus shipping). If that remains the price, it equates to approximately $3,000. But, hey, you cannot put a price on history — or cool baubles.

I suspect that when the dust settles, all kinds of interesting baubles will turn up in the HCIC, real conversation pieces (wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall and hear those conversations) to accompany the Thesis Defense Room, an international café, study nooks, yet another theater and 82 offices. (I applaud the designers for finding space for 11 classrooms).

I do not know how much the phone boxes and the other baubles cost or how they were paid for, and it doesn’t really matter.

I say quite frequently that perception often outweighs reality, and the building and the perceptions that accompany it really matter.

For almost a decade, the faculty who teach throughout the Western Kentucky University system have seen no significant increases in pay, and at the same time, the cost of living rose 14 percent and the faculty pays more for parking and more for health insurance. And during administrative budget defenses — not in the Budget Defense Room but in the “University” Senate chambers (see “making things appear” above), what always tops the list of “must pays” is fixed costs that routinely go up annually.

When I grow up, I want to be a fixed cost.

But now we are told — on the precipice of a $7 million-plus deficit — that faculty compensation will be a “priority” in the next budget go-around, despite none of the budgeters knowing how that might happen and to what degree. And of course if it does not happen, it will be the Legislature’s fault.

My perception – and big, spanking new buildings with their accompanying price tags help paint part of that picture – is that for the past several years, the “priorities” have been all things Honors, all things athletics, all things constructed and all things Chinese.

I do not think I am alone in my perception.

So if paying faculty — instrumental to why we have a university — is going to be a priority, then our leadership better start thinking outside the box — and beyond the phone boxes.

(For more about Mac, search the menu for “About” and “Who is this guy?”)

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