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The Citizen

A Sign of the Times: Mysterious Sign Puzzles HKS Community

20140422_145841By Tommy Tobin

This article began as a personal journey and ended up being a mystery through time. On an unassuming Kennedy School afternoon, I happened to cross from Littauer to Belfer on the ground floor. As I looked up, a sign greeted my gaze with the enigmatic line, “Thank You for Using the Ground Floor Connector.” This was unfiltered appreciation coming from the halls of the Kennedy School to me, simply for walking from one building to another. As far as I’ve been able to tell, this is the only between-building passage in Harvard’s graduate schools that directly thanks its users. Walking the labyrinth of tunnels across the River at HBS, individuals are greeted to many sights and sounds but few thank-yous. At HLS, the purr of vending machines and nostalgic posters punctuate the passage between the hallowed halls without the promise of appreciation at the end.

For months, I have walked through the halls of HKS attempting to find similar messages in the hallways to provide answers to the sign’s unspoken questions. Why was the sign installed? When? By whom? What was so special about the ground floor? No other hallway at HKS between buildings has such a message.

For this quest, I enlisted the help of the Kennedy School community, from faculty to students to staff. Fellow MPP1 Katie Blaisdell summed up the conundrum, “Someone with access to funds and authority had to feel at some point and for some reason that it was a good idea to put a message on the wall like this.”  A plurality of students I spoke with had never noticed the sign before and expressed genuine confusion why such a placard would be placed. After speaking at length, MPP1 Isaac Lara revealed he’d not seen the sign, I took him in person to open up his eyes. As some students know, I’ve taken to showing pictures of the sign to folks who don’t believe in its existence. The sign’s message of appreciation and confusion was an experience missed by some students, but surely faculty and staff would have knowledge of the note’s provenance.

It was three or four years ago for Dr. Christopher Robichaud, who remembers seeing the sign with a smile. Comparing the spiral staircases and odd nooks of HKS to video game level design, the good Dr. Robichaud saw the plaque as something that could have been right out of Halo or Bioshock’s Rapture. Professor Tim McCarthy hadn’t seen the sign before but was curious about its origin and meaning. The meaning remained mired in mystery. Emails to Dean David Ellwood and Dean Melodie Jackson have gone unanswered.

I figured the HKS Facilities Office could help, especially as they are located on the famed Ground Floor with its oh-so prominent Connector. Gina Venturini said the sign dates back decades and speaks to a different time at HKS, where the computer lab was located on the Ground Floor and more administrative offices were found on the floors above. There was no Taubman Building nor the Mt. Auburn offices. Scott McDonald guesstimated that the sign dated back to the 1980s and the construction of the Belfer Building. Regardless of its history, the sign has special meaning for many of the service employees on the ground floor. Nia Bowling said it was nice to see students walk through the halls and feel appreciated by the sign. Even so, the Ground Floor Connector cuts through the kitchen area, where some students feel they get in the way of the hard-working HUDS staff who have to contend with HKS’ unique geometric contours.

The most definitive account of the esoteric placard came from Cathy McLaughlin, Executive Director of the Institute of Politics. Her Kennedy School tenure is long and storied, and she saw many configurations of how to use the limited space of our campus. By her account, the late 1980s saw a time when all HKS students had mailboxes and a Town Hall space in Belfer was a popular student hang-out. The IOP was on the second floor of Belfer and the titular Belfer Center was on the third. Each of these floors had corresponding messages to discourage the use of these hallways to cut across from Littauer to Belfer. Instead, students could use the more student-oriented spaces near their mailboxes and the Town Hall. The sign was a nudge to positively reinforce the use of the Ground Floor Connector instead of the upper floors.

Times have changed but the sign remains. The Thank You sign is a window into HKS’ past, a view to a smaller campus. It serves of a reminder of the growth of the school in physical space, programmatic offerings, and student enrollment while it continued its global impact. The HKS community now has more spaces to mingle, work, study, and collaborate. Without context, the sign is a puzzle to be decoded. Seeking truth, or veritas, is what Harvard is about- uncovering mysteries from the common to the metaphysical. At the Kennedy School, we acknowledge our heritage across our walls in the Forum. Thanking us for using the Ground Floor Connector is another way we can remind ourselves of where we’ve been and where we’re going next.