“Most Beautiful College Campuses” Lists are a Mixed Bag

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I couldn’t resist clicking on “Conde Nest Traveler’s 50 Most Beautiful College Campuses in America” listicle when it came across my Facebook feed and scrolling through the famously beautiful campuses like Amherst, Bryn Mawr, Dartmouth, and Harvard. As I came upon Northwestern in my scrolling down the alphabet I was chuckling at the very notion of my own alma mater ever making a list like this because the northern Ohio town of Oberlin is best known for its flatness, and the lack of natural beauty in the area. At least in my memory of it.

So what a shock to come upon that very campus, which Conde Nest Traveler (who of all publications should know geography, right?) described as “covered in trees” (okay, I guess) and “grassy hillsides.” Which reminded me of the local joke that a dirt pile on the outskirts of town was called Oberlin Mountain because it was indeed the high point.

This had me pondering their criteria. CN Traveler doesn’t tell us, simply referring to their picks as “the 50 best show-stoppers.” No help there. 

Swarthmore College campus, November 2008

Now I’m no travel writer and haven’t seen tons of campuses but two of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen were missing from the list – Swarthmore and Cornell. 

Cornell Campus in July of 2018

My other picks for most beautiful campuses – U.Va. and William and Mary – did made the list.

Curious about lists like these, I found a much better one by Architectural Digest, which made no mention of Oberlin and did reveal their criteria: “We’ve gone across the country to find the most beautiful college campuses in the United States, taking into consideration both architectural legacy and setting.”

Also no mention of Oberlin in Cosmo’s list of 50, which keeps its criteria to itself, or in this list of 100, which awards U.Va. the number one spot.

What Makes a Campus Beautiful? 

The people behind that list of 100 by Best College Reviews seem to take their lists seriously, and reveal this about the methodology used:

To create this piece, nominations were selected based on 1.) inclusion in dozens of comparable “most beautiful college campuses” list articles, and 2.) an informal survey of friends and colleagues both in and out of academia.

Picturesque natural features such as green spaces, bodies of water and arboretums were the key criteria, as was elegant architecture – and specific buildings and areas were then singled out for their outstanding looks. The ordering was selected simply on the basis of which, as a whole, seemed to be the most beautiful.

Still pretty subjective, but how could it NOT be? Rewarding colleges for their green spaces, bodies of water, arboreta and “elegant architecture” seems about right to me. And I’m pretty sure those things would matter to me if I were choosing a school now, though they clearly weren’t when I was a 17-year-old doing search trips with my mother. 

Though I DO remember interviewing at Bucknell in Pennsylvania and noticing its beautiful mountainous setting. But from there we drove westward into the dull, seemingly endless flatlands of Northern Ohio.

Courtyard garden at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music

Time to Revisit Oberlin?

Being of open mind, it occurred to me that maybe Conde Nest knew something I didn’t know and that Oberlin’s landscape had improved in the decades since I’d seen it. So I watched a tour of the campus and did discover some new gardens and a sizable greenhouse.

And as it happens, I’ve been considering going to my class’s next reunion, at its half-century mark, which will probably be postponed until 2022. I would go back not just to see the campus and the Boomers I hadn’t seen since we were demonstrating against the Vietnam War and rebelling against our parents in every conceivable way. I’d be hoping to rekindle some pride in the old place, after its recent spate of bad publicity.

The publicity resulted from a local bakery’s successful $11 million suit against the college after a dean accused it of being racist, an accusation seen as liberalism gone amok, I suppose. Excessive wokeness, some have called it. George Will wrote that that “Oberlin College has an admirable liberal past and a contemptible progressive present,” calling it now a “disgrace.” Salon asked “Why do conservatives hate Oberlin so much?” based on Breitbart and other media having “long been on the Oberlin hate train.” 

So the college I was once proud to be associated with has become a punchline in jokes about liberalism. As we would have said, what a bummer!

How about Your Campus?

Back to the subject at hand, do you have memories of the gardens and landscaping at schools you’ve attended? And did your alma mater make any of those lists?

11 COMMENTS

  1. Stunned that the Best College Review folks neglected to list the University of Missouri-Columbia. The campus is an arboretum filled with a beautiful collection of mature trees. Huge swaths of beds wrapped the 1920’s gothic buildings with a gorgeous mix of diverse mixed plantings designed for year-round interest.

  2. Hey Susan! My second job is manager of that “sizable” greenhouse at Oberlin, which may appear that way through the magic of photography, but is actually quite modest. Happy to give you a tour, whenever you make it back to town.

  3. I went to Swarthmore College, which always makes it high on any lists that include the natural environment and plantings in their assessment. I think CN criteria must have centered more on buildings and architecture. I think Cornell is a winner also!

  4. Although charmed by the mature informal gardens and plantings at Kenyon College, and thinking some mad gardeners had been responsible for such diverse loveliness, I most enjoyed walking in central Ohio woods with a wildflower ID book and I believe I found every plant in the book. It seemed like an undisturbed garden of Eden. I was amazed.

  5. I went to Swarthmore, and the arboretum and beauty of the buildings were a major plus. Any list of beautiful campuses that doesn’t include it is automatically dismissable, IMO. The amphitheater alone is one of the most beautiful and serene places I know of in any east coast garden. There are some gorgeous shots of it in Rick Darke’s books.
    Having not been back to the campus since graduating, I have wondered if all the construction and garden-building may have made it a little *too* garden-y; its calm, spare openness in the ’70s was a big part of its appeal. Will have to get back there to assess for myself…

  6. I attended Illinois State University in Normal in the 90’s and it was beautiful then – I was a Hort/Ag major and the campus served as an outdoor “classroom”. I visit often now to talk to students about my time there and my career and it’s even more beautiful now. The grounds of the main campus are impeccably kept – with annuals, perennials, pollinator gardens, and trees thriving with life on the prairie. There are representative trees of the 100+ species of trees that grow in Illinois dotted around the campus. Massive trees like Kentucky Coffeetree, Beech, Oak and Ginkgo (the male was accidentally misidentified and removed in the 60’s when my father attended there…the female still remains….pollinated by some male straggler somewhere in town) hold court next to young trees planted recently to showcase new varieties and continue the legacy. Some of these big trees remain from the early days of the campus built in 1857. They recently had to remove a Red Oak that was well over 200 years old. If I close my eyes I can still picture where every tree is on campus because that’s how I learned my woody plants! 🙂 The Horticulture Department has exploded and now runs a beautiful Horticulture Center just north of campus that is open to the public. Not only does it give students hands-on experience and research opportunities, it’s a wonderful addition to the community with an amazing children’s garden and trial and specimen gardens – all maintained by the Horticulture Department and volunteers. For a “flat”, quiet, Midwestern state university – ISU is a gem and worth a look if you wish to go into Horticulture! Go Redbirds!

  7. I could never figure out how they come up with these lists. I’ve been to universities in Europe that I thought were beautiful however- architecturally, not much landscape greenery in some colder Northern cities. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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