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UND meditation group says it was unaware of demolition plans

The Lotus center was always going to be a spiritual place, which meant it was important to Tamar Read that it be softly lit. She was paying for it, after all, so when she felt that florescent lighting wasn't conducive to meditation, it meant the long tubes had no place in her building.

"I thought meditation was very important, or it was to me," Read, 95, said last Friday, sitting in the naturally lit, wooden-floored UND Lotus Meditation Center. "I felt a need for it and I didn't want to live in a place that didn't have one. Grand Forks did not have one, and I didn't want to move, so I built one."

The meditation group housed at the center met in the building for the last time in late June. The center is attached to the International Center on University Avenue, a building that is being torn down later this summer as part of a wider effort to cut down the campus footprint and reduce deferred maintenance expenses in older buildings. The cost-saving push comes as UND is absorbing a $32 million cut in its two-year state appropriated budget.

According to university spokesman Peter Johnson, the planned demolition of the International Center was announced to the public in late 2015, but Read says UND never reached out to her directly. She and the meditation group learned their center would be torn down only after reading about it in the Herald in the spring of 2016.

Johnson says UND administration has worked with the group to relocate it on campus but couldn't speak to when the center's users were notified. He wrote in an email that the announcement of the International Center's offline status overlapped with changes in key personnel, namely the exit of campus facilities leader Dave Chakraborty.

Read, a former UND music professor, paid for the construction of the center in 1997 and gave it to the school. She also provided a $10,000 endowment entrusted to the UND Foundation and Alumni Association to cover the center's programming and biannual retreats.

The Herald reported at the time that the center was built for $50,000. By the time it was all said and done, Read says she spent as much as $200,000 getting the place in shape.

She's grateful that the center had 20 good years. But now she wonders what message the closure of her center sends to anyone else considering making a gift to the university. She's also questioning the way things are going on campus, a place she describes as being caught up in a wave of cuts sweeping North Dakota and higher education as a whole.

"It seems like the plans for the university are to cut a lot of things down: Programs, buildings, like we don't need it, we don't need a campus," Read said. "I don't think you can get an education online only. It can be helpful for some facts. But without interaction, the human side of it, I don't think you can get it."

Read is a few years shy of a full century on earth, but she gets around well with the help of a cane. A former UND music professor and a Louisiana native with a trace of accent, she came to the university in 1959 and remained employed there until 1988. She was interested in the role of music in cultures around the world and brought performers to campus to share music from as far as Zimbabwe and as close to home as the Turtle Mountain reservation. Over more than half a century in Grand Forks, she has won numerous accolades, including the Sioux Award, UND's highest honor.

Since its founding, her center has played an interfaith role on campus. Though Read herself has maintained an interest in Buddhism, she said the launch of the Lotus Meditation Center included representatives of all the local religious groups she could find. The center was used frequently as a prayer space by Muslim students and faculty and hosted classes in traditional Chinese practices qigong and tai chi.

The center also held retreats, typically on a twice-a-year basis, where attendees could find a more in-depth experience in meditative practices.

Adjusting to new space

The International Center was identified in a December 2015 public forum as one of a pool of buildings UND would stop using.

UND librarian Janet Rex, a longtime leader the meditation group, wrote in an email that the center's users missed that forum and were "oblivious of these plans to demolish" the building until they read about them in a Herald article. Even then, they weren't sure if the move would affect the meditation center. The group, which operated in some ways like an independent organization, had an unusual placement in the UND hierarchy of things but ultimately answered to Sandra Mitchell, the former UND associate vice president for diversity and inclusion.

Rex said the group consulted first with Mitchell, then eventually with UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo to see if the center could possibly be saved. Read was hopeful it could be separated from the International Center and moved elsewhere to be preserved and, for a brief period, Lotus Meditation Center leaders thought it possible that Read still owned the building itself, opening a chance that it could be relocated to an off-campus site. That proved to not be the case, so the group looked to finding a new home.

Through talks with UND leaders, it came to be decided that the best place for the Lotus Meditation Center would be in UND's Memorial Union or, more specifically, in a remodeled meeting room in the tunnel that connects the union to Swanson Hall.

It was to that room that Rex and a team of UND facilities workers were moving the Lotus Meditation Center's belongings last Friday. The new space, being underground, lacks natural light and is lit with florescent bulbs. Maybe more importantly, it lacks the autonomy of the old space.

With the loss of the center, Rex said the group has been relegated to the status of any other campus organization trying to schedule time in a public space mainly intended for use by students, who get priority when requesting to use the room. As the meditation group was preparing to transfer its various cushions, benches and other furnishings to their new space, they were confronted with another bump in the road—the university had initially sought payment from the center to cover the cost of the labor used to move everything into the space under Swanson Hall. The university eventually dropped that request, but Read was adamant that she wouldn't have authorized the payment anyway. The move has marked a challenging time for the center, but both Read and Rex are optimistic it will continue in its new home.

Among themselves, the meditation group is trying to focus on the transition as an example of Buddhist teachings in daily life.

"This gives us a lot to work with," Rex said. "In our practice, there's suffering because of our clinging to things. So this is a very deep exercise in letting go and how life changes every time."

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