Art, horticulture, and corruption in landscaping the campus of a college consistently ranked as one of America’s most beautiful
Pink cattail plants carpet the fields by Airline Road near the Boulevard like wispy fairy floss on the campus of Southern Methodist University, ranked number one for America’s most beautiful campus this year by The Princeton Review. This is a school in which plants are strategically planted according to specific color palettes designed by Disney theme park crafters, where specimens are imported from distant areas in the United States and abroad. As leagues of grade schoolers tour the campus in the fall, their heads pan to view sweeping vistas and their eyes are drawn to its botanical splendor. SMU’s breathtaking campus is an essential appeal to prospective students, especially to corral wealthy international students. And beneath its shellacked exterior, an incredibly complex system of visual artistry, biological savvy, and questionable financial maneuvering keeps SMU in a perpetual state of beauty.
Illusions and the art of visual trickery are ever-present on SMU’s campus.
“Many of SMU’s landscaping tactics are similar to those of Disney World Epcot,” said Mark Shrubsandtrees, who quit his job at the entertainment giant to work for SMU’s beautification team, of which members are paid on average a six figure salary. “This is definitely one of the most luxurious college campuses I’ve ever seen. To think that a school would hire a person in my field speaks to its dedication to its appearance.”
When I asked Shrubsandtrees to show some of his work, he first took me to the the Hughes-Trigg outdoor bottom patio. Here, as Shrubsandtrees explained, plants of specific heights are planted to create forced perspective in areas where large tropical foliage in the foreground segues to darker, smaller shrubs in the back, creating a sense of depth and natural asymmetry.
“Our inspiration here was the Amazon forest bed,” said Shrubsandtrees.
“You can’t place plants in straight lines or equal height. It just looks forced and artificial. In nature, there is a harmonious disorder in the way landscapes are shaped. Just sit here and look. Isn’t it relaxing?” Shrubsandtrees said to me as he sat down in a chair and pointed at the terraced Hughes-Trigg wall.
The Hughes-Trigg patio is not the only place for forced perspective — the Boulevard displays a spectacularly creative usage of it as well.
The Boulevard is a long stretch of road lined with trees down the middle that leads to SMU’s hallmark building, Dallas Hall. As drivers and pedestrians go down this road, they are shaded and cushioned by Southern live oaks from all directions as they approach the grand rotunda building. The experience of walking up to this signature landmark is highly engineered.
“The trees all the way down the Boulevard were planted much earlier than the ones leading down to Dallas Hall, so the trees start getting smaller as we approach the Flagpole. When we look at Dallas Hall from the end of the Boulevard, the trees in the distance look further away because they are smaller,” Shrubsandtrees explained.
“The Boulevard is also on a slight incline upward, which is why we call it the Hilltop. The result is that the trees and incline stretches the Boulevard and frames the Dallas Hall building so it looks like it’s larger and further away.”
We stood at the Flagpole, and Shrubsandtrees pointed down into the tree-lined Boulevard.
“But when we look at the Boulevard from the Flagpole, the difference in tree sizes creates the opposite effect; the Boulevard lane shrinks, and everything looks closer together.”
Why would the landscapers plan the Boulevard this way?
Shrubsandtrees explained: “The idea was that outsiders, who look at SMU from the end of the Boulevard, would see Dallas Hall as spacious and almost palatial, but SMU students who look standing from the Flagpole would see the campus as smaller, exuding a feeling of closeness and belonging.”
We then walked past the Three Horse Statues on the brick path that leads down to the New Commons.
“In the Disney Parks,” Shrubsandtrees said, “we frequently pump scents like vanilla near the cafeterias because the scent makes people hungry. “We use scent here at SMU too. Our goal is to draw people’s attention to the environment and create a more layered sensory experience.”
We began to walk past trees with white spring blossoms, and I caught a whiff of something pleasantly sweet and floral.
“You smell that, right?” he said as he plucked a flower from one of the trees. “You might think that the smell comes from the flowers.”
He took the flower and offered it to me. “Smell it. This type of flower doesn’t smell like anything.” Indeed, I smelled nothing.
“These trees were planted a long time ago, but we wanted to draw attention to the flowers and add another sensory dimension to them. What you’re smelling right now are volatile chemicals sprayed from there,” Shrubsandtrees said as he pointed to a tiny device on the ground that looked like a loudspeaker.
It emitted a barely audible hiss as it sprayed thready motes of vapor in the air, which now at a closer distance was cloying and overwhelming.
Poisonous, Invasive, and the Eternal Summer
The Dallas climate creates an interesting task for botanists: to choose plants that can withstand Texas’s temperamental sunlight, temperature, and humidity, yet also can survive unusually hot summers caused by the expanses of asphalt that absorb heat and the towers that insulate it.
Plants with large leaves wither quickly under Dallas’s unforgiving rays and lack of rainfall. Yet SMU’s landscape looks lush in spite of the harsh weather. Ground foliage resembling tropical banana leaves and the lawn in front of Dallas Hall are a verdant green year long, which comprise what Shrubsandtrees calls the “the look of the Eternal Summer.”
“Lately, we’ve got so many entering students from beautiful areas like Southern California and Florida. We’ve had to compete for their attention. SMU’s goal was to have students come in and say, ‘Wow, this looks just like home.’ We coined the term ‘Eternal Summer’ to describe the way SMU defies nature to avoid any signs of winter.” said Shrubsandtrees.
“SMU officials wanted us to make the campus look beautiful and green year round.”
The cost of this goal is money, and irreversibly, the environment. Potent fertilizers are sprayed in front of Dallas Hall during the fall so that the grass retains its lively color even in the middle of January, which leech out during Dallas’s heavy rainfalls. Many of the large trees planted around campus were chosen because they do not shed their leaves during autumn.
But not all species are from the area. Since the plants around SMU’s campus must withstand extreme climate but not look like native dry succulents, the school imports plants from areas abroad of comparable climates such as Brazil and Northern Australia. However, not all of these plants are good for Dallas’s environment.
“We did have some problems with foreign invasive species propagating outside of SMU. One species of turf we used on the lawns caused problems because its root system is so tightly woven that it strangles competing species. But SMU has enough pull in local law that they greased the skids in getting invasive plants legalized,” Shrubsandtrees said.
However, the occasional invasive species outbreak is not as drastic as the solution to the school’s feral cat problem.
SMU didn’t want to use traditional poison to control the feral cat population, which was booming in the recent years. The dark boxes of feline poison were bulky, ugly, and would remind people of death on a campus whose aesthetic was beautiful and lush life.
“SMU officials approached our botanists with the feral cat problem, and they returned with a botanical answer.” Shrubsandtrees says.
“The botanists teamed with SMU’s biology department to create a plant poisonous to cats that contained nepetalactone, the feline attractant found in catnip.”
The plants were placed in low traffic areas like behind the MoMac dorms, where cats would be drawn by the powerful scent, nibble on the plant’s leaves, ankle over to the shade behind the shrubs, and die.
“The worst case scenario we were anticipating was the sight of multiple cat corpses decomposing out in the open. Luckily, nature solved the problem,” Shrubsandtrees said.
As it turns out, nobody had to move the feline bodies; foxes were attracted to the smell and carted off the bodies in the middle of the night when no one was looking. The foxes, who were much fewer in number, more afraid of humans, and less likely to be vectors of disease, were a welcome replacement for the feral cats.
In SMU’s bizarre ecosystem in which appearance and glamour trumps all else, quiet extermination is not the most insidious act committed by the school, and poisonous plants are not the only predators fueled by the ideal of costly beauty.
SMU has received a record sum of charitable donations to the school in the past year, but it continues to operate in the red today. As millions of dollars flow into the system, the quality and quantity of professors, contributions to student organizations, and funds toward the classroom are static while custodians and other employees are being fired. SMU is hemorrhaging money, and it is spilling into the campus greenery.
Why is this happening? The higher-ups at SMU receive more money when students pay more money, so they are vying for the business of wealthy students who can pay a lion’s share of their tuition and fees. A premium campus atmosphere attracts more discerning families with fatter wallets, and SMU officials profit handsomely from them.
So money that should go to the academics and basic functioning of the school is being siphoned off to fund high-end beautification team members, greener grass, and exotic plants.
The allure of free money is so intoxicating that SMU officials seem to have developed bizarre rituals to ensure good luck in future cash flow. On the basement level of Clements, a dark maze of rooms branches off from the main office, one of which is the Office of Beautification. The beautification team invited me to come at eleven at night. The door was locked when I arrived, so I knocked on it. A greying man in his late fifties cautiously cracked open the door, checking his guest before letting him in. It was Dr. Sanders, the Dean of Student Affairs, locking the door behind me as I walked in.
“Come in,” he said as he led me into a room with a floor covered with a layer of sand.
Assorted Deans, Officers, and Executives of the SMU administration lay kneeling on the floor,their foreheads resting on the sand— an intense genuflection of sorts.
“It’s the Brazilian sand,” Sanders whispered to me. “Look familiar? It’s the multi-million dollar Brazilian sand from the volleyball courts at the Dedman Recreation Center!” Sanders said with genuine enthusiasm.
I watched as the SMU officials got up, pitched their arms upward, outspread, looking to the sky as though they were praising a God, collected a handful of sand from below, and poured it over their faces.
“We inhale the sand, we soak in its spirit,” Sanders whispered. “The sand has power. It has special properties that draw in the kids with the most money. When the tour guides say we have six million dollar sand imported from Brazil, the richest parents are willing to pay the price. We revere the sand to ensure that the turnover is even higher in the next academic year.”
The next morning, not believing what I had seen the night before, I went to the bottom floor of Clements and headed to the Office of Beautification once again. However, the sign next to the door that read its name had disappeared. I could see the holes where the nails from the plaque had been pulled out.
A few days later, the financials files that I had requested from the Executive Financial Officer, which I placed in a neat file on my dorm desk, had disappeared. When I woke up on a Tuesday morning, the papers vanished without a trace. And without the documents, I had no evidence of the outrageous financial corruption at SMU.
All of a sudden, emails I sent to Shrubsandtrees would not go through. In fact, his contact on the SMU website had was deleted. His LinkedIn profile was gone.
Not wanting to jump to conclusions, I visited the President of Executive Affairs, who I had seen at the bizarre sand ritual earlier, over at Perkins Administration.
“I am writing a piece on the SMU’s Office of Beautification. Do you know where it’s been moved?” I said.
“There’s no such thing as the Office of Beautification,” he said.
“I met the team,” I told him. “Mr. Shrubsandtrees went in detail explaining the purpose of his position,” I said.
“Shrubs and trees?” he said incredulously. “Is this a joke?”
I heard the taunting bite in his voice.
“Why are you covering up this department?” I said.
The officer considered his reply for a moment. Leaning forward in his chair, he said to me very quietly, “There is no such person. There is no such department at SMU, and there won’t be in the future. So I suggest you stop looking for it.”
So I left his office, returning with no evidence that remained any more.
Beautiful on the Outside
Above all else, SMU’s culture of prettiness has an undercurrent of greed. Millions of dollars are spilled for the sake of the campus, many of which were originally designated for libraries,classrooms, and professors. Hidden by closed doors, members of the SMU elite convene to design dainty cat poison, to figure out how to funnel the most money from academic funds to campus beautification needs, and to remove traces of an entire department that may shed light on their actions. The inner-workings of the school are canopied and shaded, its records pruned and clipped.
SMU’s commitment to aesthetic is impressive, but so is its mysterious and cabalistic administrative culture. The school’s ongoing theme begs many questions: When does devotion to appearance become a cult? When does the pursuit of money become just too extreme?
The school’s campus is one of a kind, possibly one of the most complex and refined in the world.But underneath the grass that remains vibrant year round, behind the carefully planted tropical plants and the sprawling Southern oaks lies a strange philosophy: Beauty — at whatever the cost.
This article was written by Luke Yeom. Click here to see more of Luke’s work.