WHAT is the epicenter of Whitman College?''
For five days I asked this question on the 1,200-student, 100-faculty campus in Walla Walla, Wash., one of the best liberal arts colleges in the American West.
Some gave a political answer: Memorial Building, where the administration offices of President Thomas E. Cronin and his phalanx of deans and financial aid officers reside, is the power center of campus affairs. A few took a social tack: They nominated the Student Center as the heart of campus life, while acknowledging its site at the fringe of the campus is rather removed.
Some centered the campus according to their interests: The new hall of music. The wall outside the gymnasium climbed at all hours by students using ropes and handholds like so many slow-motion elevators. The Harper Joy Theater, where Moliere's ''The Learned Ladies'' was running. Or Cordiner Hall, where the Walla Walla Symphony, the Northwest's oldest such orchestra, and the college dance ensemble performed during my stay.
But the consensus was Ankeny Field, a lawn rectangle around which the college's main buildings are set. Ultimate Frisbee and perpetual tennis, a creek at one edge as home to mallards, outdoor sculptures, are among images taken from Ankeny.
At one corner is a rock the size of a pickup truck turned on its side. A plaque reads: ''Pe-wa-oo-yit (First Treaty Council) To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing by their forefathers of the treaties with the United States of America near this place on June 9 and 11, 1955, this plaque is presented by the people of the Yakima, Nez Perce, Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla tribes.'' The Indian Wars treaty was signed there. Nearby in 1847 the Whitman Mission Massacre had occurred. In 1859, in honor of Methodist missionaries killed by the Indians, the Rev. Cushing Eells founded Whitman Seminary, which became today's college. Does Ankeny evoke the convocation of the thousands of Indians who met to end the war?
For some time I wondered whether the epicenter, the place beneath which the true forces and energies of the campus focused, actually lay elsewhere -- in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, which border the Walla Walla plain. A young Walla Wallan drove me out into the ravines and heights. From there one can see the unique rolling farmland and the Columbia River basin. The principal geological feature of the area is described in the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine.
During the last glacial period 15,000 years ago, a great lake would build up at Missoula, along the border of Montana and Idaho. An ice dam would break and waters 10 times those of all the world's rivers flowing today would rush to the Columbia basin and thence to the Pacific, scouring the earth's surface.
Of course, Whitman students and faculty think they constitute a college. Debate team members and orators say nondebaters find them ''difficult,'' much as verbal warriors were found both aggressive and admirable in classical times. Dancers perceive themselves treated as a tertiary arts ensemble, after actors and musicians -- as if movement were regarded as a lesser form of expression than sound and words. Faculty think the administration too numerous. So Whitman is a normal place, although hard pressed to explain what it means to be in Walla Walla.
Colleges are at their center universal. It matters little where they arise -- even if in the Missoula ''scablands,'' where the last Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tom Foley, fell in a populist massacre.
What matters is what the community builds there. The world of the intellect, science, and art is made of ideas, using whatever is at hand. Even more so in today's cyberworld, Whitman can claim itself a crossroads of the world, a Roman Forum of the West.