A tale of two universities

The senior inquisition

Sheehan Hannan

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy close to here, there were two universities. One was largely a technical school. Its students were educated in engineering and hard sciences. In an age that valued liberal arts education over science, they were the upstarts, creating and experimenting with new technologies and theories. Across the street, another university educated their students in the humanities, attempting to breed holistic problem solvers instead of specialized tinkerers.

I am, of course, referring to the two schools that form the backbone of our campus—Western Reserve University and Case Institute of Technology. Though the two have long since merged, Case Western Reserve University still feels like a city divided. As the gap between the humanities and hard science became largely restricted to games of freshman one-upmanship, a new chasm emerged—between the business end of our university and its educational roots.

In my four years here, I have frequently run up against this very problem. Like any private college of our size, CWRU’s corporate side is intricate, designed to project a very specific outward view of our university to prospective students, the public and the almighty donors—research based, exclusive, prestigious, diverse but safely economically homogeneous. By all accounts academically challenging, but a solid upper middle class choice. It’s the very image that brought me here hook, line and sinker, without so much as a campus visit, that’s fueling the construction boom and left us with an $8.4 million operating surplus last year, according to the 2012-2013 annual report. It’s a bold vision of a school striding confidently into the future, embodied in our hilariously nonsensical and unabashedly aspirational slogan: “Think Beyond the Possible.”

On the other hand is the messy work of academia, the kind that students, faculty and staff are supposed to be here to do. It’s maddeningly difficult, massively rewarding and a bit more difficult to market than research grants and massive open online courses, or MOOC, enrollment numbers. As the Office of Planning and Institutional Research is wont to point out, there are myriad ways to measure how happy we students are. Hell, they even measure our chow intake: 4,534.29 pounds of produce from the University farm straight to our gullets last school year. But because of the zeal the university’s leadership displays in its move into the future, the real job of our beloved university, student-based educating, has been left behind.

In all their fervor for the future, on leading and aspiring, the corporatist side has forgotten about the students they set out to serve. Sure, the USG president has regular meetings with university leadership. Despite an unnecessary scuffle, The Observer can get their hands on already publicized applicant diversity statistics. But even as they get better at engaging with the student body, our leaders slide toward business over academics. Gripping white-knuckled at the wheel, they’re leaving students in the passenger seat, letting us come along for the ride as they drive the agenda.

By way of example, take the most prominent addition to our campus—the beautifully designed Tinkham Veale University Center. Doesn’t have the same ring as the one syllable “Thwing” does it? Well, in addition to being quite a mouthful, the University Center’s name is a symptom of the larger problem, one based on emphasizing the University brand over its student purpose.

Let’s take a quick trip on Euclid Ave toward downtown. When you pass Cleveland State University, do you notice anything? It’s right there, plastered across a wavy-fronted building plopped by the roadside: Cleveland State University Student Center.

It’s easy to wave off the difference as a semantic one. But language matters. It’s how we understand our surroundings and each other, what our entire social lives are built on. More importantly, language choices demonstrate priorities. As such, if students will be the primary users and beneficiaries of the University Center, doesn’t that make it a student center? Even more importantly, if the stated purpose of our university is the education of students, shouldn’t the students be at its nucleus? What does it say about our leaders’ priorities when they have neglected to use the very word the university concept is based around in their marquee building project?

But the University Center is just a small example. Moving CWRU into the future is obviously important, and programs like Blackstone Launchpad, Think[box] and constantly churning research are to be applauded. But in pushing CWRU forward, the university’s corporate side has neglected to meet students where we are. Our role in directing the university that has so shaped the course of our lives is a tertiary one at best. Our input is sought on the minutiae, not the strategy. We are treated as cudgels to be wielded in the form of recruitment statistics and daily newsletter publicity bites, not stakeholders that have the ability and drive to shape our university’s present and future, from curricula to campus development to community engagement.

We chose to be here. We have invested our hard-earned dollars not only in our personal futures, but the future of this institution. We want to make it better, to have a role in truly deciding its direction. Student leaders are already waiting in the wings to make it so. They need only be given the opportunity to close the gap.

Sheehan Hannan is a senior English major. He was formerly the director of print for The Observer and the chairman of Media Board. His writing has also appeared in Cleveland Magazine and Inside Business Magazine. opout. In some things, they can be equal.