President Kaler responds to USG concerns on diversity, tuition and growth


Tyler Vu/The Observer

President Kaler joined USG’s General Assembly on March 21 to address student questions and concerns about diversity, increases in tuition and the continuing growth of the student population.

Shreyas Banerjee, Executive Editor

Following a period of tension between the administration of Case Western Reserve University and its Undergraduate Student Government (USG), President Eric Kaler addressed the entire USG on Tuesday March 21 and participated in a Q&A session with student representatives.

This academic year has been an acrimonious one for USG’s relationship with Kaler specifically following the student government’s passage of Bill 31-15 on Nov. 8, 2022, which called on the administration to divest from corporations in Israel given the government’s human rights violations. Following the passage of the bill, Kaler released a statement calling the bill “anti-Semitic,” “naïve” and an act of “hate.” As a result of the public statement, much national political attention was brought to CWRU, leading to increased tensions on campus and even harassment of some USG representatives.

As this was the first time he’s publicly addressed the undergraduate student body since this incident, all this history was very much in the backdrop of Kaler’s appearance at USG’s General Assembly this Tuesday, though it was never directly addressed. The first question posed to him by USG was with what authority and knowledge he could unilaterally claim that certain language opposing the state of Israel was inherently antisemitic. Kaler mostly brushed off the question about his actual response to the USG bill, instead noting that while he hadn’t taken classes on the Israel/Palestine conflict, he has “read extensively on the topics,” spoke to “many people for many years” on Middle Eastern issues and has visited Israel himself, including trips to the West Bank and Golan Heights. As a result, he concluded by saying he feels “pretty informed about the issues there” and moved on to other questions. The topic came up again when another USG representative asked how the president’s office determines stances of support or opposition towards USG resolutions, though Bill 31-15 was not specifically mentioned. Kaler responded by saying it depended on the subject matter of the resolution along with how “the resolution would place the image of the university in the eyes of the public.” He continued by saying, “And then we’ll make a judgment about it—and it is a judgment.”

Aside from this, questions from USG mostly focused on the university’s commitment to diversity, plans for future growth and ways to ensure that student tuitions don’t become even more unaffordable.

Kaler responded to major student concerns surrounding the potential unsustainability of CWRU’s undergraduate student population growth by saying it was just a 10% growth, noting that class sizes will go from 10 to 11 students. As a result, he believes “there shouldn’t be a qualitative change in the quality of the education, the experiences you get with [these] relatively minor or modest quantitative changes in the number of students.”

He also justified the increase in enrollment by saying that it was necessary “to generate resources that would be put right back into the educational programs, the hiring of faculty and laboratory enhancements.” Kaler specifically highlighted increased spending on renovating the chemistry and biology labs. He did not mention, however, that the renovations of the biology labs are happening in part because of a flood that occurred over winter break in DeGrace Hall. He also noted that CWRU had increased hiring of faculty, with 42 new tenure and tenure-track faculty, along with 26 new assistant professors, 13 of which will go towards the Case School of Engineering and the remaining nine will go to the College of Arts and Sciences. He also announced that they have 45 ongoing faculty position searches, but he cautioned that not all of these will make for an increase in the overall faculty population because of various retirements and departures.

Kaler additionally described how CWRU was investing in the infrastructure needed for the increased population, calling attention to the ongoing renovations of Eldred Hall into a student center and classroom space, the recent renovation of Fribley Commons and the construction of new residence halls in the South Residential Village to accommodate 600 students, due to be finished by fall 2024. In order to supplement the shortage of available on-campus housing, Kaler mentioned that the university was leasing the Monroe Apartments in Little Italy in the short term, just through 2024 until the new residence halls are completed. While he acknowledged that current students would have to deal with “some pinch points,” they would all be addressed by fall 2024.

With regards to other potential construction and renovation projects at CWRU, Kaler said there were no current plans to renovate or build new Greek Life houses, saying that the university does “notice that the overall university-owned Greek Life houses on campus have a relatively low occupancy, and that I think we need to work on and think about what that means going forward for all of those organizations.” Kaler was also repeatedly deprecating towards the first-year residence halls in the North Residential Village, expressing that even saying the buildings were “past their prime” is a “kind description” and that the living situations are “Spartan, no pun intended.” While he did acknowledge that they need HVAC systems and bathroom renovations, he said the style of living that the residence halls promoted was still good as they encouraged students to “unavoidably get out in the community.”

With that said, it is unclear when these renovations will actually happen as CWRU is currently drawing up its next master plan. There are many priorities on the agenda, including the upcoming $300 million Interdisciplinary Science and Education Building (ISEB), which is “very important for our research enterprise.”

“It’s a little bit like the movie that won the Oscar this year, right? It’s ‘Everywhere, All the Time, All at Once,’” Kaler said, jokingly attempting to reference recent Best Picture-winner “Everything Everywhere All at Once” to explain how many projects CWRU had lined up.

Other concerns include the ever-increasing tuition prices to attend CWRU. The university recently announced that tuition will increase to $64,100 for the 2023-2024 academic year, seemingly marking a 13% increase from last year’s $56,720 tuition, which was already a 5% increase. Acknowledging these concerns, Kaler endorsed a model of indexed tuition, wherein people’s financial aid packages will adjust each year to ensure that the gap between what aid covers and the total cost of tuition remains the same for families for all four years of attendance.

“That gap, at least as a percentage, I think shouldn’t grow during the four years that a student is here,” Kaler said. “We’re working on a way to essentially guarantee to a family that there will not be a marked change in what they will need to provide for their student’s education.”

Despite this hope, there is no clear timeline for when these plans will be implemented as “it’s a little complicated” with a lot of “little pieces” and “people who have to buy into this” as the Board of Trustees will have to approve this change. Kaler also defended CWRU’s tuition by saying that “in the global scheme, we’re not bad” as the national average of student debt for students graduating from private non-profit universities is $29,000 while CWRU’s average student debt is $26,000. He did acknowledge, however, that our peer universities have lower student debt totals, so CWRU’s goal is to reduce average debt to $20,000 “really quickly as we can.” He also highlighted how his administration was increasing fundraising efforts for scholarships, as the university does rely on philanthropy.

Moving on, Kaler briefly addressed climate goals, saying that the university wished to electrify their fleet of 65 vehicles over the next three years and build more electric vehicle charging stations on campus. He also mentioned that more administrative roles could be moved to a remote work model, cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions caused by commutes for CWRU employees. Further, he announced that the university is working to bring back a bike sharing program for students.

Additional questions from USG representatives overwhelmingly focused on how the university can increase diversity and inclusion on campus. Kaler reassured the student leaders by saying that this was an “extraordinarily high priority” for him, saying “Equity and diversity and inclusion is the foundation upon which an excellent university is built. Period. You cannot have excellence without having a diverse group of people.”

He specifically outlined plans to hire more professors of color in conjunction with the Office of Equity and Diversity and build more connections with undergraduate and graduate students from predominantly Black institutions. When a student asked if CWRU would ever establish an ethnic learning community so that minorities can live together if they so wish, Kaler responded by saying that “We’d be happy to respond to requests to establish a community,” adding that they were “relatively easy to do within the res[ident] hall configuration.” While the president said that increasing the campus population would assist the admissions office with enrolling more underrepresented minority students, he also warned that some political processes may be out of their control.

“I think it’s pretty easy to imagine that the Supreme Court will act and eliminate the use of race in admissions decisions; I think that’s pretty clear,” Kaler said. “What we are not going to do is step away from a commitment to a diverse and excellent population, faculty, staff and students across the board. We may have to work harder to get that. But we’re not gonna step away and we have double the handful of ideas that people are looking for.”

Outside the assembly, when asked by The Observer about how the university is reacting to a bill going through the Ohio Senate that would punish public and private universities in Ohio that have diversity and inclusion-related mandates and training courses, Kaler responded by saying “it’s terrible” and that CWRU was lobbying behind the scenes to make sure the bill’s effects aren’t too harmful if passed. He justified the less public approach by saying that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered.”

Other questions were about CWRU’s disability accessibility. One USG representative noted that CWRU had received an “F rating” in this category, which he had learned at a bioethics seminar. The Observer has similarly found a peer-reviewed study that assigned an F grade to CWRU as well as other top universities regarding accessibility and disability inclusion based on infrastructure accessibility, public image of disability inclusion, accommodation procedures and grievance policies. Kaler responded by saying he was surprised by complaints and that we might have gotten an F as CWRU is “definitely in compliance with ADA standards everywhere.” He did say that “there are some areas on our campus that could be more accommodating and we will work to rectify those where we can.”

Kaler also announced plans for a celebration of CWRU’s bicentennial in 2026, as one of our predecessor institutions, Western Reserve College, was first established in 1826. The event will reportedly feature the ribbon cutting of the new ISEB, along with prominent alumni returning, symposiums on CWRU history and other aspects that are in the planning stages. While most current CWRU students will have graduated by the time the bicentennial rolls around, he encouraged students to return for the event.

Kaler ended the session by saying that no CWRU student should be afraid to approach any administrative office on campus if they require support on any issue. He also revealed that the university was going through a “pretty major revamp of all of the student connecting structure that we have, which I think doesn’t work particularly well,” and is rethinking how Navigators, advisors and the administration can support students.

This university continues to evolve and with Kaler closing out his second year as CWRU’s president, the degree and nature of that evolution remains to be fully seen. We can only hope that students will continue to stay informed and be consulted about these changes to our institution.