Amongst the unceasing print and media analysis of Barack Obama’s inaugural speech, a consensus, if only a single one, has emerged: as the President iterated, we are in a crisis, and we citizens, collectively, are in part responsible.
Obama’s didactic undertone wasn’t always so subtle. “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure,” he said that morning. Our nation’s media has relegated much criticism to big banks, unregulated markets and greedy executives. But higher education, an area that purportedly consists of mere good-natured professors and administrators dressed in inconspicuous Harris Tweed, has curiously escaped the present deluge of condemnation.
In the past decade, a period marked by crude sybaritism, Grinnell has been no exception. Contrary to our school’s professed mission of producing people that can “evaluate critically both their own and others’ ideas,” the college has succumbed to the pervasive, orgiastic indulgence of the time. The administration certainly did not adhere to this mission, but instead chose to cough up millions upon millions on at least nine new buildings. As we all know, the Rosenfield Center is littered with completely unnecessary goodies, like the flat screen televisions that line the walls, or the dozens of hardly used rooms. All the while administrators took home six figure salaries, and our president remains among the highest paid in the nation. Sound familiar?
And like all of the other large-scale financial institutions we keep hearing about, Grinnell has faced the same repercussions. I remember the opening ceremony for the new student center, in which trustees swaggered around the building in their glitzy formal wear. That occasion, one that simultaneously reeked of glamour and profligacy, couldn’t be any more different from where we are now—the Grille, sitting right in the middle of that over-the-top building, recently shortened their hours to save money. The dining hall was obligated to make a similar sacrifice, now providing meals with one less station than previously.
We were all distressed to hear about the massive drop in our College’s endowment, and all indications suggest that this will only worsen; some predict that this so called “safety net” will diminish by more than two thirds in the coming years. What’s worse is that applications to liberal arts schools like Grinnell will only drop, which will in turn exacerbate our budget crunch. The New York Times recently ran an article profiling top students who are having to defer attending their own state universities because their families could no longer afford the tuition. If this is the case with state schools, just imagine Grinnell, which not only comes with a bloated sticker price but also offers virtually no practical skills or name recognition.
Ironically, I’m not even sure if spending less would have been beneficial. In fact, the college should have probably spent a whole lot more. The money’s all gone now anyway, and it would have made sense to spend it rather than let it sit indefinitely and ultimately evaporate, a point that Donald Frey and Lynne Munson posed in a Boston Globe article last month. But it is paramount to splurge responsibly; can you fathom how many endowed chairs a less ostentatious campus center could have provided for? Instead of squandering our resources on voluptuous cosmetics, we could have invested in more scholarships for domestic underrepresented minority students or veterans and other students from military families—just two of the many groups flagrantly lacking in our community.
In a recent conversation with an alum, I was asked about how students feel about the school. “I love Grinnell,” I told him, candidly. But then I went on to explain an unequivocal truth: there is a palpable sentiment within the student body that the administration, in the last several years, has focused more and more on buildings, the endowment and the frustratingly nebulous notion of “institutional longevity,” constantly promulgated by the trustees. All of this has taken place at the expense of student interests, student-faculty interaction and academics—the most fundamental things that comprise any college or university. And though no one has conveyed this widely held sentiment overtly, it’s there, we all feel it, we all know about it. The furtive dismissal of a popular Student Affairs administrator has only intensified the feeling of detachment between the student body and the administration.
Alum, fourth-year, whatever the hell I am, I’ll be out of here come May. But I have loved this place, and the fact that I chose to come back reflects my affinity for the school. I can only hope that once I’m in the “real world,” the administration will realize that investing in our students is the surest way to maintain “institutional longevity.” I hope that we can “dust ourselves off,” as President Obama asked, and start running Grinnell like a college, not a corporation.