Being student-centered: failure(s) to launch

Mon Nov 26, 2018

It’s a point that has been so thoroughly ingrained into this university that it has become its own fixture of everyday life. Technological solutions have been thrown at it. Strategic missions have been crafted against it. Waves of student leaders have given their all towards reversing it. Yet, an all-too-familiar sense of cynicism and disengagement persists among portions of the student body, a resigned and forlorn conclusion that this status quo cannot change. It remains, what I see, as a key issue that the university thus far has not adequately been able to address, yet it is very easily and simply stated: the university is bad at communicating with students.

Before I go any deeper in trying to flesh and add credibility to this rather incendiary statement, I feel the need to offer an official disclaimer: I am a single student at this university, and while my position at TechNews likely leaves me more informed than most students at this university, my opinion over this perceived communication gap is mine and mine alone. I am not attempting to make an official statement on the behalf of TechNews as an organization, and I am definitely not attempting to present my position as that of the Illinois Tech student body. Instead, as an opinion piece, this article represents the beliefs and experiences of a single student at this university, regardless of my position.

This idea of an administrative communication gap on campus is nothing new. In fact, this article’s title and basic premise are largely inspired by the cover story of the November 13, 2018 TechNews issue, “Kaplan Institute: failure to launch.” In his article, TechNews writer Soren Spicknall eloquently explained the hypocritical reality that while Illinois Tech’s top administration attempt to craft an organizational strategy around “being a more student-centered university,” the opening of the new Kaplan Institute was marked with instances of students not being kept in communication about facts as simple as the building’s opening and access to it.

This kind of intuitive absence is unfortunately not a new reality for the university’s students. Students not being told that a new building, despite having its official and highly publicized opening ceremony in October, would not be ready for access until January is just one in a long series of basic failures to consider the role of students as stakeholders. At a university.

A quick scroll through the Illinois Tech Student Community (ITSC) Facebook group, as well as a quick recounting of my own memory, gives a plethora of incidents of student dissent that could have been solved with something as simple as an email or even the most minimal attempts at reaching out to them:

The heart of campus, the MTCC, was closed on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, a fact that was never communicated to any students or even the radio station that operates in the building, prompting a last-minute cancellation of all shows on those two days.

An active shooter situation at Mercy Hospital, only a few blocks north of Mies Campus, unfolded without a single warning or statement made by any university officials, even as the cacophony of emergency response vehicles and news helicopters permeated the air surrounding campus.

Discussions from the university’s administration about the plans for the currently defunct Cunningham and Bailey Halls on the northeast side of campus have changed in timeline and structure multiple times, but this information has only ever been directly communicated in recruitment materials to potential new students and not through announcements to current students (unless actively sought out).

And perhaps the most egregious recent example, an installment in the “Future of Higher Ed” forum (subtitled “being more student-centered”) was almost held without a single student in attendance. To the event organizers' credit, several students from various facets of student leadership were contacted mere days before the forum was held and asked to be in attendance - a jarring contrast to how the forum’s very structure REQUIRED student input. A forum that is literally about the university basing its actions on student input should not have the overall atmosphere that student presence was an afterthought, and yet it felt that way for me as I had to navigate a series of emails and phone calls the day of the forum to even secure my own attendance.

These examples are but a few anecdotes of what seem to be failures by the part of Illinois Tech to properly consider the status of students as a stakeholder in its most basic decisions and most overarching strategies. However, I am of the belief that these are not deliberate attempts at robbing students of their collective voice as a body on campus. My personal experience with staff and faculty members of the university across all levels has always been that these are people that are personally very invested in properly representing and serving the students they ultimately work for (however I also fully acknowledge that this has NOT been the reality for some students). It is for this reason that no single university administrator or department has been named so far in this article; I simply don’t see there being some grand conspiracy to diminish the voice or concerns of students on campus.

Instead, what I believe is happening here is a lack of cultural progression from the university - a failure to deliver on self-defined goals of becoming more democratic in its overall operations and strategic initiatives based around the will of students. An interview with Provost Peter Kilpatrick at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester saw him stepping into the position with the overall goal of doing “what’s best for the students.” Such a claim is not new. Going back in just the last 10 years, President Emeritus John Anderson in the 2008 Annual Report glowingly described his “Many Voices, One Vision” strategic initiative in which “we asked all members of the IIT community to share their thoughts on the university’s strengths and what we want to be in the future.”

Yet, a full 10 years later, this still does not seem to be the de facto reality of Illinois Tech and its treatment of its students. The music needs to be faced that the current administrative atmosphere on Illinois Tech’s campus can speak as much rhetoric as it wants about how strategic initiatives and key decisions are shaped or made with the overarching belief in doing what’s best for students, but until that same student body actually feels like it has its rightful place at the table, it will continue to just be salt in a wound that has remained open for decades. No amount of shiny new buildings or conciliatory statements will suffice here: this is a launch that will require a much more concerted effort regarding the overall culture of the institution to avoid becoming another hot take headline written by a single student further down the road.


Photo by Ethan Castro (He/him)



Appears in
2018 - Fall - Issue 11