Dear Chancellor Wrighton and the board of trustees: Let’s talk about priorities
Dear Chancellor Wrighton (and the board of trustees):
Have you been inside the new Bauer Hall? It’s pretty impressive—six stories of soaring glass-and-steel atrium, state-of-the-art classrooms and impeccable modern decor. But what am I talking about—of course you’ve been inside; you’re the ones who run this school.
Before I go any further, I’d like to reiterate one thing: I love Washington University. I love our passionate, diverse student body. I love the fact that every day, I have countless opportunities to meet new, fascinating people. I love our relaxed Midwestern attitude. I love how committed Residential Life and the First Year Center are to making us the most welcoming school in the nation (in my opinion). I love our city, and I love the efforts we’ve made, such as our expanded partnership with KIPP Inspire Academy, to strengthen our relationship with the good people of St. Louis. I love our interesting and engaging professors. And I love the fact that, as a student body, we are not afraid to have difficult conversations about issues facing our community.
Our student body has faced a lot of difficult conversations over the past year. We flooded social media, held open forums, wrote Student Life op-eds and flooded the inboxes and voicemails of our administrators about issues ranging from diversity and inclusion on campus to rising tuition to, most recently, our University’s ties with Peabody Energy. If the difficulties we’ve faced this past year prove anything, it’s that the students of Washington University refuse to be silent on issues that affect our community.
And for the most part, the powers that be at this University have been willing to listen and work with us on these issues. The administration worked relentlessly and quickly after conversations about social justice on campus sprung up last fall to establish the Mosaic Project and poured a lot of resources into setting up a Center for Diversity & Inclusion. The students at this school—and the people who work directly with students, such as Residential Life and the First Year Center—have shown a relentless dedication toward making Wash. U. a more inclusive community. However, every time we speak up on an issue, there is one group that holds a lot of power—in fact, the most power—that remains silent: the board of trustees.
Higher education nationwide is forging down what I believe to be an unsustainable path, and our board of trustees seems committed to following it. According to College Board, average private school tuition in real 2013 dollars has risen by over $19,000 in the past 40 years. Public school tuition has also risen, but only by about $6,000 in inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars. And according to U.S. News & World Report, the growth in financial aid packages has not been able to keep up since the 2010 recession. Rising tuition and shrinking relative financial aid is making it harder and harder for low-income and middle-class families to afford to send their kids to private schools. Students here at Wash. U. and at universities nationwide have risen up in protest about this, but tuition keeps rising.
This brings me back to my earlier point about Bauer Hall. Bauer is a spectacular building, and it’s definitely good that we’re trying to grow our business program. However, I find it hard to justify such an elaborate, expensive and unnecessary piece of architecture when the students at this school are hurting so much financially. Higher education at elite private schools has become a virtual arms race to attract top students, with seemingly every top university building bigger and more expensive buildings while students struggle to bear the cost. In my personal opinion, if this keeps up, private school education will eventually no longer seem like a good investment for anyone except extremely wealthy families. Smart kids will start taking their talents elsewhere—to universities that better meet their needs.
I think this issue goes even beyond tuition. The Peabody Energy protest demonstrates this point. The students at this school are fighting as hard as we can to create a more inclusive community that looks out for one another and our city as a whole. And many people who work here are fighting with us. However, the board of trustees does not seem to be in line with our vision.
What if instead of being focused on capital improvements like new buildings, the Leading Together Campaign focused on making Wash. U. more accessible and improving the student experience? What if instead of pouring our money into building bigger and better facilities in an attempt to raise our national profile like every other elite private school in the nation, we made academics, affordability and inclusiveness our top fundraising priorities? I know this is a bold proposition because most big donors want to see their name on a building instead of a scholarship fund, but I think such a move could really set us apart from other top private universities.
Chancellor Wrighton, you recently told the Students Against Peabody group that you could make a stand against the board of trustees but wouldn’t. I know I’m not talking about exactly the same issue, but I’d like to ask you to reconsider that statement because I think I speak not only for myself when I say that the students of this school believe that the board of trustees’ priorities may not be in line with ours. Higher education is an arms race toward a world where only the wealthiest students can attend elite private schools like Wash. U. If we really want to raise our national profile, I think defiantly deciding to go in the opposite direction could make all the difference.