Robin Jones Kerr: Lack of follow-through on ambitious plans exposes GW’s disconnect

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo

As a nervous high school senior trying to decide where to attend college, I went on countless campus tours. For my trip to the University of Michigan, I was accompanied by a cousin who had graduated from that school just a few years prior.

We hung at the back of the tour group throughout, and whenever the guide – a spunky junior with a blond ponytail who talked breathlessly about football games and cracked tired jokes about hating Ohio State – said anything overly idealistic, I’d glance at Ryan for confirmation.

Often, he’d shake his head, silently calling out her propaganda. Then he’d lean over and, murmuring under his breath, give me the real deal. “No one eats at the cafeteria,” he’d advise me, or, “There’s no way you’re getting a single your freshman year.”

I wasn’t lucky enough to have this resource when I toured GW, and lately, I’ve been wishing I had.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Robin Jones Kerr

The University brags about plenty of things to its target groups: To prospective students, it highlights its numerous student organizations. To incoming faculty, it points to its plan to become a research powerhouse. To donors, it spotlights its recent merger with a prestigious arts school.

Unfortunately, the reality on campus is a bit different. As it turns out, that arts school merger had its fair share of hiccups, student group leaders have complained about administrative inefficiency, and just last week, three top faculty members described agitating logistical roadblocks to conducting their research.

As a student here, seeing this disconnect is frustrating. It’s great for a university to have big aspirations – in fact, the strategic plan, GW’s blueprint for the next 10 years, has lofty goals that center on improving the academic experience for students.

But it’s irresponsible to focus on the big picture without considering the day-to-day aspects, which, when mishandled, often fall hardest on students and faculty. And since it’s the big picture that GW uses to make itself more attractive to outsiders, the University sends the message to members of its community that its image is more important than looking after the folks who are already here.

For example, GW has committed to investing in research – it’s one of the central goals of University President Steven Knapp, and it’s why GW took on debt (along with some public relations embarrassments) to build the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall.

But at the everyday level, we’re seeing problems in the execution of those plans. With recent turnover in the Office of the Vice President for Research, faculty haven’t been able to find folks they’ve previously worked with, and have little support when it comes to understanding their complicated grants.

You can’t expect to become a nationally recognized research institution if, when faculty call needing administrative help, no one answers the phone.

Granted, the research office has attempted to make its staff more accessible: In November, the office restructured itself, placing research support staff within each of GW’s colleges.

But there’s still a disconnect between the 30,000-foot view of the administration and the conditions on the ground – namely, despite faculty members raising these concerns, Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said he simply wasn’t aware turnover was a problem in his very own office.

We saw the same thing with the Corcoran merger and, on a smaller scale, with student organizations. While Knapp and other top administrators were busy boasting about how great the merger with the Corcoran would be for GW’s arts reputation, the school’s students had no one to answer questions about housing, financial aid or studio space.

Meanwhile, GW tells incoming students that it has over 400 student groups on campus and encourages freshmen to attend the student organization fair each semester. But the leaders of these groups say they receive little assistance from – and, at worst, are stymied by – the Center for Student Engagement, whose advisers are spread so thin they’re not able to properly facilitate students’ needs.

The University needs to be more conscious when it implements large-scale plans or markets in broad strokes. It needs to consider the follow-through, not just how it will package things, and above all, it needs to ensure that the daily needs of students and faculty are being met.

Robin Jones Kerr, a senior majoring in journalism, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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