New AU is the same as the old AU

I never knew Bill Maher was such a fan of AU. Last summer at a School of Communication alumni dinner, the sharp-tongued comedian told a panel of prominent AU graduates: "I think there's an AU Mafia in Los Angeles, and I think from now on, I'm going to tell people I went to AU." Despite Maher's contention, the vast majority of graduates are not giving back to their alma mater. Maher's point belies the statistics: According to the current "New AU" Capital Campaign, alumni donations have fallen far short of the University's hopes and expectations. In fact, only 17 percent of alumni gave to AU in the last fiscal year - up from years past, but still low compared to comparable institutions. ÿ

Many students come to AU because of its prime location. Nestled in the heart of affluent D.C., many students come to AU hoping to take advantage of the wealth of internships and connections living in the nation's capital city provides. When I first visited as a high school senior, all the other prospective students had also applied to nearby George Washington University and Georgetown - AU was their safety school. Even the University does little to dispel the notion. The Department of Media Relations recently publicized a column from a freshman in her hometown newspaper. The article supposedly praised AU, but the article - headlined "You never know the power person you could meet in D.C." - was a homage to the nation's capital, not the University. If our school moved to, say, Kalamazoo, Michigan, I doubt she'd be singing the school's praises as loudly. ÿ

Washington or no Washington, AU is a fine university. There are outstanding teachers in a wide variety of fields, and class sizes are relatively small. The dorms and food are better than at most comparable campuses. Well-known lawyers and journalists often teach as adjuncts, providing their unique insight to many classes. The campus is one of the most wired in the country. At first glance, it's puzzling that AU's alumni donations are substantially lower than our consortium compadres, including GW and Georgetown. ÿ

One plausible reason for the lack of giving is the campus itself. The administration provides the professors, and students learn in office-style classrooms. But it often doesn't feel like a university. Look at the brilliant architecture at Georgetown or Howard University. You know that you're on a college campus, a laboratory of learning. Ed Smith, AU's outstanding American Studies department chair, recently talked about Howard University to my class: "You know you're at a university when you step on Howard's campus. The architecture, the rooms, they feel like a university." As modern and comprehensive as many campus buildings are, they show little architectural ingenuity. The library is a building with drab bookshelves and the Ward Circle building could be confused with any new office building in Washington. However, this is not a fixable problem, at least not in the short-term.ÿ

What is fixable is another common student complaint: The bloated bureaucracy at AU, recently highlighted by the $2.3 million that its radio property WAMU bled in the last year. Many also blame the administration for being unreceptive to student needs. President Benjamin Ladner recently disbanded the University Senate, the only real representation for student voices towards the administration, and he rarely solicits student feedback. The University administration is too detached from the everyday concerns on campus. AU students accomplish much on their own initiative and credit little to the administration. One student told me the Career Center failed to find an obvious typo on her resume. Many jobs and internships are earned despite AU's assistance, not because of it.ÿ

Finally, there is virtually no school spirit on this campus - a good sign of the support and identification the student body has with the university. My high school drew larger crowds to basketball games. During my freshman year, I would check out a George Mason-AU game over at Bender, and was shocked to see sections of empty bleachers, mostly filled with fans from the visiting team. The corny phrase "Once an Eagle, Always an Eagle" rings hollow and should be renamed "Once an Eagle, Later a Politician Who Forgot She Went to AU."ÿ

The "New AU" campaign will not be successful unless fundamental changes are made in the administration's communication with its students. Instead of asking for a hand-out, the University leadership should demonstrate that it deserves our hard-earned cash by listening to the student body. Ladner allegedly ignored a student's petition for additional student representation in university affairs at a reception. Another student said she was told "Who do you think you are?" when asking for increased funding for her club sport. This happens far too often and demonstrates why students hesitate donating to AU.

Former University president Richard Berendzen said in the 1980s that he envisioned AU as a future Harvard on the Potomac. An incredible amount of progress has been made in raising AU's academic standards. I, for one, have greatly enjoyed my four years here. But if the administration wants to genuinely improve AU for the future, it needs to work on satisfying its students and truly listening to their feedback. It may be a New AU campaign, but without student and alumni involvement, it is destined to be the same old AU.ÿ

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle

Would you like to support our work? Donate here to The Eagle Innovation Fund.

Coronavirus Project