P. H. Cordner

Prosaic University

In Commentary, Current Affairs on March 9, 2010 at 12:17

The following is a letter I sent to the Exponent, February 10, 2010. It was rejected for being too long, and I never got around to shortening it to 300 words for publication while the iron was hot.

Mentioning Purdue in the same sentence as Arizona State is a
serious shot across the bow. However, university administrators must admit
that Peter Schrag has a point worth contemplating, and not just spout ad
hominems about how he “didn’t do his research.”

I do feel insulted as well, being compared to a student of the notorious
Arizona State, but the charge of Purdue being “prosaic” carries some
weight with me. Purdue always struck me as less an academic powerhouse and
more an upper-middle-class vocational school. During my admission period,
I heard a lot about how much money people made after they graduated
Purdue, but not about what people learned, and the kind of smart people
there. Which, don’t get me wrong, we have loads of smart professors,
students and TA’s. But the fact remains that our strongest areas aren’t
frontiers of knowledge, but rather specialized vocational skillsets.
Management, Engineering, and Agriculture are Purdue’s strong suits, with
our Liberal Arts department sitting in the shadow of IU. Our science
department is the exception, but even there a lot of emphasis is placed on
industrial, commercial, and enterprise interests. These are admirable
skills, yes, but they lack that certain romance one thinks of!
when they bring to mind other top-tier schools. It isn’t just the
different focus of our students that earns us scorn, though.

Think of another “upper-middle-class vocational” school, Northwestern.
This school is similar to Purdue in that the U of Chicago overshadows its
Liberal Arts department, but has very good management, law, and science
programs. It still enjoys a much better reputation than Purdue. I
attribute this to the fact that Evanston is a much nicer place to be than
West Lafayette, and the Purdue campus’s grubby feel. Purdue’s campus lacks
a consistent architectural direction besides “everything has red bricks,”
and most of the buildings built here after World War II and before the
turn of the millennium are undistinguished, and in the case of Beering,
Math, and CL50, rather ugly. The campus is also a very congested,
car-centric area, with a busy state highway bisecting the academic campus.
You don’t get the romantic, academic, ivory tower feel here.

These considerations are absolutely immaterial to the education I am
receiving here, and I doubt that more than a few students honestly care
one whit about architecture and the feel of the campus. Furthermore, the
amelioration of these “problems” would cost a lot more money than Purdue
has or cares to spend. However, these admittedly very subjective points go
a long way to explaining the “prosaic” moniker hurled at us by a
journalist half a country away.

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