Defining the Wildcat identity

    Northwestern is ascendant. As we learned last Wednesday, our dear undergraduate admissions office greeted more than 30,000 applications this year. That’s almost double the number of applications the school was receiving six years ago, and the rise makes sense: Our recent freshmen classes have been record-setting in many respects, and all those shiny high schoolers have to come from somewhere.

    But we are ascendant, many people will tell you, without a clear sense of ourselves. Many — if not most — Northwestern students assert that “Northwestern has no identity.” It’s often mentioned, they say, that we have “Big Ten athletics and Ivy League academics” but this brand-saturated phrase says little about us as students. And indeed, what phrase can say anything about us? Our Greek leaders regularly improvise a sense of community from literally nothing, our drama students churn out full theatrical productions like they’re Bieber-themed Twitter trends, and a thousand other organizations bustle about campus, making and doing and creating and producing, but what possible thing unites them all?

    The administration doesn’t seem to have an answer, even if they understand the urgency of the question. Last year, while heralding the new Elder Residential Community, Vice President for Student Affairs William Banis explicitly told The Daily Northwestern that “we want to foster a stronger Northwestern community, a Wildcat identity.” What’s encapsulated by this “Wildcat identity?” He never said.

    The administration struggles to define our greater brand, as well. This summer, the athletics department hired a new sports marketing director, Mike Polisky, who promptly blazoned “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” on billboards across the county. “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” is an admirable marketing mantra, but it tells current students nothing new. And the administration’s quest extends far beyond this: Read any official Northwestern press release, and you’ll quickly get the sense that the university is trying whatever it can think of to assert a larger Northwestern identity.

    And while we flourish without a clear sense of ourselves, we move ever forward. Administrators are currently adding bullet-points to the strategic plan, lobbying alumni for new buildings, even writing TV ads for national airplay, and with each one of these they begin to irrevocably set our school’s future identity. But how can this be shaped when we don’t have an idea of our current identity? When we–according to the most sinister of critics–don’t even have an identity?

    Enter this column.

    This column is here to discuss what it means to be a Northwestern student. It aims to bring the whole of Northwestern life into the discussion: from our school’s history to our individual admissions-letter stories, from our architecture to our favorite spots on campus, from our famous alumni to the prosaic life of our current undergrads. How have things changed? How have they stayed the same? And which Northwestern president died ensuring the future of the school?

    Stick around, dear reader and you might find out.


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