Northwestern is a campus divided. This, hopefully, is not news for you. Unless you’re blind, deaf and roofied, you’ve noticed the distinctly narrow and elongated shape of our campus. It’s a fact: As a university that lies along a lake, we are spread out. Life would be great if we could squash the campus into a nice, circular layout with all edges equidistant from each other, but that’s about as unlikely as relocating Northwestern to Southern California.
A geographical division doesn’t have to be a division among students, but Northwestern as a whole lacks sense of self. (Sorry, One Book One Northwestern doesn’t count.) The North-South Campus divide is not lost on current or prospective students, and it persists as a central symbol of Northwestern life. The majority ofPrinceton Review’s brief but influential “What Students Say” summary focuses on the division: “Students also tell us that ‘there’s [a] great separation between North Campus (think: fraternities, engineering, state school mentality) and South Campus (think: closer to Chicago and its culture, arts and letters, liberal arts school mentality). Students segregate themselves depending on background and interests and it’s rare for these two groups to interact beyond a superficial level.’”
Although the last statement is an exaggeration, there is truth in this stereotype. Sure, there’s a steady flow up and down Sheridan Road on Friday and Saturday nights, and everyone has at least has one class in what seems like a whole different hemisphere, but these two areas are still dominated by markedly different cultures and even snarky slogans to build up their mythology, like the saying about North Campus’s plethora of student athletes that “shoulders grow in width as latitude increases.”
Yes, we are a polarized campus. But you can cut us up many ways, and there is no one “Northwestern experience.” Part of what makes the undergraduate education here unique is its variability — you can find almost any subgroup you want. There are Fratty Athletes, o.m.g. sorority girls, indie-loving hipsters, artsy music students, loud theater students and journalism junkies, just to name a few. As Princeton suggests, we sport both a liberal arts and a state school atmosphere. In itself, that’s not a bad thing. The trouble: For all the divergent places, there’s almost nothing to unify the fragments of the student body.
Housing often brings together diverse campuses, but at Northwestern, the housing system is divided three times over: on campus versus off campus, dorms versus Greek houses and residential halls versus residential colleges.
“Before a freshmen even steps on campus, they have to choose which realm they want to get into — it is scattered from the beginning,” said Joe Buckley, the president of Shepard Residential College and a Weinberg sophomore.
Since I moved in down the hall from Buckley at the beginning of the year, we’ve discussed the flawed housing system several times. Buckley is a strong advocate of a system overhaul, believing that it would radically change Northwestern’s atmosphere for the better. But housing isn’t the only thing on campus preventing a unified student body.
Our student meeting place, the crestfallen and morose Norris University Center, is outdated and out of the way. Norris lies so far east that it doesn’t provide a central location for students to congregate. If Northwestern didn’t have a die-hard population of Norbucks addicts, I’m not sure many people would trek up the often-icy path at all.
Academics are also largely divided. The undergraduate population is split among six schools. (Can you even name them all?) Northwestern offers many specialized programs and opportunities — students compare the music school to some conservatories — but it also results in a fractured student body. There are endless distribution requirements but no core curriculum among majors or schools to foster a sense that, after all, everyone undergoes the same basic process.
When two Northwestern alumni meet, it’s entirely possible that they will have nothing in common save for the same emblem on their diploma. They could have attended the same university without ever experiencing any commonality in housing, classes or activities. Alumni have few ways to connect to their alma mater. Since alumni donations account for a large part of university funding, scholarships and college rankings, that’s important. It’s not all about money and prestige; rather, it’s that the amount of money donated by alumni simply reflects how important and valuable they felt their educational experience was.
Next week, President Henry Bienen will give his State of the University speech. So far, the university has failed to make a cohesive university identity a priority. Big changes take time, but there are several things Northwestern could do now to improve how we interact.
Recently, Northwestern has noticed the big points. The university is currently considering reworking the housing system.
“I can tell you that that the university is heavily looking into the undergraduate experience and how it is affected by the housing system,” Buckley said. “They’ve hired an outside consultant to look into it, and he has met with a large number of student leaders — presidents of frats, sororities, res. halls and res. colleges.” The university knows “the system we have is not perfect,” he said.
Alan Cubbage, Vice President of University Relations, confirmed this. “It’s a really comprehensive evaluation,” he said, looking at new residential colleges and better use of current facilities.
NU could change its long-term direction in two fundamental ways:
In spite of its fractures, Northwestern does have a culture — or cultures — worth liking. But when the mercury dips below zero, students act like going to school is a job they don’t like, complaining about the walk to Tech or the looks they get from the faces of football players or theater students they don’t know when they’re away from “home.” Instead of pointing out what’s so different about all these groups, it might be worth asking why we share that emblem on our diploma after all.