Colleges' role shaping students
“Elite universities...are not meant to mold free thinkers, only the next generation of capitalists and imperialists.”
Reading this tweet and its following thread, I had an immediate gut reaction of, “that’s not us.” To put it plainly, we are not an Ivy League university, though we are reaching that level of prestige, and our institution in a grander context is relatively new, with Carnegie Tech forming in 1900 and Carnegie Mellon forming in 1967. However, upon reflecting on the university’s activity within the past few years, I made the daunting realization that we are not only the epitome of this tweet, but we are also not even trying to hide it.
Though our student body jokes about and disavows the “CMU Bubble,” it has proven itself to be part of a purposeful and intentional system that aims to maintain the capitalistic and imperialistic goals of the university. It sounds dramatic in this one sentence, but let me explain.
First, you get to campus for orientation week; the schedule is purposely filled to the brim with nonstop activities and meetings for you to get to know your classmates. There are Pittsburgh Connections — sightseeing activities that are meant to connect students to the city — but you only go to those if you have the money to afford them or the interest to enjoy them. There are bare minimum efforts from the university to connect you to real grassroots organizations in Pittsburgh, but you ignore that, thinking you will explore the city — or at least the nice areas the map in the Cohon Center highlighted until the other week — eventually.
You won’t. Or, if you do, it’s quick trips to wealthy or gentrified areas of Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon wants to really make sure you have your head in the game: the game of giving Carnegie Mellon a better reputation (and more donations) by getting a fancy tech internship, or a job at one of the big-name consulting companies. So they make classes incredibly difficult, no matter what your major is. When you aren’t in class, you’re eating, sleeping, or doing homework. You start to feel lonely. It’s hard to make meaningful connections when you are working day in and out as if you were a machine.
Clubs, you are told, are a good way to make friends. But after buying or renting numerous books and textbooks for your classes, getting an iClicker, or purchasing hundreds of dollars worth of art supplies, dues are just too much. And, again, can you risk wasting time that can be spent studying?
Two or three months later, when you are a victim of microaggressions or blatant racism. You feel lost, especially when the perpetrator is a TA or professor. You thought your classmates listened as they did workshops and discussions during orientation, or that Global Histories provided enough context. You thought Carnegie Mellon, as a global university, carefully selected and trained staff, faculty, and professors. But boy, were you wrong.
Later in the year, your friend is sexually assaulted, and no matter how much support you give them, they probably won’t reach out to Title IX. It is just too bureaucratic and emotionally exhausting. Sometimes Title IX won’t even serve justice. Their perpetrator is let off the hook.
It’s midterm season. Everyone around you is losing sleep, slipping into episodes of anxiety and depression. Your friend has multiple all-nighters and makes jokes about it. You start to feel helpless yourself, so you go to CaPS. There is a wait time, at least three weeks. Then, when your “free trial” is over, you are helpless, again.
There's a new tradition on campus, the Tartan Community Day. You’re excited to have the day off, but not for the reasons he wants you to be excited about. After sleeping for a grand total of three hours the previous week, you want to relax and hang out with friends. Unfortunately, your professors gave you homework anyway, so a day off is another day at work.
You get an email about a Strategic Plan. You heard about the Campus Climate Survey, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force, and it is so confusing. The email says the administration has been working very hard to reach culture-changing goals. Unfortunately, real results won’t appear until way after you graduate. Yet, for some reason, you still have hope that Carnegie Mellon University cares about you and their global and local impacts. They don’t.
Through numerous areas of university expansion — literal and financial — Carnegie Mellon has made its intentions perfectly clear. Our endowment is around $2.4 billion, which though nowhere near the likes of Harvard or Stanford, is increasing steadily. With more money, you would think we would truly invest in low-income, first-generation students. Instead, we have a disappointing 4 percent of the student body from the bottom 20 percent of the average income percentile, and only 15 percent of students are Pell Grant recipients.
With our $2 billion Make Possible campaign, we have built the Tepper Quad and ANSYS Hall, we’re building a new Scaife Hall, and more. The Tepper Quad — the building's namesake being a hedge fund manager — represents crony capitalism at its finest, with spaces named after CEOs of big-name companies.
No matter how much Carnegie Mellon University makes it a point to appear as a unique alternative to Ivy Leagues, we are making an active effort to be more like them. Carnegie Mellon will do anything in their power to achieve prestige and national recognition, even if it means fewer students of color, less low-income students, fewer students who exist in different intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and so on. Even if it means we foster a toxic stress culture with a student body so disconnected from reality and the outside world, it becomes detrimental to their mental wellbeing.
The Twitter thread ends with a short, simple statement: “[The institution] wants to make a donor out of you, above all.” The Make Possible website — particularly the section about fostering a better Carnegie Mellon University community — is grossly vague for a multi-billion dollar project that is already halfway complete. The website doesn’t forget, however, to clearly display all contact information available for future donors to make "it” — a capitalistic and imperialistic present and future — possible.