Editorial: Students win at PNW’s expense

Following the Purdue Trustees Oct. 12 decision to withdraw a proposal to change the masthead of diplomas to reflect the campus where they were earned, PNW administration and faculty congratulated students for challenging the proposal with protests and online petitions.

Ralph Mueller, vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost, said during Friday’s Faculty Senate meeting that the student response was “phenomenal” and that it was “great to see students express themselves about a very important issue.” (These comments were night-and-day compared to the administration’s initial comments, which called the change “an exciting step forward for PNW.”)

It is true: students on both the Westville and Hammond campuses exhibited what an organized, concerted effort can accomplish. Similarly, students communicated that they could unify around a central message despite lingering animosity toward the 2016 unification of Purdue North Central and Purdue Calumet. And SGA showed that it is willing to go to bat for students, as seen by their drafting of letters to the Purdue Trustees and presence at the Trustees meeting.

But what did this effort really accomplish for PNW? What did we, as students, win?

We showed passion, but for retaining the status quo.

The status quo of being “Convenient Purdue,” that offers Purdue University diplomas at a fraction of the price.

This idea, that attending PNW is equivalent to attending the main campus, has largely been perpetuated by the offering of Purdue University diplomas and is ingrained into the institution, even dating back to the days of Purdue Calumet and Purdue North Central prior to unification. In fact, this language is displayed nicely on a 1999 South Shore poster in CLO: “Purdue Calumet: Pride of Purdue convenience of Calumet.”

The diploma proposal caused us, as a community, to confront this deceptive language, but we decided that continuing this practice is worth fighting for.

We showed that we are willing to speak up, but for superficial reasons.

The students did not ask important, unanswered questions just beneath the surface level. Questions such as: Why after years of offering a largely uniform diploma across campuses, did the Purdue Trustees find it necessary to distinguish them? Why is it not necessary now?

According to reporting by The Pioneer, the catalyst for the proposal was Purdue Global. Purdue Global, the online university formerly known as Kaplan University, was purchased by Purdue in April 2017. Purdue’s Trustees saw the need to differentiate Purdue University diplomas from Purdue Global diplomas. This change was then proposed to all campuses within the Purdue system.

But these concerns were overlooked; they were seen as tangential to the main issue: save our Purdue University diplomas. Students, instead, focused on improbable fallouts from having PNW on the masthead of their diplomas, such as employers looking down on them for not having the same diploma as a graduate from Purdue University West Lafayette. (Even though diplomas already signal on the bottom where they were awarded.)

We showed that we are satisfied as long as Purdue University sits atop our diplomas, regardless of whether or not it empowers our own institution. In fact, just look at the headlines from many media outlets that covered the protests:

“Purdue University Northwest students upset diplomas will reflect satellite campus location” — ABC7 Chicago; “Diploma change angers PNW students” — The NewsDispatch; “Purdue Northwest students plan protest after school announces it will designate satellite campus on diploma” — Chicago Tribune.

Do the headlines reflect a campus community that is proud of what it is?

The students won. But because they championed a short-sighted solution that didn’t address long-term, systemic issues, they were awarded a hollow victory.

There are multiple reasons to criticize how this ordeal was handled, such as the administration’s abrupt, out-of-the-blue announcement of the change without prior student consultation, and the fact that with the decision PNW would not honor a past promise of awarding a Purdue University diploma. The Pioneer has pointed out the detrimental effects that abrupt announcements have on campus-wide trust in multiple past editorials. And with transparency in mind, The Pioneer joined Chancellor Thomas Keon in believing that grandfathering students into the change was the best course of action.

But the most salient points that rose from the dust of the protests were that students were upset about a cosmetic change to their diplomas and that they are embarrassed by the identity of their school.

Maybe that is because we, as a university, haven’t quite identified who we actually are yet.

To discover this, The Pioneer believes that the candid, at-times uncomfortable conversations that surrounded the diploma proposal must continue beyond this issue. The PNW community should be tasked with finding out what we are and what we are not, and we should support movement toward becoming a more independent university — one that has its own strengths and weaknesses. It is time to step out, gradually, from behind Purdue University West Lafayette. We owe it to ourselves as an institution; to those that work to improve the institution; and to incoming students. We can no longer perpetuate deceptive language and ride the coattails of Purdue University and expect to feel empowered and proud of what we are. A balance must be struck between using the Purdue name to promote a high-quality education and being honest about what we can realistically offer students.

It may be too soon to redesign diplomas, but the time will come when PNW further establishes itself beyond the shadow of Purdue University. A more incremental approach that calls on input from all Purdue faculty, staff and students should be utilized by the Purdue Trustees. It may be uncomfortable and challenging, but it is the next step toward empowering all of our systems’ institutions, our faculty and staff and our students.