The state of Saint Louis University

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Next spring, Saint Louis University will celebrate its 200th anniversary as an institution of higher learning. Two centuries have provided ample room for both good and bad times for the University. Today, we measure the current state of SLU.

The University has undergone substantial change since its founding in 1818, improving the education that it provides and developing the midtown area. Once the only university west of the Mississippi, now SLU competes with many other schools in the region. With increased competition and greater educational costs, the University is making painful adjustments to modernize—adjustments that include the university-wide layoffs this past March. Even with the downsizing, SLU is among the institutions across the country that are raising the price of a university degree.

Seeing that the University is losing faculty and staff should be concerning to any prospective student, it puts into question the University’s priorities and its identity. Will the University hire more faculty and staff in the future, or is this the new normal? Will the University focus more on updating its residence halls than on improving the education it provides? (For clarity, Grand Hall was financed with bonds; the layoffs were not directly connected with its costs.)

Many departments are being downsized, and several professors have been either laid off or are simply not being replaced after retiring or leaving the University. There are many reasons to choose a college, but academics are of obvious importance, and fewer options for students is never a good sign. Of course, SLU’s administrators understand the value of academics, but it is still unsettling to see too little attention given to the actual purpose of the University: educating in classrooms.

Students attend SLU to receive an education and to feel comfortable doing so, but for many students, SLU has not felt like a welcoming environment. The University has been criticized for marketing itself as an open and inclusive environment without achieving this reality, and earlier this year, the Student Government Association suspended the use of the Oath of Inclusion by the administration in response. Despite its commitment to fulfilling the Clock Tower Accords, SLU has not made significant progress in making the campus a welcoming place for minority students.

Parts of the Clock Tower Accords also describe a need for greater involvement in the St. Louis community, but too little change has occurred. For a university that emphasizes service and the role it plays in helping others, SLU has done a lot in the interest of the University but less in the surrounding area.

Since former President Biondi came into office and transformed SLU’s campus, the University has become a distinct and separate feature of midtown. Although students must cross Grand Boulevard to attend classes or access campus dining options, students remain unexposed to much of the city and its atmosphere. West Pine Avenue was once a road that passed between SLU’s buildings, but now it is the central walkway for students. Together with the numerous trees, the pond and green space around the business school—as well as the relative sense of enclosure provided by the tall university buildings—on-campus residents may hardly notice that they live in an urban setting.

This pseudo-urban feel of the campus is not inherently bad. SLU’s campus is beautiful, and removing trees or making the campus less attractive would not help the area. Many colleges across the country have more of a suburban atmosphere, which makes students coming from suburban areas feel more comfortable. But with plans to continue expanding the campus into the surrounding area, the identity this institution wants for itself remains uncertain.

The University has its eye on closing Laclede Avenue west of Grand, which would increase pedestrian safety, but ultimately lead to SLU’s growing separation from the rest of the city. SLU’s current path aims toward becoming a suburban island within an urban setting. The University must compete with other colleges in the area and across the country, but we are concerned about the risks of students losing touch with the community at large as the University further sequesters itself from the rest of the city.

In the next few years, we hope that SLU will act as a responsible neighbor to the  people living around its campus. We also hope that SLU will concentrate on improving the education it provides, which includes hiring proficient professors and maintaining a diverse assortment of undergraduate programs. SLU offers students and the region many opportunities, but there is still much progress to be made.