How much is enough?

How far should a university go to satisfy the desire among students for prestige, exclusivity, and even luxury?

My alma mater is the University of Toronto Scarborough. Any time someone is tempted to simplify and just say that I graduated from the University of Toronto I’ve always been proud to clear up the matter. All the same, I know that U of T Scarborough doesn’t enjoy all the advantages or amenities of St. George campus in downtown Toronto. The campus does have some unique advantages, and I would never suggest the education there is inferior in any way, but there’s this prevailing sense at Scarborough that we’re a “have not” campus. And sometimes, depending on the topic at hand, that sense is justified.

This was on my mind as I attended a convocation reception just this evening for recent graduates. This was the batch of students (with their families) who graduated at the end of the summer just past, so it was a smallish affair. The whole time I was there trivial things kept worrying me, and I was alert for any sign that the event might be second rate in even the slightest degree. Was there enough food? Was it good food? Should the bar have been open rather than limited by tickets? The venue was great, for sure, but was there enough space? In short, I was worried about the final impression these graduating students might be left with about the campus I personally love. And it wasn’t even my event to plan.

On the one hand, this is a University of Toronto issue. There’s a lot of historical tension regarding the two “satellite” campuses in Scarborough and Mississauga. On the other hand, this issue plays out across the country, at every university and every campus. It even plays out at St. George campus. Students show up expecting one hell of a lot. They are told time and again that they are the leaders of tomorrow. Their egos are puffed awfully big, and it’s hard to satisfy those expectations. When the experience seems lacking, the disappointment and bitterness can be very strong.

So how much is enough? How far should a university go to satisfy the desire among students for prestige, exclusivity, and even luxury? Convocation is a once-in-a-lifetime event, of course, and it should be special. But this event just served as an example that got me thinking. Students can be a demanding bunch, sometimes, and they often expect to be treated far better than the average guy on the street. Is that fair?

If I had to make a policy decision it would be this. Education should never be compromised. The core academic experience of a university student is the only real priority, because without that there’s nothing. But all the rest is dispensable. There is no need for the buildings to be pretty. The computers don’t need to be new just so long as they work. The grounds don’t really need expensive landscaping. The list goes on. A school should always be a good school. But it can be ugly and still accomplish that task. It may even be a boring place, otherwise, and still accomplish that task.

I’m not saying any of this to encourage students to give up on caring about the aesthetics of their schools, or to stop advocating for quality opportunities outside of education. But I am very interested in this frequent disappointment. Sometimes students are disappointed about the quality of their education, and that’s always a valid topic for discussion. Sometimes, however, students are simply disappointed because it all isn’t special enough. And that’s self-defeating.

Universities are often motivated to make a show of things, but that only goes so far. In school as well as in life, if you want to find the substance (or lack of it) you have to look deeper. It’s a mistake to get distracted by the puff and to let that determine how you feel about either yourself or the quality of your experience. Sure it’s nice, but it has no lasting importance.

I fell into that trap today. I was worrying about the convocation event (which, at the very worst, was adequate) when I should have been thinking about the years of education that came prior. That’s what’s going to matter down the road. The education may not be perfect – in fact I’m sure it isn’t – but that’s a far better issue to worry about than the quality of the food.

There’s a lesson in this for every student, I think. You should absolutely be concerned about the quality of your education, but the ego stroking and the incidental perks of the environment don’t really matter that much. If you ever find yourself worrying about the later, while the former slips under the radar, then you need to reexamine your priorities.