Caltech's best, brightest are unhappy campers
By Becky Oskin
PASADENA -- Caltech attracts the best and brightest, students who have their pick of the nation's top schools. But recent changes [at Caltech have made them reconsider their c]hoice.
An $18 million budget shortfall this school year led to campuswide cutbacks which in turn created deep animosity between students and the administration. Many of the cutbacks came on the heels of a $600 million donation. Revisions to regulations governing undergraduate traditions such as bonfires also sparked criticism.
Caltech's leaders say they are also working to improve student life. They lament there may be too much homework to leave time for the free-spirit prankster of Caltech's past. Students also blame a growing list of rules and regulations.
A flurry of proclamations this fall increasing the health insurance deductible and banning freshman parking on campus and bonfires at one student house were poorly received.
More than 200 undergraduates, about a quarter of the undergraduate population, gathered in December for a protest during finals week.
"It is difficult to keep believing Caltech cares when the institute receives unprecedented generosity as our health insurance is slashed and when we see new buildings being built all around us," student Jilian Wang wrote on a Web site created for the protest.
Chris Elion, one of the protest organizers, blasted the administration in an editorial in the student newspaper.
"The administration seems determined to get rid of the few things that make Caltech unique and tolerable," Elion wrote.
Graduate students also criticized decisions such as charging for off-campus Internet access.
The graduate student council sent representatives to a faculty board meeting to present their concerns.
To their credit, Caltech's administration has rolled back many of the budget cutbacks and other changes. An external committee's suggestion to revamp the traditional rotation that assigns students to different undergraduate houses was scrapped. Caltech president David Baltimore pledged there would be no forced changes to the popular houses, despite the committee's concerns that a few people were made uncomfortable by the rotation.
"The house system takes people that are otherwise withdrawn and introverted and gets them to socialize with each other. I'm a much more social person now than I was as a freshman," Elion said.
But the protests also aired deeper quality-of-life issues the school has only begun to address.
At a student-faculty conference held in April, Caltech professors who are also alumni were asked what has changed since they were undergraduates.
The first answer was, of course, women students. But many also noted that they had more free time than today's undergraduates.
"Courses have perhaps gotten easier but there's more of them," provost Steve Koonin, who graduated in 1972, said during the conference.
The faculty admit they are mostly to blame.
"I'm one of the worst offenders," said Gary Lorden, acting vice president for student affairs and a statistics expert.
"We typically teach one course at a time and we want to make that course everything it can be. So when there's six faculty doing that at the same time, it's really kind of hard," Lorden said.
In a recent interview, Elion, a senior, said he feels a small change in Caltech's course requirements would have a big effect on student morale.
"I admit the workload is important for a quality education, but it seems a small reduction in work would give a large improvement in the quality of life," Elion said.
Student government president Ted Jou also recommends a lighter load.
"If there's one thing I'd change about Caltech, I'd lighten the course load somewhat and allow for more flexibility in each student's course selection," Jou said.
Changing academic requirements is a faculty decision, but one that has support. On the other hand, it's also a familiar complaint.
"I'm worried about student burnout, but some feel that this has been going on at Caltech from Day One. A colleague who started here as a transfer student in 1932 has regaled us at lunch with stories about how physics professors of that period used to lay on problems that required 30 hours a week to work out as homework," said Jack Roberts, an emeritus chemistry professor.
Plans are in the works to improve student morale. The currently vacant vice president for student affairs position has been designated full-time. An external committee has also evaluated student life and recommended many changes.
The fund-raising campaign starting this fall will renovate student houses and build new undergraduate and graduate housing, add a new student center with an art gallery and performance space and a new child care center.
"I think the students don't understand how much we worry about them," said vice provost David Goodstein.
"The top administration really does care, more than past administrations, about what happens to the students and how well they do," Goodstein said.
What both the faculty and administration seem to want to address is the complaint that Caltech simply isn't fun anymore.
But the recipients of their criticism note times have changed and the school can be sued if students switch the wires on traffic lights or build a huge bonfire in the middle of town.
Provost Koonin recalls building a bonfire as an undergraduate at the intersection of Lake Avenue and California Boulevard after Caltech won a football game.
"The fire department stood and watched, when they finally showed up. You couldn't get away with that today," he said.
Safety concerns have scaled back many of the outrageous pranks and parties students once devised. A security guard's report of a 10-foot bonfire in the Ricketts house "firepot" this year prompted the school to put an end to the 70-year house tradition.
But Koonin feels that the change starts before students come to campus.
"I think the fall-off in pranks is a symptom of change in the student body," Koonin said.
"They're raised to be high achievers, they lead very structured lives. They're focused on getting the grades in order to get into good universities," Koonin said.
"And a little bit of the fun, I think, has been left out of that," Koonin added. "We need to remind the students that people do science and engineering because it is fun."
- Becky Oskin can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451, or by e-mail at becky.oskinsgvn.com.