CMU softening its edges without losing its edge
Nan Metcalf Valle graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1952. She left with a bachelor’s degree in home economics and fond memories of dances, fraternity parties and school musicals.
Her son-in-law, Tim Zak, graduated from the same school, renamed Carnegie Mellon University, in 1986. He left with a bachelor’s degree in applied math and industrial management and not-so-fond memories of late-night jogs to relieve the stress of studying so he could get his daily four to six hours of sleep.
“I worked probably harder at CMU than anything before or since,” said Zak, president of the Pittsburgh Social Enterprise Accelerator, a group that helps nonprofit organizations launch business ventures.
Carnegie Mellon ranks third in the nation for the amount of time students spend studying, according to The Princeton Review’s 2004 listings. But the university has been on a decade-long quest to retain its intensity yet soften its edges.
“When I came here, I noticed that the dominant emotion at commencement was relief,” said Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon. “I said as president I wanted to work so the day would come when I would see people crying at commencement because they don’t want to leave.
“We’re starting to see some tears at commencement.”
The attempt to lighten up its all-work-and-no-play image comes as CMU plans a capital campaign and must boost alumni giving that lags 34 percent behind the average for private research universities.
Cohon conceded that something about the Carnegie Mellon experience affects alumni involvement.
“Perception matters when you’re talking about the willingness to give back,” he said.
It’s finals week at Carnegie Mellon. This might be one of the few universities where students’ workload actually lightens during exams, which aren’t as demanding as the end-of-semester projects submitted earlier.
The most common word that students, administrators and guide books use to describe CMU is “intense.”
“Students have sort of a love-hate relationship with it,” said senior Vito Fiore, chairman of the undergraduate Student Senate and a political science major. “We’re very proud of it, and we wear it like a badge.
“There are moments when people feel this is over the edge,” said Fiore, 22, of Lincoln Borough. “But the sum total is that people are happy that this is what Carnegie Mellon is offering and this is what they’re able to get out of it.”
Over the past dozen years and three presidents, Carnegie Mellon has tried to be more caring.
In 1990, 18 percent of freshmen did not return for their sophomore year. That figure is now 4 percent, according to the Princeton Review.
“What we discovered is that we could be tough and still be nurturing,” said Michael Murphy, dean of student affairs.
Since then, the university has started a student-tutor program. It built a $47 million student center with lavish recreational facilities and outfitted the basement with pool tables, video games and dining facilities.
The university launched a center to improve teaching skills. To provide additional support to students living on campus, it appointed 16 student community advisers and hired 16 staff members called house fellows. Starting this semester, Carnegie Mellon limited the number of final exams within a 25-hour period to three.
Despite the TLC, the university has been careful to avoid transforming itself into a Twinkie — cake on the outside, soft on the inside.
As a result, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, identified Carnegie Mellon as one of four schools that made the greatest progress during the 1990s in improving the undergraduate experience.
Students have noticed the attempts to be more caring.
“I think they’ve tried, but it hasn’t worked,” said senior Sean Battis, 22, of Canonsburg, who majors in electrical engineering.
“There are days when you don’t sleep because projects take multiple days,” he said. “You just wonder if you’re going to pass a class, if you’re going to graduate with all this work.”
A diver, Battis participated in a tradition for members of the swim and diving teams — going to an annual midnight breakfast dressed like pimps and prostitutes. He wore a black fedora with a purple plume and a gold chain with a dollar-sign medallion and carried a black cane with a gold cobra head.
This, he explained, is how he unwinds.
Students also join any of the more than 100 clubs. When Jim Bai is not spending 60 hours a week on homework, the computer science and computational finance major relaxes by attending meetings of the Microsoft Users Group, a club where company officials discuss their research projects.
“Some people might think that’s nerdy,” he conceded. “Not here.”
Sometimes the stress is so intense it takes a physical toll as well as an emotional one.
Alicia Lu, 20, a junior from Squirrel Hill, majors in creative writing, a subject she says is easy because she loves to write. But the workload in her other classes was so great that she suffered an anxiety attack while working at the Andy Warhol Museum before Thanksgiving.
She sobbed and hyperventilated for two hours. She was taken by ambulance to Allegheny General Hospital as her friend Kai Dawson trailed in a car. Lu was released later that day and took a week’s leave of absence with her teachers’ permission.
“You couldn’t talk to her. She was crying through most of it,” recalled Dawson, 21, also a junior from Squirrel Hill. “There was nothing to do but wait it out.”
Jonathan Anderson, 22, a senior from Fort Worth, Texas, said his girlfriend broke down and cried when she decided to drop her computer science major. He said some CMU students take Adderall, a medication for hyperactivity, to focus on their studies.
Murphy contends that the climate at CMU is healthy because most college students feel similar pressures.
Over the past 13 years, he said, 10 Carnegie Mellon students have committed suicide. That’s a rate of 8.5 students per 100,000. Nationally, about 1,000 of 15 million college students commit suicide, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, an independent weekly. That’s a rate of 6.7 per 100,000. Carnegie Mellon’s rate may be higher because of its preponderance of male students, who are four times as likely to kill themselves as female students.
Instilling more affection for the school becomes important as CMU revs up for a new capital campaign. A target amount has not yet been set.
Last fiscal year, alumni contributed only $1,595 per student at CMU, compared with an average of $2,418 at 84 private research universities, according to the New York City-based Council for Aid to Education.
The gap is even greater among Carnegie Mellon’s peers. Alumni gave Princeton University $16,748 per student; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, $7,516.
Zak, for example, did not return to Carnegie Mellon for 10 years after his graduation. He contributes about $50 a year.
“By the time I graduated, I recognized the fact that I had achieved something pretty significant,” he recalled, “but I certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time. I was just glad it was over.”
In contrast, his mother-in-law has taken part in regular activities with alumnae. Last year, she attended her 50th class reunion. But the technical school she attended half a century ago is not the internationally known university it is today.
“We spent time studying, but it wasn’t as intense,” she said. “Everything is so advanced now. I don’t think I could make it today.”
Zak has become more involved with — and fonder of — the university since he moved back to Pittsburgh in 1996. He sometimes teaches at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration and the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management.
He tells his students that he’s been on their side of the lectern, and it’s more fun being on his side.
“It’s precisely that environment and the standards that come with that environment that allows the university to grow,” he said.
Where the studying never ends
These schools have the most studious students in the nation, based on the amount of out-of-class time students spend studying each day:
1. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena
2. Haverford College, Haverford, Delaware County
3. Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland
4. Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Delaware County
5. Wesleyan College, Macon, Ga.
Source: The Princeton Review