The newest issue of Illinois Tech Magazine appeared in mailboxes the same day that the university’s board of trustees arrived on campus to celebrate the magazine’s central topic: the Kaplan Institute. Thursday, October 25 was filled with TV cameras, local politicians, and expensive hors d'oeuvres, brought together to publicly introduce the new building as a functioning part of Illinois Tech. As the cover of the alumni magazine proudly declared, the Kaplan Institute was now “Open for Business.”
Of course, that declaration wasn’t exactly true. As discussed on the front page of last week’s TechNews, the doors of the Kaplan Institute have remained locked since October’s ribbon-cutting. Though the Institute of Design has been quietly working away inside for a month, and though a select few IPRO classes have shifted to the new building, its amenities remain completely inaccessible to those without explicit permission to be there. Unlike any other building on campus, the Kaplan Institute is closed to the overall Illinois Tech community, and will remain so until the beginning of 2019.
Howard Tullman, the Kaplan Institute’s executive director, provided a number of reasons for this phased-in opening that were described in last week’s coverage. Some (like concerns about ongoing construction) had merit, and others (like fear of equipment being stolen) did not. What was most striking, though, was not the months-long opening schedule itself. What was most striking was that none of the information provided upon TechNews’s request was previously published anywhere else. Students were never even told, from any authoritative source, the basic fact that they wouldn’t be able to use the Kaplan Institute building until the spring semester. And if it weren’t for TechNews, it’s not clear if they would have been.
During a period when Illinois Tech’s leadership has hosted a series of workshops on “learning to be a more student-centered university,” the debut of the Kaplan Institute is a stark example of failure to be student-centered. Students have received virtually no information about the building’s current state or its future. In that information gap, rumors have begun to swirl and opinions have formed outside administrative ability to influence. Where there could have been an opportunity to build excitement into January through coordinated communication with students, instead there is an all-too-familiar cynicism, a perception that the building’s primary purpose at this stage is to host a parade of suits and serve as a showpiece for donors, rather than as a meaningful piece of educational infrastructure.
Though the university’s large-scale ignorance of students’ information needs plays a large role in this perception, lack of communication isn’t the only problem. What students have been able to witness has reinforced the idea that the Kaplan Institute isn’t for them, as well.
On the day of the ribbon-cutting, visitors’ cars drove down Footlik Lane for valet service that was set up with no regard for pedestrian or cyclist traffic through the center of campus. Inside, a display of a private robotics company, SoftBank Robotics, was placed directly in front of a display of Illinois Tech’s own student robotics organization on a hallway that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin were to walk down to sample what the Kaplan Institute had to offer. In similar fashion, a team from mixed reality headset manufacturer Magic Leap interacted with politicians and the press before the gaggle could reach a student team who had created a mixed reality application using Microsoft’s HoloLens. A third student group, showcasing work of an ongoing IPRO course, were told the day of the event that the two displays they had been promised weeks before would instead be used elsewhere in the building. To add insult to injury, all of the student groups had been told to prepare six-minute-long presentations but were cut off by Tullman after two to three minutes each. There was a schedule to stick to, sure, but that schedule was laid out in advance and students were not informed of any changes until their presentations came to a premature end.
And after all of that, you can bet that footage of the shiny humanoid SoftBank robot and of Emanuel next to a former Bears player promoting Magic Leap goggles ended up dominating news coverage of the building’s opening, rather than any student-created work. And the next day, a “Campus Community Open House” paled in comparison to the festivities of the day before, lasting less than two hours, featuring few of the same perks, and seemingly demonstrating once again that students were seen as an afterthought in the Kaplan Institute’s existence.
Here’s the thing: it was no simple coincidence that Illinois Tech Magazine published its celebratory fall issue on the same day as the ribbon-cutting. Even if the building’s soft opening happened earlier than initially planned, a huge effort went into executing every detail of the move of the Institute of Design, coordination of external media for opening events, and various other related tasks. Some aging buildings close to the Kaplan Institute even got a fresh coat of paint just in time for the ceremony. And despite all this planning, which involved a huge number of the university’s offices, students were somehow not comprehensively considered. This isn’t just a case of students feeling alienated from events meant for other groups; it’s a case of students not being meaningfully included in something whose rhetoric focuses on their success.
It might be easy to dismiss these concerns as natural symptoms of rapid event execution or growing pains of any large new facility. One would hope that by the time January rolls around, the Kaplan Institute will be more welcoming and conversations around it will be more student-centered. But initial indications aren’t encouraging. Daily patterns within the facility already de-emphasize the importance of students’ needs. The few IPRO classes that have moved into the building still don’t have ID card access to the external doors as of the time of writing. Once inside, students have been told they must leave whiteboard walls completely blank after each class, a practice that runs counter to the stated aims of the building’s architecture and upends years of IPRO tradition. Some IPROs that were previously guaranteed spots in the building have now been told that they won’t be able to move in at all. And the Idea Shop, which had been easily accessible to any student in its previous two locations, is limited now to appointment only due to the building’s security restrictions. And there’s still no university-wide communication about plans for the building’s full opening.
There is no excuse for the lack of compassionate student-facing labor surrounding the Kaplan Institute’s opening (or lack thereof). In the middle of this massively coordinated launch, and in the middle of a period in which Illinois Tech is trying to engage more meaningfully with its students, the best case for this episode is as a case study in inadequate engagement. The mission of the Kaplan Institute is a noble one, but it won’t be anything but words if students aren’t made the focus of planning from here on out.
Photo by Soren Spicknall (He/him)