Located in the Clifton district of Cincinnati, Ohio, the University of Cincinnati is one of Ohio's major public universities. Those who can afford the steadily rising tuition may enroll in a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programmes, ranging from anthropology to zoology, as well as law, medicine (including the first academic emergency medicine programme in the US), education, and interdisciplinary studies (a DIY degree programme in which students combine courses from two or more different concentrations).

The wide range of courses of study, as well as the diverse student body, might make UC seem like an alluring place to spend four years.

Many have made that mistake. Few would repeat it. As one disgruntled former UC student has put it, "I was at UC for about a year and a half or so, I would have been better off just taking my money and flushing it down the toilet."

Apart from the soaring tuition (soon to outstrip even some private universities in the area), there are myriad other reasons to steer clear of UC.

While the constant budget cuts strip Ohio's higher education system of much-needed funding, many problems suffered by UC students have their roots much closer to Clifton. Equally — if not more — important is the way in which the UC's administration spends the funds it does receive. Every time that our tuition is increased, we are told that the University is in a fiscal crisis; yet, this does not stop UC from spending money to build artificial hills on campus, demolish a perfectly good bookstore in order to build one that is almost as good, build new facilities for private organisations according to their own specifications, and myriad other nonessential projects. If the University of Cincinnati is really in such dire fiscal straits as we students constantly hear, why are funds being diverted from essential student services to frivolous "beautification" programmes? Of the increases in our tuition, how much is going toward the creation of decorative hillocks?

Because of the regular budget cuts from Columbus, UC must increasingly lean on its students to cover its operating costs. One might reasonably assume that this increased reliance on student money would lead the University to streamline its unwieldy bureaucracy and strive to make its student services more accessible, efficient, and its staff more respectful and helpful to students. Nothing could be further from the truth. The University administration, and its representatives in the Registration, Financial Aid, and other student services departments are as haughty, indifferent, and incompetent as they have ever been. Indeed, I have had occasion to discuss this with students who have been to other universities — and I, myself, have been to two other universities in two different countries — and the unanimous verdict is that no one anywhere treats their students as shoddily as the University of Cincinnati.

For example: I was recently prevented from registering for classes this quarter by a combination of outstanding tuition from Spring and 111% interest. In order to remedy this problem, I sought a private loan, which must be certified and sent to the lender by the Financial Aid Office. Last Wednesday I waited 45 minutes in line at the "One Stop Centre" (one of the many recent "improvements"), watching the staff there do very little, in order to submit my loan paperwork.

When I finally had a chance to speak to someone from Financial Aid, I explained that the loan was needed in order to enrol, and was told that it should go through no later than the following Monday. When I noticed, the following Tuesday, that the loan had not yet shown up on my account, I e-mailed Financial Aid (it is practically impossible to speak to someone on the phone) asking what the problem was. I was informed that Financial Aid had done absolutely nothing, had sat on my loan application for six days "because you have not yet enrolled."

I responded, reiterating that I had not yet enrolled because I could not enrol without the loan, and asked them to process it without any further delay. The next day, I visited the One Stop Centre to confirm that it had been processed (and was kept waiting for another 45 minutes). I was informed that the loan paperwork had been sent out that morning. When I asked if — since my registration would not be blocked had Financial Aid done their job properly — the registration block could be provisionally lifted so that I would not lose any further class time, I was told, with a slight smirk, that this was completely impossible.

And so it is far too often: the University staff fail to do their jobs properly, but will not lift a finger to make it right for the students.

Why - in this time of increasing reliance on student money - does the University continue to treat its students with such utter contempt? In my view, there are two root causes. First, the University recognises that it is dealing with a largely captive audience. The University is indeed correct in this regard, and little can be done about it. However, the student body exercises complete control over the second factor: student complacency. In the approximately 90 minutes I spent waiting in line over the past two weeks, watching University staffmembers who were prominently idle and oblivious to the queue of waiting customers, I did not hear one single complaint from any of the approximately twenty students gathered there on each occcasion. No one asked what was going on. No one asked for a supervisor. No one made a single peep. Everyone had apparently fallen back on preschool-era obedience training, and silently put up with this second-class treatment.

While increased student turnout at the polls might conceivably reorient the state's spending priorities, it will do little to change the ingrained attitudes of University administration and staff, attitudes which have been present for many years. These attitudes will persist as long as the student body make it clear that they will put up with anything UC does.

Surveying the endless queues at University offices, it strikes me that this woeful generation of overtaxed students has lost the fine art of complaining at the right time, at the right volume, to the right people. They seem oblivious to the simple truism that bureaucrats will do whatever causes them the least stress, and unaware of how to exploit this basic trait of the bureaucratic mind. At my university in Germany, the suggestion that tuition might be introduced (not increased, but introduced at all) met with massive student strikes that shut down the campus for days, and successfully derailed the proposal. Here, our tuition has been increased 25% in one year, our University wastes unconscionable amounts of money on "beautification" projects that help no one, and the student body says: nothing.

Change will not come if only a few complain. The University will only be forced to accord its students the respect that they deserve both as human beings and as paying customers if complaints are constant, vocal, and collective. Some of us may be leaving UC soon. Others may still have a few years left. All of us owe it to ourselves — not to mention those who will be paying even more tuition once we've left — to demand of UC the treatment we deserve.

To this end, I am undertaking a project, and would like to enlist the assistance of all interested UC students. I am compiling a list of specific incidents of poor treatment and incompetent service on the part of UC staff, which I intend to forward to as many sources of UC funding and other potentially interested parties as possible. Anyone interested in contributing to this project is requested to contact me by e-mail.

After a letter to the editor containing a version of this writeup was published in Cincinnati's alternative weekly, CityBeat, I received a letter from the new President of the University of Cincinnati:

Dear Ms. Hendrick,

Your letter to CityBeat was recently brought to my attention, and I read it with some interest.

On my first day as President of the University, I met with leaders of your Student Government. Through them, and from other subsequent meetings with students, I have heard many of the opinions that you expressed.

I share your concerns about rising costs, the need to improve service to our students, and an abiding appreciation for the patience of students as we complete the renovation of our campus. As we move worward with planning for the future of UC, I will keep your thoughts in mind.

You should be aware, however, that while your concerns are valid, many of your facts are in error. "Constant, vocal, and collective" complaints may, indeed, produce action but it helps if they are backed up by facts.


Nancy L. Zimpher

To which I responded:

Dear Ms. Zimpher:

Thank you for your letter. I am heartened to see that my letter to CityBeat has been brought to your attention.

I agree wholeheartedly that an accurate presentation of the facts is indispensable to any discussion of the University’s policies and spending priorities. They alone — and not distortions, rhetoric, or petty sarcasm — should inform the much-needed and long-overdue debate about how UC treats its students and spends our tuition. Because this is my firm conviction, I do everything in my power to present an accurate and balanced picture of the issues. My conviction that any argument or assertion must be backed up by facts is also the driving force behind my initiative — of which you no doubt read in my CityBeat letter — to collect reports of incidents of poor service and treatment by UC staff.

Thus, I was rather alarmed at your assertion that “many of [my] facts are in error,” and similarly surprised by the absence of any example of an erroneous statement of fact in my letter (not to mention the utterly unwarranted sarcasm with which you admonish that “’Constant, vocal, and collective’ complaints may…produce action but it helps if they are backed up by facts.”). As for the description of my personal ordeal, I can assure you that every last word is true. If anything, it understated the case, particularly considering that, at the time of that writing, the worst was yet to come. However, beyond reaffirming the truth and accuracy of my own personal experiences, I am rather at a loss as to how I can respond to your assertion that “many” of my factual statements are “in error.”

I certainly do not intend to misinform anyone; the unembellished facts are outrage enough. However, in order to address your concerns, I will need more to go on than your unspecified assertion. I will be glad to correct any factual errors I may have made, but — as you yourself have said — any such complaint really must be “backed up by facts” before I can take any corrective action.

In the interest of accurate information and full disclosure, I would also like to know why the University has been so unforthcoming with information on a subject about which the University administration recently had occasion to boast in the national press. I must admit that I was quite surprised to see Vice President for Student Affairs Mitchel D. Livingston boasting in the New York Times (5 October 2003 Jacuzzi U.? A Battle of Perks to Lure Students) that UC has seen fit to spend two hundred million dollars of taxpayer money to build an on-campus mall, particularly when some of our existing buildings (e.g. Zimmer Hall) are in a state of disrepair and dilapidation that rivals that of our city’s public schools.

Since we are both in agreement that accurate presentation of the facts is essential, I wonder if you could explain why UC’s administration has determined that the national press should receive more information about how UC uses its funds than those of us who pay the bill.

Whatever the explanation might be, please be aware that it is my goal, and that of many of my fellow students, to be sure that those who pay the bills, as well as those who donate their money to the University, are aware of how their money is spent, and of the extent of this University’s commitment to its students. I trust that, in writing your response, you do not seek to discourage me from doing so.

I understand that you have only recently assumed the post of University President, and I do hope you understand that I am not seeking to lay blame at your doorstep for these longstanding problems. Rather, I hope to provide you with the information and incentive necessary, at long last, to solve them.

In closing, I would like to pose several questions, some raised by your letter, some more general:

  1. You say that you have heard concerns similar to mine expressed by Student Government and other students. What concrete plans, if any, are being made to ensure that students are treated with respect by those paid to assist them?
  2. What is the total cost of the “renovation” of the UC campus? Is $200 million the total amount, or will it ultimately cost more?
    1. We are constantly told that the substantial tuition increases that chip away at our pocketbooks on a regular basis are necessary due to the University’s fiscal difficulties. If this is so, where is the University getting $200 million dollars for a mall?
    2. In what way is it anticipated that this $200 million project will improve educational opportunities for UC students (which is, of course, the primary goal of attending an educational institution)?
    3. If the University is in fact financing the mall through the tuition increases, why has the University administration not been candid with the student body and the taxpayers about this?
  3. In the midst of all this renovation spending, are any plans being made to renovate existing buildings, such as Zimmer Hall or the Old Chemistry building, which are in serious need of upgrading? If so, what are the plans and what is the timeline?
  4. What procedures, if any, exist for obtaining a partial refund of tuition for class time missed as a result of University staff’s failure to properly handle student paperwork?

Allow me to reiterate that I will gladly retract any statements in my CityBeat letter that are in fact in error. However, as you yourself note, my point remains: the University of Cincinnati is failing its students and the taxpayers in several important ways. We are forced to pay more and more tuition, subjected to the disrespect and apathy of those who are supposed to assist us, and kept uninformed about how much of our money is being used for what purposes. I sincerely hope that your tenure as University President will see these untenable circumstances rectified.

I eagerly await your response, and remain,

Yours sincerely,

Élise R. Hendrick

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