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PFW Students Win Battle Over Proposed Diploma Language Change

Zach Bernard/WBOI News

A proposal ahead of the Purdue Board of Trustees that would have changed the language on diplomas of future Purdue University Fort Wayne graduates has been shelved for now.

The proposal sought to change the diploma header from “Purdue University” to “Purdue University Fort Wayne. Students and faculty were stunned by the news; the vote was scheduled with “unanimous consent” for Friday in West Lafayette and, without official notice from the University, many students did not find out about the proposal until Wednesday morning. By the afternoon, a protest was circling around Facebook.

PFW officials, including chancellor Ron Elsenbaumer, offered an alternative: an open forum to discuss the changes, in Kettler Hall on Thursday morning.

Room 166 was mostly filled to capacity, at one point with onlookers spilling into the adjacent hallway. Elsenbaumer held court at the center of the room, answering questions from students who say they were blindsided by the news, and the urgency of it.

Jenn Reeve is a women's studies and communication major, and student senator. She attended the meeting to represent the student populous, and says the hard work students paid a lot of money for was being redefined without their consent under the proposal.

“To minimize this and seem like it’s not that large a decision because it’s the change on the diploma and not the degree itself is saying, ‘Whatever, you don’t have to display that diploma to your employer. That diploma doesn’t matter.’”

Elsenbaumer was in full PR mode, saying he would fight for student concerns but without expressing how he intended to do that, other than by suggesting ”other ways” to approach the change.

But the tone of the first 75 minutes of discussion indicated the change was likely inevitable, and early on, Elsenbaumer was defensive about PFW’s prestige. At one point, he posed a question that did not appear to generate the desired result.

“Are you not proud of Purdue Fort Wayne?” he asked. To his chagrin, the students responded earnestly, with a number of confused, but vocal, “no” answers.

That moment speaks to a significant distrust between the students and administration that has existed since the university made the decision to change its identity from “Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne” to simply “Purdue University-Fort Wayne” in 2016. For many students, this has little to do with pride; the last-minute notice about such a massive change was expected among many of them, but nonetheless frustrating.

Emily Anderson is majoring in human services and also has three minors. She says it's not about pride for her: she moved to Fort Wayne from Oklahoma, and chose to Purdue Fort Wayne because her diploma -- and thus, resumé -- would express the prestige of “Purdue University.”

Anderson then asked a question, from the perspective of employers seeking new hires:

“Given the choice between a student that has a Purdue Fort Wayne diploma in her possession, and a student with a Purdue University degree -- in Oklahoma, not here where people know what this school is -- do you think there's any difference?”

“There should not be any difference and I'll tell you why,” he said, before being met with jeers from students saying they can't invest their faith in employers researching credentials of every school that every applicant attended.

Elsenbaumer continued to defend PFW’s reputation, at one point regularly citing an ad in the school paper touting its prestige before students called that a pointless exercise. He eventually asked students for patience, adding that the new branding only took effect three months ago and has to build up its own prestige.

Anderson says she can't function on the school’s time; she's eventually going to need that diploma whether PFW successfully builds its prestige or not.

Students at the meeting say this makes them feel like advertising tools for the new PFW and not alumni. Reeve told Elsenbaumer she did not agree to attend Purdue University Fort Wayne to do its leg work on marketing.

“I’m here to earn a degree, to take it someplace else and work with it,” said Reeve. “I am not here to build this institution, to make it prestigious on its own. That’s not what's being asked of me.”

Rishi Mitra is a computer engineering major also unhappy with the situation. He says he traveled across the world only to feel like a victim of false advertising.

“I didn’t cross it for a satellite degree, I crossed the globe for a Purdue University degree,” Mitra said. “That's what was dangled in front of me, that's what the website said, that's what my contact person said, that's what the emails I received said; emails I still have.”

Despite the air of inevitability throughout the 75-minute meeting that the proposal was all but passed, things took a surprising turn when Elsenbaumer received a call from Purdue President Mitch Daniels; Elsenbaumer says he planned the call ahead of time, knowing the meeting with students was taking place at 11 am.

Elsenbaumer returned announcing the change would not be voted on Friday, leading to cheers from students.

Like many of her peers, Reeve was thankful for the change of heart, but noted that the urgency and frustration the situation caused did not help mending any fences between students and the administration.

“I'm happy that we were able to get one small concession, but I hope that in the future this campus is able to let students know what is happening to our degrees than 24 hours notice,” she said.

So, what changed?

Purdue University Fort Wayne graduates will still receive a diploma citing “Purdue University,” with a note the degree was earned at “Purdue University Fort Wayne” -- at the very bottom.

It is unclear if the effort will be revisited in the future.

Zach joined 89.1 WBOI as a reporter and local host for All Things Considered. He currently hosts Morning Edition.