Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A tale of two universities

Over the years, I've put up with a lot from the University of Toronto, including requests from money. It's not exactly the friendliest campus on earth, and it deserves, more than the University of Chicago, the nickname "where fun goes to die". I concede that the fun being dead on the St. George campus helped me learn as much as I did in my four years, but while the university is a great place to learn, it's by no means the best-managed university I've ever seen.

I'm reminded of this every time I use my university email account, where you don't just delete an email, you delete it and then purge it. Deleting an email, then, doesn't really delete it, it just means that you see it in your inbox with a line through it. The student service that lets you sign up for courses, to take another example, is separate from the university email service. Both have separate passwords and the student service, so aptly named ROSI (Repository of Student Information, not a joke), is liable to go down for maintenance overnight, as though university students never make important decisions at 3 am.

I thought all of this was more or less normal, the result of institutional incompetence, until I started studying at Arizona State University. Arizona State is a good school, but it enjoys neither U of T's reputation nor its many advantages, namely money. Arizona State is responsible for 72,000 students with an endowment of about $500 million. By contrast, the University of Toronto must deal with 45,000 students using $1.5 billion dollars, or three times as much money to deal with a little over half as many students. That's more money than many small countries, or or large and impoverished ones. In fact, I believe U of T has more money than North Korea.

Arizona State offers students an email account that's a Gmail app, meaning that using your Arizona State email is just like using Gmail. In fact, it's easy to link your university email to another email address in case you never check the former. Signing up for courses, paying tuition or accessing any other university service is like using any other website rather than the arcane system U of T continues to use. Granted, if ROSI has improved in the last four years, I'll gladly stand corrected.

You could argue, maybe, that U of T has devoted its attention to attracting the world's best professors and experts to give students access to the very best in each field. That is true to an extent, I'm sure, though those experts have almost no incentive to care about how undergraduates do, a bit like paying elementary school school teachers for making their staff room extra cozy.

Another idea might be that U of T is too aloof to bother with such trivialities, because a functioning, twenty-first century interface, twelve years into said century, for its online services is really just a step or two above taking out ads on buses and in Gmail the way that many lesser universities do. ASU does have banner ads on Gmail and elsewhere on the Internet, though I don't know how much of that is due to my many visits to their website.

The most likely answer is that the University of Toronto simply doesn't care. They care enough to plan an elaborate gobbledygook of events, mixers in Dubai and film screenings at Innis College, for students and alumni that make those in charge feel good, but don't do much for the 99% of students who will never attend any of these events. You already knew this and so did I, but I didn't realize how different it could be until just now.


David Haas said...

I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could email me?

Nerdypanda said...

U of T sucks. But they got new mail system partnered with windows live. Since, I am graduating, will not make much of a diffrence. The campus is very alienating especially if you are commuter student. I am just lucky I made as many friends as I did.

Adeel said...

I don't think I made a single friend at U of T. I know lots of people who went there, but I already knew them from somewhere else.