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University should growing in quality, not quantity

University of Alabama

University of Alabama

BY HENRY DOWNES

The University of Alabama has experienced unprecedented growth over the past few years and not one of us has been spared the growing pains.

Crimson Ride buses packed to claustrophobia-inducing levels have brought unwanted snuggling to our morning commute. Lecture halls numbering in the triple digits have made us wonder if the TA grading our papers can even put a name to our face. Minutes upon minutes spent circling for a decent parking spot have increased our carbon footprint and decreased our hairlines. And have you seen the Rec at 6 p.m.?

It has become trendy for students to attack the administration on this page for supposed mismanagement of growth – and on a campus of 35,000 and counting, it is admittedly easy to feel like a “number” in times like these.

I hear you.

But while there are campus infrastructure issues which no doubt demand our attention and constructive criticism, we should not let daily inconveniences keep us from taking pride in the major things which the UA community is still getting right.

Undergraduate ranks have swelled by 33 percent since 2007 and faculty and staff numbers have increased proportionally. Fortunately, all that growth is coming at the top: While entering class averages have grown by about 2,000 students in just six years, the University’s acceptance rate has fallen by more than 10 percent in that same time period.

Recent freshmen classes have set school records for ACT scores and GPA and the Fall 2012 class ranked 4th nationally (behind only Chicago, Harvard, and Southern Cal) in enrollment of National Merit Scholars. New faculty members have accounted for more than $66 million in grants and awards. We are growing with quality, not just quantity.

And the University is not only attracting better students to campus, it is also doing a better job of keeping them around once they get here. Six-year retention rates have shot up by 20 percent in less than a decade, signaling that students of the highest-caliber are genuinely satisfied with their Alabama experience.

The academic good news is possible largely because the University has done a good job of keeping pace with expanding enrollment by offering new and meaningful avenues for student engagement. Involvement opportunities both in and out of the classroom have multiplied in depth and breadth even since my freshman year, which can only be viewed as a reflection of the administration’s efforts to bring in high-achieving and passionate students.

While there is an inevitable lag time in updating campus facilities to accommodate growth, the University has already completed a staggering amount of major construction projects in the past few years and many exciting plans are still in the works. Given a turbulent economic climate and drastic state budget cuts, it is honestly incredible that UA has managed campus infrastructure as well as it has to this point.

Finally and most importantly, campus still feels like a safe and welcoming place.

Students are right to demand a lot from their administration – it is, after all, our tuition and tax dollars which have provided the financial fuel for the University’s extensive growth. And there is no doubt that overcrowding is a very real concern.

But just as we should hold our campus leaders accountable at every turn as they develop plans for sustainable growth, we would also do well to remain patient in understanding that responsible growth is often a clunky and messy process: there will be fits, starts and plenty of inconveniences along the way.

Accommodating rapid growth is hard. It is not always easy to grin and bear the process, especially since we are only guaranteed a few precious years to enjoy this place. Still, we should not lose sight of the fact that our degrees from The University of Alabama will only appreciate tomorrow as a result of investments in quality today.

I have no doubt that after withstanding growing pains, we will look back on these years as a defining moment for The University of Alabama: a moment when our school transformed from the second most selective public university in the state to a destination of choice for the nation’s best and brightest students.

We all share in this moment. No matter how long we have to wait in line on ‘Catfish Friday,’ that’s exciting news.

(Henry Downes is a junior majoring in economics and political science.)

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