The Jischke Honors Building: Still Wrong

The basic concept of alumni-supported higher education is, I think, awkward at best. It’s also very tiresome in practice, when the ISU Foundation e.g. calls you up a dozen times within two years of graduation.

That said, I believe in sharing wealth, and I try to live my beliefs. My resources for doing so here are relatively modest, but when I can I try to support worthy causes. If a fairly lavish institution that delivers much of its direct benefit to the already privileged is questionable for inclusion among such causes, well, 1) nothing’s perfect, 2) Iowa State University does at least seem to be spending money relatively responsibly, these days, exceptions aside, and 3) I got quite a deal from the institution so if any non-affluent graduate has reason to be “giving back,” it’s probably me.

So I have, now and then, directed the occasional surplus to dear auld ISU. I have not, however, given one single cent to the ISU Honors Program and I am not going to do so any time soon. This I vowed nearly 15 years ago, this I still believe: the “Jischke Honors Building” represents an unethical, insulting double-standard, and I am not going to forgive or forget.

I can’t say what stirred the memory of this, recently. At the risk of jinxing it, it has been some time since the last earnest young honors student called me up to start up the old familiar script. In any event, it occurred to me that I don’t recall ever formally recording this minor outrage anywhere, and that perhaps I ought to do so. Perhaps, for that matter, I ought to investigate what confirmation I can find outside my own hazy memories, and whether I haven’t exaggerated any or all of the details.

For nearly 15 years, I have believed that the university rushed through the naming of a planned new honors program building, in blatant violation of the university’s own rules. As I remember it, this plan rapidly followed news of President Jischke’s intended departure for Purdue University, despite formal rules against naming a building for a university employee until he or she had been gone for some time. (Jischke was still in office, in fact.) I have always presumed that this wheeze represented a combination of obsequiousness, and expedient “use” of a small building for which the university would sooner forgo the opportunity to “sell naming rights” than for a larger and more expensive project.

Memory verified.

Having attended college in the late 1990s, my generation has the mixed blessing of the beginning of a permanent online record. (Albeit a record blessedly spartan compared with recent years’ grads.) Fifteen years, a new url, countless redesigns and probably more than one architectural transition later, the Iowa State Daily still maintains its early years on the web with the rest of its searchable archive. Most commendable.

With relatively little trouble, then, I was able to (re)locate an editorial of July 2000, sharing the criticism of many letters and other items.

…in order to get this building to bear Jischke’s name, the university is willing to set aside its own guidelines to do it as quickly as possible.

The university guidelines state: “Major buildings are generally named for a distinguished individual who has made extraordinary contributions of a scholarly, professional, or public service nature related to the University’s mission and whose employment by the University has been terminated for at least five years, whether by death, retirement or resignation. Nominations may be submitted at any time, but will not be reviewed by the committee until at least five years have elapsed.”

The rules state clearly that buildings cannot be named for faculty members until five years have passed, and for good reason.

Tsk, tsk. This doesn’t precisely confirm my suspicions of the reasoning, I will note, but after sniffing around I find that they at least have precedent; I don’t find any other real justification, meanwhile. The closest I can detect is a reference, in another editorial, to administrators declaring “the five-year policy is a guideline to be ignored in ‘special circumstances.'” In other words, “we’re the bosses, we follow the rules when we want, and fuck you.”

Charming. So, yes, while I was by no means alone in disliking Martin Jischke I think that I had valid reason to find this particular action despicable on its own. I think that reason is still valid.

Therefore, my determination to refuse any fundraising requests from the honors program remains.

Admittedly, this isn’t perfect; while honors program coordinator and friend to powers-that-be Liz Beck applauded the decision at the time, it’s questionable how much choice the program would have had in the matter. Meanwhile, 15 years have passed, and Beck is long gone along with Jischke and many if not all of the other principals; is it fair to punish the honors program forever?

No, but then, realistically it hardly matters. Re-reading the Daily editorial “Legacies Take Time,” the comments about how quickly some people and events can be forgotten seemed remarkably apt. Commenting on the absence of any building named for Jischke’s predecessor, Gordon Eaton, the editorial board noted that “After five years, most of us couldn’t remember who he was.” Their point was that, with even modest perspective, some “legacies” may prove to be rather minor and very reasonably allowed to dim, and that ramming through a building naming immediately was therefore not only unfair but misguided. Yet this is, from a cynical perspective, also an argument for acting with just such haste… because, hey, fuck wisdom, as usual the elite* close ranks and by virtue of being prominent among them, you deserve a building so let’s just do it now while we can be sure of getting it done, and in five years the name will survive but no one will remember the tawdry details.

So it has proved. For many years, I attempted to explain to callers from the honors program why I would not be giving them any money that day or in the future. But memory of “Martin Jischke,” as anything besides the name of the building, vanished rapidly; as I recall it didn’t take even five years for students to have no idea what I was talking about.

So be it. I think I always expected this, really; that even if administrators gave any thought to alumni resentment, they calculated that its cost would be limited and passing. So, I’m sure, it has proved.

So be it. I still care, however. Minor this incident may be, fair enough; only very minor effort is required to personally protest it, so that’s reasonable and proportionate, right? If that effort is Quixotic, well… in this world, sticking to a principle is often Quixotic. Giving a damn at all rather than just going along is often Quixotic.

I submit that it’s worthwhile anyway, at least occasionally, if only to keep one in practice.

* The reference, elsewhere in the editorial, to ISU’s honors students as part of an exclusive “elite” is basically daft, but I’ll just leave this alone.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation