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Town & Gown: DePauw is Not the Problem

Sometime late last year my step-daughter made her college decision. After two years of “I can’t wait to get as far away from this place as possible” peppered with thousands of passing references to “I’ve got to go to school out of the state,” she chose one of the nation’s most prestigious liberal arts universities.

She chose DePauw.

Had she not hinted for several weeks prior to the decision, I probably would have been surprised. But once her choice had congealed in our minds, we were happy for her. As a high school teacher here in Greencastle, I’ve watched dozens of local graduates go across town to DePauw, settle in quite well, and experience college as if they were attending a school situated on the other side of the country. I know several of the faculty personally, and I have even begun working with some of them on a couple of different projects—including work with this online magazine. DePauw has been an asset to the community, and it is beginning to prove itself an asset to me as I develop professionally.

Convincing everyone who lives here of that, however, can sometimes be a challenge.

You see, if you live in Greencastle—or any small college town—long enough, it’s going to happen. You’re going to run into that special brand of asshole. He can be the ordinary-looking, jogging every evening, rooting for the Pacers, throwing down an IPA type of asshole. Or he can be the asshole who teaches advanced interstellar communication and whose dissertation included a weekend spent opening temporal rifts in time and space with the late Carl Sagan. Or she can be the introverted, walking into the butcher shop with her face half-buried in Kant’s Metaphysics and Morals sort of asshole. Or he can be the university administrator who uncomfortably refuses to loan his grocery discount card to the lady who forgot hers in the neighboring aisle. It doesn’t matter if their outward hostility is intentional or accidental. To those of us who live here it comes off as the seething condescension of someone feeling cursed that he has to share his life with these “little people.” The impressions these few make are too often the impressions that linger among the “townies” who live outside of campus for the rest of their lives.

DePauw is not the problem. It never has been. If we’re going to talk about what the problem really is, then we have to revisit that old conversation about the late-1980’s departure of IBM.  When the economic world yanked those rugs of job security and living wages out from under us, we turned our rage to those who were still doing okay. This made DePauw an easy target.

And once those attitudes are seared into the brain, they don’t come out, no matter what real-world positive impact the local colleges brings to the community. Contribute to new businesses which revitalize the city’s courthouse square? Doesn’t matter. Work with the city to refurbish entire streets and enhance the physical improvement of the city’s downtown? So what. Continually add to the cultural and economic atmosphere of the community? Once the negative association is cemented, nothing changes it.

And that’s too bad.

Because in the case of Greencastle, DePauw is not the problem. I would venture that the same can be said of Earlham to Richmond, of Wabash to Crawfordsville, of Hanover to Madison, to all those sister schools to their adjoined small towns.

DePauw University. Photo Credit at Bottom.
DePauw University.
Photo Credit at Bottom.

Furthermore, the university not only offers the city a great deal in terms of economic and cultural benefit, but most of the people who work there are involved community members who bring national and world experiences beyond the Midwest. Among my own personal friendships with university staffers, I find them to be polite, engaging, and able to talk about everything from the minutiae of daily public education to the artistic merits of Star Wars and the French horn. In other words, they’re fun to hang out with and talk to.

If you need a concrete example of how DePauw benefits the community, I have one. As part of my duties teaching college-bound seniors, I have the burden and benefit of trying to prepare them for the lives they will experience at their respective schools and universities after they leave. That’s not easy, but for years I have done my best. Gradually, however, my thoughts kept lingering to that college at the other end of Washington Street. We have a full-fledged university on the other side of town: Why weren’t we using it to help prepare these kids for college? When I approached the school for help, I wasn’t sure what response I would get. Like I said at the beginning…all those petty, anecdotal grudges still creeping into my head.

That response has been overwhelmingly supportive. Dr. Harry Brown, the English department chairperson, has been inundated by colleagues more than willing to lead workshops, run discussion sessions, and do whatever they can to help. We’re in a position to set up a long-term program which will help our outgoing graduates get a leg-up on the transition to college process. And this is notwithstanding the university’s long-running “Alpha Program” which for years has allowed and encouraged bright young students to actually attend DPU classes as active students. Another example is Dr. Kent Menzel, who passionately dedicates his time coaching the local high school swim teams. He leads through an eclectic brand of aggressive encouragement, has stood out as a positive role model for hundreds of local young people, and does all of that for reasons far nobler than the tiny stipend most high school coaches receive. The truth is that, when you simply walk over the campus and ask someone for help, the vast majority of people who work there want to do just that.

So DePauw, to reiterate, is not the problem. It never has been. If we’re going to talk about what the problem really is, then we have to revisit that old conversation about the late-1980’s departure of IBM. This town is full of people who still insist that trading upper-middle class salaries for $10-an-hour jobs is somehow better (and I always politely nod my head when they do), but such claims are always bullshit. Frankly, I don’t know that the city can do much to fix the issue, either. IBM’s contraction, and Greencastle’s transformation, directly correlates to the expansion of Global Economic Theory which is now the staple model running our nation’s business sector.

Greencastle and DePauw's shared history dates back to the early 19th century. Photo credits at bottom.
Greencastle and DePauw’s shared history dates back to the early 19th century.
Photo credits at bottom.

For very basic psychological reasons, when the economic world yanked those rugs of job security and living wages out from under us, we turned our rage to those who were still doing okay. This made DePauw an easy target.

So, if you resent the university because one or two people rubbed you the wrong way, don’t take out that bitterness on the school as a whole. Assholes are in abundant supply, and they’re not exclusive to robe-wearing academics or 20-somethings from Chicago’s north side. Those are perceptions. Easy to ignore. What’s left is reality. My reality is that DePauw is offering its time and resources to help my high school students get prepared for what’s ahead of them, and it’s also going to provide my step-daughter with a quality education she can carry with her for the rest of her life. And all of it sits but a three-minute drive away.

That’s not a problem. It’s a solution.

DePauw has contributed directly and very indirectly to Greencastle's active cultural and music scene. Photo credits at bottom.
DePauw has contributed directly and very indirectly to Greencastle’s active cultural and music scene.
Photo credits at bottom.

About Donovan Wheeler

Donovan Wheeler is the proud step-father of Megan, a DePauw-bound high school senior. Another step-daughter, Marley, will attend Hanover next fall while his daughter Emily is currently a sophomore at Indiana University.

Photo Credits:

DePauw LCCN2007662121  by Ashley Van Haeften is licensed under the Creative Commons 2.0 Genric.

DePauw 1837 and DePauw University by Rovergirl88 belongs to the Public Domain.

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  1. Thanks for this helpful perspective. Looking forward to having Megan around campus next year.

  2. Donovan, your article perfectly sums up my own thoughts on this issue. As a DePauw student, and local, I have found this issue to be atypical of normal college/town dynamics. I would find it very hard to believe that any Bloomington resident would resent IU or, even better yet, that any South Bend resident would resent Notre Dame. But here, we experience the opposite. Countless Greencastle residents have come to resent DePauw and for no concrete reason. Of course, there are the unfortunate moments when locals experience the apathy of DePauw’s residents, but most students are thoughtful, level headed individuals. But there are two sides to every encounter, so when locals scream “sausage fest” or “sluts” on drive bys through campus on occasion, it is hard to develop meaningful relationships. I’ll be honest, I was apart of that camp at one point in the past. But the truth of the matter is that DePauw, like you said and I have believed for so long, is the solution–not the problem. Here are just some of the ways that we help the community. Firstly, greek life always sponsors numerous philanthropic events that raise funds for domestic abuse, healthcare, and sexual assault prevention, just to name a few, while also coordinating events that center upon community service. Secondly, the institution itself has attracted and created local businesses while cooperating with others in order for students to get involved with helping out the local economy (as you’ve already stated). And thirdly, but most importantly, DePauw has students who are willing to volunteer in local schools and who create educational programs that could help out aspiring college-bound students. Just this past sememster, the School of Music constructed an educational building on the square devoted to helping out aspiring musicians in the community by providing instrumental and vocal lessons, a venue for performing, and a stage for the both sides to really get to know each other. The professors are also more than willing to help out by inviting local high schoolers into their classrooms in order to truly prepare them for higher education. I personally benefited the most from this experience and have found that DePauw really does have the tools needed to make a difference in the community, and its been using these tools extensively. But while we have both given concrete evidence as to how DePauw is an asset, it really doesn’t matter when only one side is reaching out. It’s up to the community to make an effort, because it takes both sides to make a difference. Maybe one day the “DePauw Bubble” can burst and allow for better engagement between the two sides. I may be an optimist, but I think that goal is attainable.

    P.S. If Megan hasn’t done so already, I would recommend signing her up for a tour of DePauw while shadowing a student to get a feel for what a normal day is like for most students, and she should consider staying overnight to see what dorm life is like as well. She made a great choice.

    P.S.S. Keep doing what you’re doing, you’re the best teacher around and do the best for preparing your students for their lives after high school. We’ve all never forgotten your impact in our lives and I can tell that you’re only getting better by tackling issues that could make a difference. I think that this article is the first step you’ve taken in connecting the two communities, and it could be one of the most consequential events to happen in the community if you keep with it and succeed. Thanks for everything and good luck.

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