“I chose DePaul when I was 12,” says junior Liza Thomas, who grew up beginning in the Northwest Side’s Little India and later in Crystal Lake. A friend’s mother took Thomas to the campus when she was still in junior high. “I saw the library and I fell in love with the school.”
“This is a pretty swinging place if you’re coming from Schaumburg or Beverly or Palatine,” says Mark Pohlad, an art history professor who has heard some students call DePaul an urban finishing school. “Lincoln Park isn’t really the gritty underbelly of the city anymore, but I think kids feel like it hips them up to go here.”
Not too long ago, DePaul’s facilities were in rather dismal shape. In fact, Richard Meister recalls that the campus was rated one of the nation’s worst-looking during the mid-1980s. The Schmitt Academic Center (a.k.a. “the SAC”) was-and still is-a 1960s-era concrete eyesore in the heart of the Lincoln Park campus. There wasn’t really a quad. Professors were told to warn students not to walk west of Racine.
“DePaul was a day school without any dorms,” says the former basketball coach Ray Meyer, a beloved campus figure. He recalls the ragtag practice facilities for his teams. “Now, everything’s state of the art.”
Originally called St. Vincent’s College, the school was founded in 1898 at Webster Avenue and Halsted Street by the French followers of St. Vincent de Paul, the 17th-century priest who emphasized service to the community. The school started small, with a beginning enrollment of fewer than 200; that number spiked to almost 12,000 students following World War II, then fell below 8,000 by 1960. The first glimmer of what would eventually become the new, expanded DePaul came in 1973 with the purchase of buildings belonging to the McCormick Theological Seminary and its grounds at the corner of Halsted Street and Fullerton Avenue. This gave the school a few more much-needed dorms. During the 1970s and early 1980s, DePaul gained national attention for its basketball program and the friendly, gap-toothed smile of Coach Meyer. But overall not much changed.
By the 1980s, the university was losing enrollment and the endowment totaled only $12.5 million. So the school got behind the risky plan to increase student enrollment sharply-and borrow against the anticipated revenue increases. The borrowing would pay for the new construction, and the tuition revenue would cover interest and principal on the bonds. The goal was to “reposition DePaul from being one of 25 good, relatively large commuter or regional institutions to being one of the four or five nationally recognized Catholic universities,” says Meister, who came to the school as a history professor and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, rising later to executive vice president for academic affairs. (He has recently retired.)
To a remarkable extent, the plan worked. The school’s building and buying spree took off in the early 1990s, starting with the 1992 construction of the Richardson Library on Fullerton, the school’s first stand-alone library. Next the school looked downtown, taking over the Goldblatt’s building at State and Jackson streets in 1991 and reopening it as the DePaul Center two years later. Today, most of the school’s grad students and business majors attend classes there. A few years later, DePaul built the McGowan Science Building on the Lincoln Park campus. And, celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding, the school opened Centennial Hall in 1998, with dorms and offices fronted by Dominick’s and Starbucks on the corner of Fullerton and Sheffield.
Things haven’t really slowed down since. Over the past five years, campus upgrades have been nearly continual, from the spacious and well-appointed Ray Meyer Fitness & Recreation Center (a.k.a. “the Ray”) on Sheffield to the massive new Barnes & Noble that now anchors the DePaul Center building downtown. A modern student center at Sheffield and Belden was opened on the site of the old Alumni Hall. A new “superdorm” shared with Columbia College and Roosevelt University opened downtown last year. As of last spring, the endowment had climbed to $246 million.
Though much is new, the Lincoln Park campus still features plenty of familiar sights and sounds. The el still roars by every few minutes. A favorite watering hole, Kelly’s, is still around the corner on Webster. There’s still no football team. The “pit”-a meeting area of couches and tables in the Schmitt Academic Center-is still a popular spot.
But accompanying the new buildings (some would say, paying for them) has been a massive increase in the number of students. Over the past seven years, the size of the freshman class has doubled, from 1,200 to more than 2,400. Overall, the school now enrolls about 23,000 students each year-15,000 of them undergraduates (including part-time and older students). In addition to being the largest Catholic university in the country, ahead of St. John’s in New York (18,000), Loyola of Chicago (15,000), and Notre Dame (11,479), DePaul is also the largest private nonprofit university in the Midwest.
Among the big undergraduate programs, the computer science and business programs are considered relatively strong, while the small music and theatre schools are renowned. Though steadily improving, the school’s master’s programs remain solidly behind Northwestern’s and the U. of C.’s. “In general, DePaul’s M.B.A. program promises what it delivers: a decent M.B.A. education for a favorable price,” says Chris Buckley, who is almost halfway to a DePaul M.B.A.
For all the work to upgrade the school, not many DePaul officials take the “happiest” label very seriously. The annual survey-Pomona ranks number one this year, Wheaton is tenth, and DePaul is 12th-is based on the responses of an average of 300 students for each campus, according to ThePrinceton Review. DePaul students seem uncomfortable with the label, in part because they worry it makes the institution sound like a party school or a place where everyone gets easy A’s.
“I don’t really know what ‘happy’ means,” says Michael Mezey, a political scientist who just finished a stint as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “I care more that the school is considered to be so diverse and open to gay and lesbian students.”
And yet, the effort to keep DePaul students happy is far from over. Another new dorm is being built just west of the campus on Fullerton. A second science building may be in the works. Wish Field, the athletic field at Belden and Bissell, is getting next-generation artificial turf as part of DePaul’s entry into the Big East conference this fall.
But getting big also raises problems. Some students complain about what seems like an increase in class sizes over the past few years (the school denies it) and about the use of part-time teachers. Others think courses aren’t as challenging as they used to be because classes are larger. “I hear from professors that it’s gotten harder to give good assignments,” says Wesley Thompson, a senior and student government president. “They’ve got 50 kids in their classes, and it seems like the work has gotten less rigorous.”
One professor says he finds an “outrageous diversity” in aptitude among today’s DePaul students. “There are a handful of kids in every class that could have gone to any school in the city,” he says. “But there’s twice that number who are really struggling. The difference between the front row and the back row is just staggering.”
The establishment of the downtown campus divides the school and the students geographically. Since most of the commerce classes are offered downtown, the liberal arts students don’t regularly mix with their more business-oriented classmates. “I’ve only had a few classes downtown in three years,” says a soon-to-be senior, Colleen McBrien, editor in chief of The DePaulia, the school newspaper. Graduate students, almost all of them professionals taking part-time courses during lunch or at night, have little contact with undergraduates, and vice versa.
The divide between on-campus and commuter students is another issue, despite the university’s efforts to engage commuter students more fully. There are still only 3,000 dorm spots for roughly 15,000 undergraduates, and Lincoln Park apartments are getting more expensive, sending students to Lake View or Uptown or keeping them at home. “It’s a real world of difference,” says Wesley Thompson, speaking of those who live on or near campus and those who don’t. “They have such a different experience.”
Mark Pohlad, the art history professor, finds a corporate overlay to the growth and building boom, and he worries that the school is losing its soul. “There’s a kind of a Barnes & Noble thing that’s happening to us,” he says.
Even as the university has gotten larger and fancier, however, it has held to a strong commitment to minority and first-generation students. Tuition is officially just over $20,000 (though most students pay only about $15,000). Room and board on campus runs just under $9,000. More than two-thirds of all freshmen are on financial aid. The average family income for a DePaul student on financial aid is less than $60,000-well below the average for the public University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example. “They all think that we’re all yuppie rich kids because of Lincoln Park,” says Liza Thomas, who is of Indian heritage. “But it’s not true. We have people from all different parts of the city.”
Last fall, the incoming freshman class was 31 percent minority. Roughly 40 percent of the students are the first in their families to go to college. The school has one of the most diverse student bodies in the state and graduates one of the largest numbers in the country of minority students with master’s degrees. The vast majority of students come from the greater Chicago area, with a substantial minority from nearby states such as Wisconsin and Michigan.
The history department’s Howard Lindsey, an African American professor, argues that DePaul hasn’t hired enough minority-group members, especially considering the school’s growth, and he cites a small but troubling number of instances of racial insensitivity among faculty and racial profiling in the neighborhood. Others have been pleased at the on-campus diversity they’ve found. “This is a very city-oriented, very community-oriented institution,” says the journalist Laura Washington, who recently replaced Michael Eric Dyson as the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor in the Humanities Center at the school. While Washington, who is black and grew up on the South Side, remembers the old DePaul as a “mainline white-bread” Catholic university, she says now, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It’s not just talk.”
Perhaps the truest picture of DePaul came at graduation this past June. The roughly 5,000 graduates were awarded their diplomas in eight separate ceremonies, three of which were held at Allstate Arena. In the audience, you could see traditional clothing from Africa and Asia, and hear snippets of Spanish and Russian, along with strong Midwestern accents. Some graduates brought upwards of 20 family members along, from grandparents to nieces and nephews. Most people were dressed in their Sunday best, despite the oppressive heat. For these DePaul students and their families, the ceremony appeared to be a very big deal.
“This school still thinks like a small school,” says the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, who took over as university president last year. “Everyone crosses the stage. I shake every hand.”