JWR Articles: Commentary - Return to Carnegie Mellon University (Author: S. James Wegg) - September 15, 2004
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Return to Carnegie Mellon University

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Long-lost diplomacy

Twenty-four years later, it was with mixed emotions that I took a cab from downtown Pittsburgh to the CMU campus—a place I hadn’t set foot in since completing my MFA (Music). I couldn’t attend graduation as I had concerts to conduct in my native Canada.

But during the interim, there was one piece left in my post-graduate puzzle: the diploma!

Through work-study and tuition remission, I was able to make the economics of an out-of-country education work. Technically speaking, I was a mature student, although anyone who witnessed my pledging activities to Phi Mu Alpha would certainly dispute that assertion (and I thought the paddle was only used as a signature board!).

A few months after returning home and getting used to beer that actually contained alcohol, I received an invoice from CMU administration advising me that my account was overdue: pay up or no diploma. I hauled out my abacus, checked my sums twice and concluded that some transactions had yet to be entered&emdash;the next batch posting would settle my affairs.

The threatening letter from the collection agency was light on detail. “Remit in full at once, or legal proceedings will begin,” it demanded now over a year after my departure. Unravelling the symphonies of Beethoven seemed a more appropriate use of my time.

“We’ll be sending this to small claims court,” barked the pit-bull customer service rep, having successfully interrupted my dinner. “Make sure my trial won’t be on a Tuesday, I’ve a regular out-of-town engagement,” I replied as I hung up. Unable to provide any description of the US$150 in dispute, I was determined to make my point in court that this situation was now more harassment than debt.

No summons arrived and nothing further from the collectors or my Alma Mater—on to Shostakovitch.

A decade or so later, I received an alumni appeal in the mail. This was a good sign—surely I wouldn’t have been solicited if I hadn’t graduated. Perhaps an exchange could be brokered: donation for diploma. By now a member of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners and an advisor to charities (music-making took the form of writing and producing television specials), I realized that such a transaction would be delicate for “a charitable gift cannot be made if there is any tangible benefit to the donor.”

“Hmmm … what is a diploma’s nominal value?” I wondered as I e-mailed the CMU Alumni Department. Initially my spirits were buoyed: “No problem, Mr. Wegg, we’ll look into your case immediately,” came the electronic response.

I hoped it would be sooner than later, as around this time, some of our politicians were found to have bogus résumés, causing much embarrassment (but never a resignation—that was left to the voters). My C.V. included the MFA: What if an over-zealous administrator actually checked it out, or demanded proof of my higher learning? I quivered at the thought!

Unfortunately, my anxiety wasn’t relieved anytime soon. I’d inquire once in a while. “We’re working on it.” More time passed. “Amy’s no longer working here.” Just in case, I held on to the donation pitches and the alumni magazine, hoping those would be accepted into evidence if the validity of my education was ever questioned. And by now my artistic muse had morphed from sounds to words, so it wasn’t likely that potential editors or clients would demand to know if I’d actually completed the twentieth century music seminar on Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps.

It fell to my membership in the Music Critics Association of North America to finally settle this mystery once and for all: its 2004 Annual Conference was slated for Pittsburgh—La Forza Del Destino!

Having stood one more time in Kresge Recital Hall, awash in the memory of Robert Page’s electric leadership as he conducted a run of West Side Story where I played saxophone in the—literally—behind the scenes pit band, I sauntered across The Cut to Warner Hall, eager to legitimize my degree.

But with Kafkaesque coincidence, the building was a wreck—decades-old asbestos driving the renovation plan. Nonetheless, the top floor was accessible. What better time to meet the President, I thought, holding my breath ‘til the elevator finished its climb.

“All alumni staff have moved to the lower level of the University Center,” replied the cheery gatekeeper of the executive suite. “I’m sure they can help!”

I bounced over to what I remembered as Skibo Hall and descended its depths via the bookstore, knowing victory was at hand.

Twice explaining my plight to the pleasant receptionist and ever-helpful manager of student affairs, I learned that my diploma existed, but by moving the alumni office for the cleanup, its whereabouts wouldn’t be easily traced. “Try Alumni House, I’m sure they can help!”

Now emotionally drained, I staggered over to 5017 Forbes Avenue more expecting to be hit up by a development officer than getting intellectual closure to my days at the College of Fine Arts.

I soon learned that some of the staff and all of the records had been shipped off to rented quarters downtown. For the fifth time that afternoon I repeated my story (now to Linda Wright who listened attentively on the phone from her temporary office, located just a few blocks from my hotel).

“Because of our relocation, there are boxes we haven’t touched in years not far from my desk. May I put you on hold?, she offered.

Like modern air travel, I had already reduced my expectations, content in the knowledge that my graduation was no longer in doubt and that a modern-day super-sized diploma could be ordered.

“S. James Wegg?” I don’t usually cheer at the mention of my name, but hearing it from Linda produced a shriek of joy in the Alumni House foyer that hadn’t been heard since the last bequest arrived.

Nearly a quarter of a century had passed, but the wee parchment of accomplishment would be in my possession within the hour. By the time I had returned to the hotel, there was an envelope waiting for me at the desk: Ms. Wright had taken the unnecessary, but hugely appreciated step of delivering it in person—Merci mille fois!

Now an official alumnus, I fully expect to respond appropriately to the next request for support.

What else can I say, except that my professional instincts as a critic have kicked in; the current student affairs and alumni staff have performed exceptionally well.
Five stars
JWR

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