December 1, 2010
Dear Jeff, Brian, Liza, Claire, and Becca of the Red and Black Management Team,
Thank you for your recent e-mail emphasizing the importance of alumni “support.” You may be wondering why, despite its significance and the constant stream of requests to do otherwise, I haven’t given to Wesleyan in recent years. You may be wondering why I didn’t show up for my fifteenth reunion this past May. After all, after graduating, each year I dutifully forked over a small donation, and I attended my fifth and tenth reunions and had a blast, conscience intact. Maybe your office didn’t notice that I wasn’t present this past May and that I haven’t been giving (although I seriously doubt that—I worked briefly for the Annual Fund). Perhaps they don’t care why, but in case they do, I’ll tell you: I am ashamed of Wesleyan's admissions policies.
While my decisions to withhold donations in recent years and to skip reunion this year are mostly principled ones, I'll admit there are reasons that have to do with my own disposition and financial circumstances. For one, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the fund raising emphasis of alumni events. Just as Senior Week at Wesleyan was designed to impress upon graduating students of the fantastic time they had at their institution and that they should cough up donations in the future, reunion seems to be designed to make people feel good about their alma mater's brand, so that they'll continue giving. I’ll admit I get queasy when I imagine having an awkward conversation with the person I made out with on the couch in Westco Lounge after the Lesbian Animal Rights Eco Ball at Chi Psi. I envision explaining to fellow alums that while they're in the midst of discovering a cure for cancer and running non-profits that teach illiterate teenagers to read, I manage to write some amateurish poetry and mediocre prose for no money in between trying to convince my kids of the perils of drinking their own bath water and of the sanitary dangers of rooting around in trash cans in public restrooms. As you may have heard, the years I was at Wesleyan were not stellar ones for the administration and I think the class of 1995 has one of the lowest levels of giving because of that. Another reason is that, frankly, with three kids, a professor husband, and no income, I am broke. Finally, since my parents, and not Wesleyan, covered my tuition in its entirety and gave me a liberal arts upbringing, it's primarily to them I feel I owe a debt of gratitude.
With its commitment to diversity, adherence to need-blind admissions, and emphasis on social justice, for example their divestment from South Africa during the apartheid years, I used to be proud to be part of Wesleyan. I used to think Wesleyan was morally superior to places like Harvard and Williams. My husband, himself a Harvard grad, was incredulous when he recounted to me receiving his first fundraising call about a month post graduation, asking for a $100 contribution. "I give you $100 every month. It's called paying back my loan with interest." He always talked about the greed of Harvard: how much money they have, how little they pay their workers, and how much good they could do as educators, but fail to do, just sitting on their billions. Even with the grants to lower income-income students that they have recently started giving, they could do more. "Not Wesleyan," I informed him smugly, "Wesleyan is one of the good guys in this."
Then I read Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education by Peter Sacks, and I realized that Wesleyan, while attracting a different student body, was really not much different in practice from a place like Harvard, especially in terms of economic diversity and access of poorer students. Wesleyan's current admissions policies ensure that beneath the surface, it is no longer "Diversity University." Sacks made the case that the admissions officers at Wesleyan, just like at other elite schools, look for high SAT scores and high school transcripts decorated with AP classes, and students from lower income families are limited to the rigor of the course offerings and curriculum of the schools they have access to. Many of those students don't have access to expensive SAT-prep classes (whose very existence, to me, demonstrates that the SAT isn't doing what it was meant to do). Also Wesleyan admissions officers, like those at other schools of its caliber, have cozy relationships with college counselors at public schools in affluent neighborhoods and at more prestigious private schools, providing an admissions conduit that poorer students at less prestigious schools in less affluent neighborhoods don't have.
Perhaps you’ve read The Gatekeepers by New York Times journalist Jacques Steinberg. Steinberg chronicles the admissions process at Wesleyan in his book, where he follows one admissions officer, Ralph Fugueroa, and six high school senior applicants. Steinberg shows to Wesleyan's credit that it's far from automatic for students with perfect GPAs and near-perfect SAT scores to gain admission. Figueroa tries valiantly to ensure spots go to "educationally disadvantaged" students and to account for the future, and not just past, potential for success of any given applicant. Even so, officers like Figueroa do not necessarily have a fair process. The decision to admit or reject a student is at times dependent on the individual officers own values and perspectives. Also, the quality of the application sometimes seems dependent on the influence of individual high school counselors. In fact, according to Sacks's description of the book, Figueroa himself has a long-time friendship and professional relationship with the college counselor at Harvard-Westlake, a selective prep school in Los Angeles, whom he had gone to Stanford with.
Wesleyan, despite its having a relatively modest endowment compared to other elite institutions, has followed Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford's examples and has given grants to students who qualify financially. This along with their commitment to the aforementioned ideals is to be applauded. But it's not enough. The percentage of students in the top-notch colleges who receive Pell Grants has declined drastically in the past twenty years. (Wesleyan fails to even make the group of twenty-five of colleges and universities with higher percentages of students awarded them. SEE UPDATE) And according to this account in the San Francisco Chronicle, the students who do receive grants at places like Stanford number very few and often find themselves isolated and alone.
UPDATE 12/2/10: A fellow Wesleyan alum and reader brought this gaffe to my attention (see comment below): The Pell Grant link that I cite above could not apply to Wesleyan--the link I provide is to the "National University" category rankings. Wesleyan is considered a "National Liberal Arts College." Looking at the same list in that category Wesleyan actually ranks tenth out of twenty-five. According to the same reader, that percentage has increased from thirteen percent to eighteen percent for the 2010-11 school year.
I don't judge you for choosing to go to Wesleyan, nor do I judge the people who work there, or the alumni who give Wesleyan money. My husband is a professor at a liberal arts college and I realize that this problem is not an easy one to solve. It puts colleges who are committed both to diversity and to academic excellence in a pickle, particularly a financial pickle. When I discuss this with my college friends during our non-reunion reunions, they point out that while Wesleyan should strive to avoid being hypocritical, changing their admission policies would make it impossible for them to exist and still be committed to the same level of academic excellence. I acknowledge that they may be right.
I have found and you may, too, that Richard Rodriguez’s, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, An Autobiography, may have something to add to this discussion. Among other points he makes is that the affirmative action movement of the 1960s and 1970s missed a major opportunity when it failed to recognize or include class and only focused on race. I fear that institutions of higher education continue to make that mistake. From Rodriguez:
"The civil rights movement in the North depended upon an understanding of racism derived from the South. Here was the source of the mistaken strategy--the reason why activists could so easily ignore class and could consider race alone as a sufficient measure of social oppression. In the South, where racism had been legally enforced, all blacks suffered discrimination uniformly. . . From the experience of southern blacks, a generation of Americans came to realize with new force that there are forms of oppression that touch all levels of a society. . . the movement extended to animate the liberation movements of women, the elderly, the physically disabled, and the homosexual. . . . But with this advance. . .it became easy to underestimate or even ignore altogether, the importance of class. Easy to forget that those whose lives are shaped by poverty and poor education (cultural minorities) are least able to defend themselves against social oppression, whatever its form."
Rodriguez, as a well-educated and middle-class Hispanic, was able to benefit from programs designed for Hispanic menial laborers who had no chance of accessing the college education that Rodriguez did. He argues that improvements in the lives of disadvantaged students requires that their parents have jobs and decent housing and that to succeed the students need a healthy diet, safe neighborhoods, and good teachers, and a reform of primary and secondary education with something like a national literacy campaign for children of the poor. So, yes, ideas like Rodriguez’s do let Wesleyan and other institutions of higher education like it off the hook. But not entirely.
Just as Wesleyan was a pioneer in committing to diversity, in emphasizing social justice, I'd like to hope they could at least try to be a pioneer once again, to be the pioneer that endeavors to help narrow the huge gaps that have developed in our increasingly stratified American class system. The grants help and are a great first step, but because so few low-income students can actually gain admission, I question the extent to which they are actually used by those students. No matter how diverse racially and geographically the student body seems to be, in order to be truly committed to diversity, equality, and social justice, Wesleyan must change their admissions policies and must get out of the US News and World Report ratings game. Otherwise, no matter how much they're marketing themselves as part of the meritocracy, Wesleyan is still the same elitist animal. The institution may be dressed in drag and Birkenstocks with socks, but beneath the surface, it’s still concerned about dropping a few rankings.
Why can't Wesleyan do something in the spirit of what the Texas legislature did in 1997 when it passed HB 588, a.k.a., the Top 10% Rule, which gave any Texas student graduating in the top ten percent of their high school class automatic admission to Texas's public universities, no matter their S.A.T. scores? According to Peter Sacks, ". . . the top ten percenters perform as well or better in university classrooms than peers entering UT Austin with SAT scores hundreds of points higher." Why not do what the University of California Board of Regents and its president, Richard C. Atkinson, did from 1995 to 2003? As voters demanded they do with Prop 209, they let go of considering race and gender in admissions, and called for the university to get rid of the SATs as a criteria for admission. According, again, to Peter Sacks, GPAs and test scores were still two of the items of the fourteen criteria used in the revised admissions process, but so were the level of difficulty level of high school courses, students' talents and "achievements on real-world projects," as well as the "students' ability to overcome obstacles of poverty and social class." Wesleyan could replace the problematic SAT test with the SAT subject tests instead, look at applicants’ records against the course offerings the neighborhood schools have to offer, and add an essay to the application where students are asked to demonstrate how they've challenged themselves and engaged during high school to the fullest extent possible.
When I have discussed this with friends and family, besides expressing their outdated belief that admissions to American colleges and universities are a meritocratic process, some have questioned, "Well, can those students do the work?" Well, perhaps not immediately, but I believe those students are capable of doing the work. Why not establish summer institutes for those students? Why not change the matriculate-in-four-years policy Wesleyan currently has and take the stigma out of taking five years to finish? Why not hire people in the admissions office or change the job descriptions of some of the current ones to have them reach out to the inner city, inner loop suburban, and rural public schools? Employ instructors and professors who are committed to rigorous scholarship, excellence in teaching, and a commitment to social and class equality? There's certainly no shortage of competition on the academic job market. If revamping their admissions processes is too much, well-endowed institutions at least have the resources to start quality community colleges.
I know that this exercise is a bit of a gimmick and that I probably sound like some of your naively idealistic classmates. I know that taking such steps would be financially tough for Wesleyan, but maybe if Wesleyan headed in this direction, similar schools would follow suit. I'd like to see Wesleyan get back into the business of educating and out of the business of branding. To stop simply marketing the ideals of social justice and diversity and to start practicing them. Otherwise, at least Wesleyan should be up front about what kind of institution it is and what its priorities are. Ask your supervisors to throw me a bone, and I'll start giving you the twenty-five dollars a year I've been withholding. In the meantime, I'm going to give my time, attention, and money to educational institutions who are doing the good work I know Wesleyan is capable of doing.
Good luck on your end-of-semester exams and happy holidays.
Rachel Levy '95