Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Diversity University, No Longer

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 UPDATEAnd 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


  1. Most would agree that securing the broadest pool of applicants possible is an important part of supporting diversity of all sorts. Indeed, as the article on Pell Grants discusses, the real problem is not in admitting those students -- who they label "high achieving, low income" -- it's in getting them to apply in the first place and believe they can afford to attend if they get in. You don't give Wesleyan enough credit for the affordability piece. The Pell Grant benchmark that you call out is not accurate -- the link you provide is to the "National University" category rankings. Wesleyan is considered a "National Liberal Arts College" and if you look at the same list in that category ( Wesleyan ranks 10th out of 25. As a side note, that percentage has increased from 13% to 18% for the 2010-11 school year.

    Very few schools (and fewer schools Wesleyan's size) have made the commitment to need blind admission and meeting demonstrated need -- primarily because the cost is too high. That policy alone makes a huge difference in the socioeconomic make up of the class. This year, 44% of students received scholarship awards averaging $34,000 -- and many others will get help in the form of work study jobs and subsidized loans. And, that doesn't take into account that the amount charged for tuition remains less than the actual cost per student per year. So even families paying full tuition are being subsidized by endowment performance.

    I agree that I would love to see Wesleyan taking a leadership role in changing policies and perspectives on this entire process, though they are already doing more than you might think. Though I wish it were not so, ultimately the ability to take risks and lead change requires resources -- primarily financial. Unlike state schools, Wesleyan is not receiving state funding and relies on fund raising to make the whole enterprise work -- including supporting the incredible faculty and continuing to make need blind a reality.

    I invite you to engage with Wesleyan -- send them your ideas and ask them the tough questions. Talk to people in the admission office and find out what programs they have and what they think about your concerns regarding the process. Volunteer to be an admission volunteer and make a point to reach out to students you think are not getting the information about these opportunities. If in that process you don't receive the thoughtful and intelligent responses you're looking for, then I think you'll be warranted in your disengagement, but I hope you'll give the school a chance to prove to you that it's a worthwhile investment.

    Channing Kelly '95

  2. Channing I acknowledged the bad link in the post. Thanks for pointing that out. I didn't give Wesleyan enough credit for the affordability piece, for sure.

    Big name state schools are subsidized by their states but at a much lower rat...e than they ever were before (I would, again, refer you to Peter Sacks's book on this)--they are practically private. And schools like Wesleyan do receive small government subsidies in the form of tax-exempt status and the aforementioned Pell Grants, don't they? Also, how much do you think of my contribution would be used to recruit poor kids?

    I agree that if I want things to change I need to actually do something and get involved; I need to earn my right to complain. When I was teaching in DCPS at an inner-city high school, I encouraged some of my top seniors to apply to Wesleyan and they did. I worked with the college counselor, I spent a long time on the recommendation letters and identified myself in them, and I arranged for one of them to meet with me and one of my old professors when he was in town for a conference. None of the students was accepted. Now, I don't question that they were rejected, and that experience alone does not grant me my right to complain, but I felt disappointed that no one except this one professor had reached out, or encouraged me to recruit more students in the future or tried to establish a relationship, given the population I served. I should have done a better job with the connecting with the admissions office myself, but it seemed to me like a bit of an oversight. Also, honestly, the private versus public thing does affect my outlook. If Wesleyan is a business then I feel like it's not a business I want to support since I don't like supporting what I see as elitism. Plus, Wesleyan and schools like it market themselves brands, too much and at the expense of better work. It's hard for me to get behind supporting a brand just because I wore it once, especially when I don't feel comfortable wearing it anymore. Plus, my family did support the institution while I went there. I am very active in my kids' public schools and try to be with local politics, but with a diverse public elementary school, it feels different to be engaged and involved because I see how I am helping a broader section of the population. With Wesleyan, I feel that more of my gift is subsidizing middle to upper class people like me. I want my philanthropy and volunteering to help people less fortunate than me, and I am still not convinced of the extent to which that happens at Wesleyan. Some folks in the neo-liberal school reform movement are trying to move public education more towards being a product using market-based reforms and I don't agree with this (but that's another topic).

  3. (comment continued) Anyway, I haven't completely disengaged. For you, volunteering is a form of engagement. For me, writing is a form of activism and engagement, and so is staying informed. If I were truly disengaged, I wouldn't be a critic. I would think it would be hard for someone in the admissions office to be as objective and critical as a journalist can be and so that's not where I seek my information. Likewise, I'm not sure I want to work at implementing the very policies that I find problematic. Also, I think my energy and money is more urgently needed elsewhere, in public, democratic institutions. But given what you say about Wesleyan's commitment to lower-income students , I will reconsider not giving.

    Finally, I find the current state of access to higher education to be troubling, as well as our country's failure to redress poverty and the increasing gaps between poor and rich. It is partly outrage at these conditions that I am trying to express (and yes, provoke) in my piece of writing and since it was my alma mater and since Wesleyan does market itself as a leader on social justice issues, I picked on it, perhaps unfairly so. It could be that what I want of places like Wesleyan is unrealistic and unreasonable. Maybe what I can't make my peace with is simply the concept of private education, or at the very least the unhealthy manifestations of currently unfettered capitalism in our institutions of higher education.

  4. I agree that there are so many places where money and time are needed and we all have to devote ourselves in the areas we believe will have the most impact. Your critique is a good one for me to hear and consider, since, as you know, I fall perhaps too far to the other side of this debate as a die-hard Wesleyan supporter. As someone who has volunteered to fund raise for the school in the past, it's good to know what's behind the "no" on the other end of the phone or email. And you're right, you never know where your specific dollars actually go. On some level, you do have to support the broader mission and trust the leadership of the institution to chart a path you can endorse even as it evolves.

    I do appreciate your engagement and critique -- no organization improves by simply luxuriating in fawning admiration. I do hope, however, that if you have the opportunity to attend an admission event in your area, or the President comes to speak to alumni, that you will consider going and bringing up some of these questions to hear how they might respond to that critique. Of course those representing Wesleyan will be less objective, but they deserve an opportunity to be party to the conversation and engage in the debate.

  5. And then this from Claire Potter, a Wesleyan professor whose blog I read periodically -- thought it was timely in light of your comments regarding elitism in higher education. Haven't read the underlying links she references, but thought I would drop it to you.

  6. This is all very fragmented and stream of consciousness-y, so please forgive me.

    I think I might have a different take on Wesleyan. See, I was one of the "low income" students that supposedly contributed to the diversity back in the day.

    In a sense, Wesleyan was a tremendously diverse place. My closest circle of friends five different races from four different parts of the country, and everything from me and a Black guy from Brooklyn to two sons of diplomats. (What did we have in common? Dungeons and Dragons, of course... but groups of friends MUST have something in common or they simply fall apart.)

    Nevertheless, diversity is, I think, a matter of perspective. If you're upper middle class/lower upper class from New York or Boston, Wesleyan might seem like it's got quite a bit of diversity, even though a plurality of the students are pretty much just like you. If you're a poor kid from California, though, pretty much the entire school is going to seem like rich people (Almost all y'all were rich from where I stood at the time) from the East Coast. Not so diverse at all, from the "cheap seats".

    So I guess that I understood that, despite being "Diversity University", Wesleyan was nonetheless PRIMARILY a bastion of a certain type of social privilege, and that I was a bit of a guest. My family, may they rest in peace, used to refer to it as "Mike's finishing school".

    That's not to say I wasn't prepared to do the work -- I was plenty prepared. (It was the "willing" part that caused me problems...) Although my high school grades weren't particularly great -- OK, they sucked -- my SAT's were quite good. As with college, the problem then was motivation, not ability or learning.

    I'm exceedingly grateful to Wesleyan for taking a risk on me -- not least because it was the ONLY school that accepted me. But my gratitude is in part because I know I was a risk -- they could have just as easily taken one of their 4.2/1490 community service Manhattan demigods that they reject every year. It would have been a safer bet for them. They saw something they liked in my application, though, and off I went.

    So I don't feel quite the same sense of outrage if the university decides to take fewer risks, if, as some members of Rachel's class once said, Wesleyan in the late 90's became "L.L. Bean-i-fied". From my vantage, extending their assistance and considerable financial generosity was something that they didn't have to do.

    And, frankly, I didn't go to Wesleyan to experience diversity. That's the sort of luxury that you have to be middle- or upper- class to care about in the first place. I went to get a first-class education, and a better future for myself. (I didn't realize that what I was also signing up for was a painful four-year crash-course on middle class mores as part of that "better future", but there it is.) I think that has to be the first mission of the university. A certain amount of risk-taking is a good thing. As I've said elsewhere, I support SES-based affirmative action, but only in small degrees.

    Nonetheless, I think that most of Rachel's suggestions -- outreach, summer programs, etc. -- are well-taken and, funds permitting, would be a good idea. As I said, I'm all for SES-diversity programs.

    I'm not so sure about lifting the four-year cap that Wesleyan has; I think that's a good thing. If you don't have the ability to graduate in four years, given the lax graduation requirements and how ridiculously easy it is to get classes at Wes, then I can't imagine that you have any business attending a school like that. There's stretching the standards and then there's simply abandoning them.

    As for faculty -- well, they could always hire me! I'm going to need a job soon...

  7. Michael,

    What a great comment. You've given me a great deal to think about. Let me take some time and I'll be in touch.


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