Rodney King was on to something. Over 20 years ago, when we were far less divided than we were today, the call for others to simply get along sounded so reasonable. But why can't we do it?
This past week has been filled with story after story, photo after photo, rally after rally about an issue impacting a group expressing opposition, outrage or calling for change. These concerns range from racial inequity to historical legacy. Depending on whom you talk to, these concerns are either completely bogus, or long overdue.
Case in point: The Black Justice League at Princeton called for the university to remove Woodrow Wilson's name from all buildings on campus, including the School of Public Policy and International Affairs, as well as deleting the dining hall mural which bears his likeness. Woodrow Wilson, former Princeton University president, father of modern Public Administration and 28th president of the United States was a "racist bigot", the BJL claims, and campus leadership must act immediately to remedy their concerns.
In a article written for the Daily Princetonian, one of the leaders of the BJL presents a scathing indictment of Wilson, in addition to Princeton's "white-focused, white-centered" history. This piece served as the basis for the demands the BJL had for University President Christopher Eisgruber. Both Eisgruber and Dean of the College Jill Dolan met with members of the BJL to hear their concerns. Both Eisgruber and Dolan agreed to establish a "cultural space" for African-American students but would not agree to the other demands.
Students at other colleges and universities, including the University of Chicago, have been vocal about their concerns and presented demands to school administrators. Much of the conversation has been infused with visceral attacks and threats of violence.
All of this got me thinking about my own years in college.
As a member of the class of '89, I recall several conversations with my fellow students about all the work we had done to get into college. Long before computers, smart phones and Starbucks, everyone I knew spoke of long nights studying (again, all without any help from Google Scholar) and writing papers (on a Smith-Corona using Liquid Paper and carbon paper). Most of us had applied to multiple schools and were grateful to have landed where we did.
Our campus was small, about 1,200 students, and faculty and administrators knew students by name. If we had a concern or idea, we could simply approach them in the dining hall (yes, there was only) or knock on their door during office hours. There was little to no contention when we discussed an issue, disputed a grade or presented a difference perspective. Students respected faculty and faculty respected students.
I'll admit that the last 80's were indeed a different time. What bothers me most about the recent campus activity is less the method of initiating a larger conversation and more what appears to be a misplaced sense of entitlement.
The college admissions process has become intensely competitive, with the acceptance rate at many of the Ivy League schools governing around 8%. This means that for every 100 college seniors that apply for a spot in the upcoming freshman class, roughly 92 students will have to manage disappointment.
Most college seniors apply to more than one college and are accepted to more than one, affording them the gift of choosing where they will matriculate. In an infinitesimal percentage of cases, no student is forced to accept an invitation to join a college.
On top of that, some of the Ivy League schools no longer charge for tuition, room and board for students whose families make $50,000 or less annually. So, it is feasible that a student of color could be accepted by an Ivy League school and attend at no charge to them, aside from any travel expenses. Where I come from that's called the Golden Ticket.
I was able to attend college by stringing together enough money through several different sources: financial aid from the school, a Pell grant, an on-campus job, off-campus catering and babysitting gigs and taking out a private bank loan when I came up short. All told, it took me eight years to pay off those loans. I'm proud that I paid back every penny and know how grateful I am to have been given the opportunities I had.
So when I see some students on campuses today stating their demands of an institution which is providing them with a world-class education and all the benefits being an alum will afford, I pause. Were any of these students required to enroll in their college? Did they have another option? Perhaps, but maybe not one as prestigious as their Ivy League offer. Who could blame them?
But here's this thing: since when is everyone entitled to everyone's else opinion? What happened to having reverence for the generations of students and faculty who came become you landed on campus, forging the institution you chose to be a part of? When did it become acceptable to be disrespectful to an entire academic eco-system that has survived for, in some cases, centuries without your presence? Why must a whole institution change who they are and what they do to meet the needs of a few? Every applicant knows what they are getting into. It's important to apply wisely.
In the end, equity is about opportunity, not outcome. Everyone is owed a chance, not a victory. Equal and same are not interchangeable terms. Tails do not wag dogs.
Thankfully, we have the freedom of choice. If you don't like your employer, you can (theoretically) leave. If you don't feel supported by your family of origin, you can create your family of choice. And if you don't like Princeton, then don't apply or accept their invitation. You will free up a spot for another student who seeks to benefit from the very environment you despise.
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