Anti-racism failure in a liberal college

My Philadelphia cousin sent me a link to an article from The Philadelphia Inquirer he thought I might find interesting: “Haverford College students launched a strike last fall after a racial reckoning. The impact still lingers”:

“In 1972 … [Haverford’s] Black Student League announced a boycott of campus activities over institutional racism. … Fast forward nearly 50 years: A 2018-19 campus report found that Black and Latino students at Haverford were less likely to feel they had meaningful social interactions on campus and that their academics were well-supported.”

That’s the college where I took my undergraduate degree in 1983. Reading this article makes it look like one thing hasn’t changed since 1983: the student body is still overwhelmingly white. Another hasn’t changed: in spite of its woke rhetoric, Haverford College still hasn’t confronted the systemic racism that was painfully obvious decades ago ago when I was a student.

Sadly, this is probably true of many of the so-called elite liberal arts colleges. As Haverford student Rasaaq Shittu put it in an op-ed piece published in The Inquirer back in July: “Primarily white, outwardly liberal institutions like Haverford have such a long history of talking the talk without living up to it.” Which is another thing that hasn’t changed since my day. No wonder non-white students called for a two-week student strike last fall to protest the systemic racism at Haverford.

However, one thing that has changed since my day is the cost of an education at one of these elite liberal arts colleges. Today’s students at Haverford pay an astonishing $75,000 per year for tuition, room, and board. When I was there, the inflation-adjusted cost was about $17,000 per year, so the inflation-adjusted cost has quadrupled. Thus while I completely agree with the goals of the student strike, I did not agree with one of the strike strategies. The strike organizers asked students to miss two weeks of class, and also to stop eating at the dining center for two weeks, and also to stop working at their campus jobs. If that strike had happened in my day, I wonder if I could have afforded to participate.

And maybe this reveals that another thing has not changed since my time as a student in an elite liberal arts college: as elite institutions, these colleges are pervaded with both racism and classism. Compare the Haverford strike with the Black Panthers, who provided both food and shelter for people in their organization. Or compare the Haverford strike with unions which build up a strike fund so they can give financial assistance to striking workers. This lack of awareness on the part of strike organizers about the financial realities of less affluent students demonstrates the enduring classism of elite liberal arts colleges like Haverford College. Since all oppressions are linked (as we used to say back in my radical days), we should not be surprised that an institution pervaded by unacknowledged racism is also pervaded by unacknowledged classism.

One conclusion: For those of you looking for a college to attend, be wary of elite liberal arts colleges. Very wary. Instead, try looking at community colleges and state university systems, where you can often get excellent teaching (from professors with degrees from excellent graduate schools), in company with a far more diverse student body (from whom you will learn more than from a heterogenous student body), for a hell of a lot less money.

And I will freely admit my bias: My older sister, who is an excellent teacher (I’ve observed her in the classroom and her pedagogical skills are superior to any of my Haverford professors), teaches in a branch campus of Indiana University. Well, maybe that’s not bias, maybe that’s just first-hand information.

One thought on “Anti-racism failure in a liberal college”

  1. Thanks, Dan. FWIW: tuition for 12 to 18 credit hours on our campus is $7,714. Of course living expenses and books and food and transportation add more to this, but it’s really inexpensive to live in Indiana. A decent and safe apartment can be found for $500 or less. And, yes, our campus is diverse. And inclusive. And not classist. Not at all.

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