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A response to an angry alum (#1013)

Topics/tags: Grinnell, long

Yesterday, Grinnell’s Trustees decided not to allow the union to expand. As is often the case, many alumni are quite frustrated, some enough so that they have decided not to give to Grinnell. One of the many Grinnell alumni I care about posted a long rant about the issue on Facebook. I told them that I would do my best to respond to their points. I did so last night on Facebook and thought I should also do so in the form of a musing. I have included their text with their permission [1].

I will start by saying that I love Grinnell. I’ve taught here for more than twenty years. I’ve sent two sons to the College. I’ve given my own money to the College, regularly. I am also open in my critiques of the College: The inability of some administrators to understand that a changing student population requires budget changes, the failure of the President and the Trustees to increase the size of the tenure-line faculty, the imposition of rules that impinge upon self-governance, buildings that do not meet their stated purpose, things like that.

In case it’s not clear, the alum’s words are the italicized text and my responses are the Roman text, indented, as block quotes. I have updated my responses a bit from the original.

In response to the Grinnell College Board’s open letter regarding union expansion, dated 8 February 2020 and available here:

Dear Grinnell & Board,

I have unanimously decided to extend my complete financial boycott of the College and my campaign to encourage others to do the same indefinitely.

I am sorry that you have chosen to boycott the College. I am even sorrier that you are encouraging others to do the same. I hope that I can get you to reconsider these decisions. Perhaps my responses will help you and others.

The institution has become hypocritical in the extreme, with its administration and trustees now far astray from a Grinnell I feel loyalty to or would be proud to be associated with in the future. Since donor numbers seem to be one of the few things the Trustees can be relied upon to care about, I must now take the sad step of doing everything in my power to get their attention with my checkbook (or its absence). My donations have not amounted to much yet, but they’ve been regular and increasing.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, failing to give to the College does not seem to be a way to affect the Trustees or the President. I’m pretty sure that even if every alum stopped giving, it would not affect their behavior.

That said, they have been known to listen. They won’t always do what you or I would want, but they do take concerns seriously. They have certainly taken many issues associated with the union to heart, and are making sure that we have clearer ways for students to raise issues about their work environment and that Grinnell is affordable.

More importantly, neither the Trustees nor the Administration are the College. They may run parts of the College, and determine how funding is distributed. However, in the end, the thing we think of as The College is primarily the faculty, the students, and the staff who interact directly with the students. The Grinnell faculty remain committed to providing a top-notch education for our students. Our students remain committed to the world at large, enthusiastic about a wide variety of issues, even a bit wild at times.

At Saturday’s open-listening session, the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees noted that, as a percentage of the budget, Grinnell spends more on financial aid than almost any school in the nation. They seem strongly supportive of need-blind admission and of providing a Grinnell-quality education to talented students, regardless of their ability to pay. I even heard them acknowledge that, given the demographics of the K-12 population, we should not expect to be able to make much of a change in the number or percentage of domestic full-pay students we get.

I’ll also note that if alums fail to give, the biggest effect will likely be on our students; we’ll have to cut back on the things we offer, or we’ll have to cut the number of high-need students we accept, or both [2].

In my decade-and-a-half of involvement with the College, I know that the answer from the Board as to why they’ve made this choice will be that their job is to put the long-term health of the College foremost.

That is typically what Trustees are asked to do. They are supposed to plan for the future. I appreciate that they are thinking about how we remain need-blind. And I’ve thought about the trend lines [3]; while two billion is a lot of money, it won’t be enough unless we continue to bring in donations. It may take twenty years, it may take a bit less, it may take a bit more. But eventually, we won’t be able to rely only on interest on the current endowment to maintain Grinnell’s quality of education.

More importantly, I didn’t hear long-term health as the primary reasons for their decision not to expand. Rather, it was an interest in avoiding the impact of NLRB rules and a feeling that the issues raised should be addressed by changes in financial aid.

I ask you: what is the College that you are trying to preserve?

The three (alumni) Trustees that I heard from want to preserve the College they love, a place where talented students are challenged and supported.

It’s obviously not the buildings you’re so gleefully renovating at great, often unnecessary expense (while trying to stoke worries about the College’s financial health).

While I don’t agree with all of the building projects, many are necessary. Take the HSSC, for example. The social studies and humanities needed better teaching spaces. Should the Trustees have gone so overboard in this project? In an age in which students are moving further and further away from the humanities (and, less so, the social sciences), I like to see them doubling down on these areas. I just wish they’d do it with faculty lines, too.

The Admissions Center? I will admit that I’m frustrated by that building, particularly since we built the Chrystal Center as an admissions building. I think the Trustees who led that project should volunteer to fund the cost of the new Admissions Center.

Renovating dorms, which happens to a dorm or three every year? I’d like our students to have good places to live.

New dorms, downtown? We haven’t gotten far enough on these for me to say much sensible. I like the idea of connecting some students more to the community. I like the idea of dorms with apartment-style living, in which students (presumably) don’t have to be on meal plans.

The athletic complex? It feels excessive to me. But it gets used, a lot. And, at least while she was here, I know Jen Jacobsen worked hard to make sure that every Grinnell student felt comfortable using it. It’s a path to wellness. It could also be a path to community; I know my students find themselves surprised at how much they enjoy cheering for classmates.

Renovating Mears for Student Health and Wellness? The Forum is a horrible place for health and wellness: dingy, underground, too small. I probably wouldn’t have chosen Mears, but I’m glad that they are moving SHAW.

Is it the 10-figure-and-growing endowment?

See above. We need that endowment to preserve Grinnell.

Is it the faculty that you have failed to grow in step with the ballooning student body?

The size of the student body has not changed much of late. Their interests have. I want to see the Faculty grow not so much because of a change in the number of students, but rather because we need to ensure that there are enough faculty to support the high-interest areas (e.g., CS) while still allowing important disciplines to continue in an appropriate level at Grinnell (e.g., Classics, Theatre and Dance).

Is it the administration, which has grown in headcount under President Kington’s leadership at a greater rate than (approximately) the students or faculty combined?

I share your concerns. But I also see the need for some of the growth. We need people to deal with added red tape imposed upon colleges and universities. Our students benefit from an expanded Office of Careers Life and Services; I’d like to make sure that students are well employed when they leave Grinnell, or able to go on to Graduate School, or whatever is appropriate for them. I support the expansion of Disability Services and of staff in other diversity-related areas. I’ve also heard an argument that the Grinnell of your time was under-staffed, making some growth necessary [4].

Or perhaps the slew of consultants he has continued to bring in, which in turn continue to encourage solving problems with more money and more consultants?

Believe it or not, but this has gotten better than in Kington’s early years. I don’t particularly like consultants; I don’t think they’ve always been needed, but some advice has been useful.

To your specific points from your open letter:

[…]we are proud to have supported the formation of the country’s first independent union for undergraduate students[…]

I cannot take seriously that you are proud to have supported a union when you have engaged notorious union-busting law firms and forced students to choose between pursuing an NLRB appeal and risking the right of undergraduates anywhere in the US to unionize.

Few undergraduates have unionized anywhere in the country. Most that are unionized belong to an undergraduate/graduate union. The real risk was to graduate unions. But I’m not sure what option the Trustees had; if they opposed the expansion of the union for what they considered good reasons, an NLRB appeal seemed to be their only option. Perhaps the union put people at risk by pushing hard for an expansion they knew the administration opposed, even though they lacked the resources or affiliation to bring a real fight to the NLRB.

The Board takes seriously concerns raised by students and to the extent there are any gaps in meeting student financial needs, College leadership should and does take responsibility for addressing those needs.

It is true that the College can be extraordinarily generous with financial aid and creates opportunities for many students to attend that would not otherwise be able to. However, the College’s practice of considering work-study aid perpetuates classism and creates two very different Grinnell experiences.

Nearly every school in the nation considers work-study a form of aid. (Well, maybe not Berea and the schools like it; some religious schools that don’t want to follow other Federal guidelines may also avoid work-study.) Grinnell differs from many in that it does not cap the hours work-study students can work (well, except at twenty, and no work-study assignment expects that many). But I agree, work-study based aid does make things more difficult for students who must work as opposed to those who choose to work. Of course, many students who choose to work, even though they are not on work-study, must still work to afford Grinnell,

While I agree that work-study is problematic, I don’t have a great solution. I believe work-study money comes from the government, not from the College. Or at least some of it comes from the government. It would be hard to do away with. But perhaps we could consider requiring every student to work a certain number of hours.

This is worsened by Grinnell’s continued practice of awarding merit aid in part based on athletic achievement (which I believe violates NCAA Division III rules, a subject of another rant),

I have not heard of us tying merit aid to athletic achievement. Students who I know were recruited as athletes certainly weren’t required to participate in athletics and I know many who chose not to. I also know many athletes who need to work as much as the College permits along with their athletic experience. I worry that they must stack practices on work on a 48-hour class workload.

creating a two-tiered Grinnell experience in which students (mostly the very wealthy) have only academics and extracurriculars to focus on while their meals are prepared and served by fellow students (not peers strictly) from less-privileged backgrounds who receive the same classroom experience, more-or-less, but must spend hours working their asses off for their aid.

There are very few students at Grinnell who one would classify as the very wealthy. I will also don’t know the distribution of student work hours and how it correlates with need. I think the College is working on gathering these data.

I argue that a compassionate school would recognize that homework, athletics, clubs, and hell just chilling (sorry, networking) are an essential part of the full college experience, and endeavor to make that full experience available to all students.

I have the same concerns about our workload. I’ve mused about it recently

Instead, I see an institution perpetuating inequality and snobbishly telling those doing the landscaping, cooking the meals, and cleaning the athletic equipment that they should be grateful. When these same (again, largely less-privileged) students attempt to tell you that their needs are not being met, your response is to tell them that you are meeting their needs. While you’re at it maybe you should switch the lighting back to gas.

Grinnell does not require that work-study students work in the dining hall, or the mailroom, or the athletic center. They can be class mentors, research assistants, library helpers, lifeguards (whoops; I guess that’s in the athletic center), and more. My experience has been that the union has made this division worse, rather than better: Because the dining services jobs pay more than other jobs on campus, many high-need students choose them over the more educationally oriented jobs.

I even heard the Trustees acknowledge that it should be easier for all students to choose the more productive jobs. They’ve pushed the administration to ensure that all jobs get openly advertised, ensuring that a job doesn’t just go to a student privileged enough to know about it and to know the person hiring.

With expansion to cover all student workers being the stated ultimate UGSDW goal, we believe the academic character of the College and health of student-faculty relationships would be materially harmed and complicated by expansion.

Respectfully, did you talk to the faculty about this? You don’t mention consulting them in your letter – only the administration.

They did not talk to the faculty as a whole about this. They certainly talked to Dean Harris and likely had some conversations with Executive Council. I, like many faculty, am frustrated by how much we were left out of the early conversations.

I believe that the relationships can be harmed; not so much by the union, but by the NLRB requirements that accompany union work. I saw that during the expansion attempt, when faculty were muzzled because anything we said could be interpreted as an attempt to stop the union. Rules on seniority, limits on rehiring dismissed workers, rules on off the clock time, and more would likely negatively affect mentor, tutor, and research assistant positions.

I agree that your actions and those of the Kington administration in this matter have harmed the academic character of the college and the student-administration relationships.

I don’t dispute that it has affected student-administration and faculty-administration relationships. I’m not sure that it’s affected the academic character of the College.

None of the faculty I have spoken to have expressed any misgiving about the union. In fact, I suspect that the faculty’s opinion of anything that improves the lives of their students who are also employees – like say better pay & hours – will win the faculty’s support for its tendency to allow students to focus more on academics.

Many faculty don’t speak openly about the union. At first, it was because of the NLRB/legal restrictions. More recently, I think it’s because of concerns about how their responses will be interpreted. But I’ve heard many who very much worry about the expansion of the student worker union, even if they strongly support graduate student unions and professional unions.

I expect most faculty would support better pay and fewer hours for student workers. But that doesn’t have to come from a union. For example, a union is unlikely to affect summer MAP stipends or the amounts we give to students on unpaid internships. Those are both issues I consider very important.

Strangely, the students might also find other productive uses for the time they currently spend lobbying the administration to live the values it sells.

The Trustees made the same point in the open forum. They don’t think that students should have to negotiate to afford Grinnell. They agree that it’s a problem that financial aid falls short for some students and are trying to address it in other ways.

We believe union expansion would muddle the charge to Grinnell’s Student Government Association to serve as elected representatives of the entire student body, and diminish the important shared leadership role SGA plays on campus.

How? This feels like a scare-tactic; classic slippery-slope argument. As mentioned above, not all students are employees. Actually, I’m not going to justify this with further response until you answer this question: How would the expansion of an extant union undermine or muddle the SGA?

The union has already muddled the leadership role SGA plays on campus. It used to be that the SGA was the primary voice for students in interactions with the Board of Trustees. (There’s also the open forum, but that’s a separate thing.) Now, they expect to hear from both SGA and the Union. While I think the Union has raised some points that SGA seems to have failed to raise, including not only some that you have raised, but also issues of racialized treatment in some jobs on campus, I’m not sure that the union deserves a voice any more than, say, the International Students group, the First-Gen group, or a cohort of students of color.

When you’ve answered that, you can also let me know if you’ve asked any current or recent (let’s say this millennium) SGA elected representatives how they feel.

That one I don’t know.

We will need the continued support of our alumni as we study and implement meaningful solutions to students’ concerns.

This is how I’m supporting you. Call it tough-love, call it an intervention. I’m telling you you’re way, way off the track you should be on here. I know I’m not the only one saying and thinking this. Listen to all of your alumni, and take all of the support – not just the ones with a spot for endorsement on the back. Besides, a pissed-off younger alumnum now is a yawning hole in the Asa Turner fund later.

Support doesn’t necessarily mean money. Support can include thoughtful comments on the underlying issues that need to be addressed. For example, I’ve commented on the inequity caused by our pay rate for summer MAPs and our failure to appropriately support summer internships. Your point about how work-study affects students is good; perhaps you have ideas on how the College could better deal with the issue. You would support the Trustees and the College by sharing these ideas.

But money helps, too. Donate to the food pantry until we find a way to make it unnecessary. Work with a group of alums to help fund ninth-semester teaching students. Donate to scholarships. Donate to scholarships. Donate to scholarships. If you’re worried about merit aid, insist that they only be used for needy students.

If I can also be of support by expanding upon or clarifying any of this, I welcome direct contact from representatives of the College.

Just to be clear, I am not writing as a representative of the College. These opinions are my own. I am happy to hear further expansion or clarification. I’ll probably respond. I am not sure whether any will contact you directly, it may depend on how you sent this missive.

Please remove me from all mailing lists, email lists, and most importantly donor appeals.

Sorry, I’m keeping you on the CS alums mailing list. And I’ll still send students your way for advice.

Don’t call me – I’ll call you if Grinnell College shows signs of again becoming an institution that I’m proud to be associated with and support.

I’m sad that you are not proud to be associated with Grinnell. I am. I’m proud that we provide a top-notch education to students who could not otherwise afford one. I’m proud that we don’t limit the number of students who get financial aid. I’m proud that we attract amazing students who I am thrilled to be able to teach. I’m proud that we maintain the open curriculum and some semblance of self-gov. I’m proud of the alumni who I have taught, even if I don’t always agree with them. I’m proud that we have a Dean who is firmly committed to understanding the issues that prevent students from thriving at Grinnell and addressing those issues. I’m proud of my colleagues in the faculty and on staff who work hard to provide a learning environment for our students.

Are there things about Grinnell that I’m not proud of, or perhaps even ashamed of? Certainly. But I accept that things I love can have flaws, even big flaws. I know that my family loves me, even though I’m a hoarder. And they may even be proud of me at times.

I hope to see you proud of Grinnell once again, even if it is flawed.

[1] They tell me that they have released their work under a CC0 license.

[2] See tomorrow’s musing on trend lines or something like that.

[3] More on that in tomorrow’s musing.

[4] Yup, I plan to muse about the increase in staff, too. However, that musing will likely be on hold for at least a week.

Version 1.0 released 2020-02-09.

Version 1.0.1 of 2020-02-09.