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On the termination Grinnell’s partnership with the Posse foundation, revisited

This essay is an updated version of an essay I wrote in April 2016. At the time, I had recently learned that Grinnell would be terminating its partnership with Posse. My need to write about the issue was one of the reasons I started this series. In the original essay, I considered both the values of the partnership and my frustrations with the termination. At a subsequent faculty meeting, President Kington and Dean Latham provided some confidential explanation for the termination. If I accept what they gave as background, the decision, while unpleasant, makes sense. But that doesn’t change the long-term value of Grinnell’s partnership with Posse. Hence, I’m revising the original essay.

On Wednesday, 13 March 2016, President Kington sent a notice to the campus that Grinnell would be terminating our partnership with the Posse foundation. Grinnell will, fortunately, continue its obligation not only to our current Posse students, but to the incoming Posse students in the class of 2016. Many Grinnellians were and are incredibly frustrated by that decision. Faculty, staff, students (a large number students, not just Posse students), alumni, and even former faculty and staff expressed anger at the decision. At this point [1], it’s clear nothing is going to restore our partnership with Posse. We are, instead, turning to other approaches, including a more robust infrastructure for supporting diversity [2], and an increased emphasis on bringing in students through Questbridge and similar programs. Particularly as we look to new directions, it is worth considering the great value our partnership with Posse brought to Grinnell so that we can do our best to replicate those benefits.

Grinnell partnered with the Posse foundation for more than a decade. We partnered with Posse for a wide variety of reasons. Some of those reasons were to benefit students. Our partnership with Posse brings to Grinnell a diverse group of students who are equipped to succeed at Grinnell. Our Posse partnership permits students who could not otherwise afford to attend an institution of Grinnell’s caliber to receive an excellent liberal arts education. Bringing diversity also benefits the other students at the College, because being able to work with a diverse group of peers is a necessary skill in the twenty-first century. We’d tried to do our own recruiting of diverse students before Posse. We found it incredibly difficult to recruit students who would succeed at Grinnell. Our partnership with Posse not only brought in the Posse students, it also advertised Grinnell to students who might not otherwise hear of Grinnell and, because we offer need-blind admissions for domestic students [3].

But the most important benefit from Posse is that Posse brings student leaders to campus. Studies have shown that Posse students are more likely to take on a leadership role than other students. Not all of that leadership is formal; our Posse students help other students, particularly students from underrepresented groups. That has to have a significant effect on more general student success at the College.

For all of these reasons, partnering with Posse made and makes Grinnell a better place.

I am disappointed that the public [4] notification of the termination of our partnership with Posse focused primarily on only one of these issues, and primarily on Posse’s effect on bringing domestic students of color to campus. In terms of diversity, I think that it is equally important that Posse brings students who could not afford to come to Grinnell, and students from geographic locations who would not normally attend a rural school in the middle of Iowa. These are also important kinds of diversity, particularly as we prepare our students to interact with people who think in a wide variety of ways.

The decision to discontinue our relationship with Posse generated an interesting piece in Inside Higher Ed. In response to that piece, Kenneth Briggs critiqued Grinnell for outsourcing recruitment of students. I’ll note that Posse is much more than recruitment; it’s also about preparation. Posse students succeed not just because they have a cohort and a mentor, but because they have worked with the foundation on leadership and study skills in advance of coming to Grinnell. Grinnell certainly does not have experience in that area. Just as we outsource architectural design and legal advice when we lack internal resources, it makes equal sense to outsource recruitment and preparation when we lack the skills and resources to do those things ourselves. I don’t know of another equivalent source, and we haven’t been told about one [5].

I hope that Grinnell will live up to our promises to provide an even better substitute for our partnership with Posse. While I respect my Dean, my President, our Chief Diversity office, and their staff, I find myself worrying about what the future brings. There were some plans made at the end of spring semester, a short meeting in the fall, and a few hires to support diversity. I hope that we’re doing more. Perhaps I shouldn’t worry. The last two major decisions that I’ve worried about – the Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize and the Innovation Fund – have proved useful additions to campus.

But I do worry. I don’t see how we achieve all the important aspects of Posse without making some very significant changes and adding new capabilities that we don’t already have. As I already noted, I see great value in the Posse training program. We have never offered such a program. Posse mentoring by faculty and staff has been an important supplement to Grinnell’s close advising. Given that it was a necessary supplement, I’m not sure what will replace it. Certainly, the PC-POP mentoring program, while a great idea, has not been nearly as successful [6], and I’m not sure where that stands. While the Grinnell-sponsored retreats I have attended have been interesting, I don’t think I’ve been to one as powerful as the Posse Plus retreat [7].

We have big shoes to fill, as it were. I hope we do so quickly.

One of the benefits of the original essay was that it brought me David Feldman ’71 as a reader. As you may know, David is the author of the Imponderables series of books [8]. David also works with the Posse foundation. David has said that he found that my essay was one of the few times that he’d seen someone outside of Posse so clearly articulate the value of Posse. I’m pretty sure that most Grinnell faculty have the same understanding of Posse that I do; I know learned of all of these benefits from my peers.

[1] This point for the revised essay is January 2017.

[2] Or at least more people working to support our diverse students.

[3] By need-blind admissions, I mean that we decide whether or not to accept students without considering their ability to pay, and we meet their full demonstrated financial need. It’s one of the things I love most about Grinnell.

[4] And private. In the faculty meeting, President Kington once again indicated that the primary reason we partnered with Posse was to bring additional domestic students of color to campus.

[5] One of the obvious alternatives is Questbridge. I will say that I’ve very much appreciated the students I’ve met who are Questbridge scholars. It’s also very clear that Questbridge and Posse target very different groups of students and prepare them in different ways.

[6] I say that as a former PC-POP mentor.

[7] I hope I get to go to one at least more Posse Plus retreat.

[8] I’m pretty sure that the Imponderables books helped develop middle son’s love of strange trivia.

Version 1.0.1 of 2017-01-22.