Rethinking the Rhetoric of Need-Blind Activism
My opinions are built on hearsay and conjecture. However, operating under the belief that political movements of any size have to account for a reasonable amount of both hearsay and conjecture, I am writing to add my admittedly uneducated voice to the controversy surrounding Wesleyan’s decision to discontinue support of its 100-percent need-blind admissions process.
I became interested in this year’s scandal when I learned that it was not about chalk. “Need-blind?” I would say, “Not chalk at all!” Others would agree eagerly. But as I delved into the specifics of the student activists’ stance, I found myself becoming confused. What I had thought to be their platform, namely that the need-blind program at our school should be strengthened, had become muddled by their rhetoric and methods of activism to the point where I was not sure that I understood the issue well enough to support them. Thus prompted, I began to look at the controversy in an attempt to form my own opinion.
A few weeks ago, some students made a video (perhaps you’ve seen it!) entitled, “Who Would Be Here,” in which students hold up signs denoting the effect the need-blind admissions system had on their own acceptance. One girl held a sign that said that need-blind is practical idealism. I was taken aback. Is this what the issue is, that the administration is denying applicants due to a failure to see a moral imperative? Is the student need-blind movement attempting to teach the University administration’S compassion?
To me, arguments like the one made in the “Who Would Be Here” video imply that the school is anti-need-blind, that the administration is fighting to remove the policy because it doesn’t like those who need it. This must be what the activists are saying, I gathered. Why else would they rest their argument on a moral or sentimental stance? It implies that it is possible for the administration to side with them, and yet the moral failings of the administration have driven them to hurt those not fortunate enough to pay full tuition on their own.
I tried to find evidence of a statement made by President Roth or another administrative spokesman that said that the decision was based in the belief that applicants do not deserve a need-blind system, or some other such thing that would lend itself to that kind of response. I could not find it. So then with whom are the activists arguing? It seems to me that they have created a straw man and have been leveling their focus at him instead. This is problematic. They are projecting non-existent sentiment onto the administration’s decision and distracting themselves and others from the context in which that decision was made, which makes it impossible to engage in a constructive discussion on the subject. How can the administration talk about the issue constructively if its points are being warped or ignored?
Since then, the activists have changed tactics: there was a sit-in at a meeting for the Board of Trustees that decidedly opened focus to include student-administration relations. A group of students decided to attend the meeting with a sign that said “Bring us into the conversation.” This is a simple, assertive message—and it makes sense. But it addresses a separate, larger issue, which this bout of activism highlights but does not treat with the focus it needs. Specificity in action and purpose are really necessary to produce change. Arguing for a student voice in Board decision-making while advocating for need-blind admissions dilutes the case for both issues. What I am afraid of is that this activism will not only be an ineffective catalyst for need-blind-related change, but it will also act as an obstacle for larger changes in student-faculty discourse. It does not matter whether you are right or not; vitriol does not solve anything by itself.
Need-blind admissions is a good thing. It is a waste of time trying to argue that it is a good thing, because no one has said that it isn’t. The only way to move forward with the issue is to address the true reasons for the administration’s decision to move away from need-blind admissions. Sparking discourse is the most important thing. Painting Roth as a villain from the get-go does nothing. If he is wrong, the facts will show it.