Few decisions in recent memory have stirred up as much debate, emotion, and activism as Wesleyan’s decision last year to abandon its need-blind admissions policy in favor of a partially need-aware program. I wish I could tell you about a Wesleyan that was perfect before this decision, but I can’t. It certainly was exhilarating to stand with my entire class at our “Feet to the Fire” common moment event. Wesleyan seemed perfect then, and I was excited to be in a place that seemed to genuinely care about exposing students to perspectives and experiences other than their own and where diversity wasn’t just a slogan but a value upon which policy was founded.
The reality, even before this latest decision, was far more complicated than that happy mirage. Behind the excellent show that the University put on for us stood an institution with a profoundly oppressive relationship with both its current students and the individuals it hoped to one day admit. The University relied, and continues to rely, on an Early Decision policy that constricts the ability of students to compare different financial aid packages, for no other end than obtaining an edge in competition with other schools. Once on campus, students confront a campus security force with a track record of racial profiling and a financial aid policy that attached strings—in the form of loans and work-study jobs—to the aid it provides.
To this litany of slights and degradations, the University recently added another: an end to Wesleyan’s longstanding policy of need-blind admissions. Quietly, during a point in time when most students and faculty were away from campus, Wesleyan enacted a blatantly discriminatory policy, a policy that goes against everything that the administration preaches and students believe in, in its admissions process.
There was considerable blowback from this decision, as you can imagine. Students demonstrated, wrote Wespeaks, and marshaled all of the eloquence and persuasive skills they possessed. The administration did not merely sit back, but instead responded with their own arguments. They made many over the course of the semester, but two stood out in their clarity and first-glance saliency. President Roth claimed that this policy wasn’t actually very different from the one Wesleyan had just abandoned. We had never been need-blind for international students, so while it was regrettable that a few more students had to be added to that category, it wasn’t the existential shift the activists claimed. A second claim, one that very much stemmed from the first, was that this policy wouldn’t be that bad. President Roth repeatedly argued that it just wasn’t that much of a big deal—that its impact would be limited, and that we would hardly notice the difference. Many students, for an entirely different reason, felt the same way. Students that had spent years experiencing the very real inequality that exists at this school (regardless of what the glossy admissions fliers claim) posed a serious question: why should we care about this change? This school already has flaws, and no one bothered to demonstrate against them. Why should we care about this change in policy?
The answer to that question arrived this year in the shape of new, gut-wrenching statistics released by the Office of Admission, statistics that should be terrifying to anyone who cares about our aspirations for the University. The percentage of the freshman class made up of African-Americans fell to 8 percent, a drop that is equal to 27 percent of last year’s five-year peak percentage of 11 percent; the number of first-generation college students fell to 13 percent, which represents a 19 percent drop of last year’s percentage of 16 percent; and most frightening of all, the number of students on grant aid plummeted to 37 percent, a 16 percent drop from last year’s 44 percent.
We now have proof beyond a reasonable doubt, proof provided to us by the University itself, that this is not just another policy shift or another dubious compromise, but rather a change that threatens to destroy Wesleyan’s core values and the diverse community that so many have labored to build, while doing violence to a massive number of current and future students. I know some, including President Roth, will argue that these changes are unrelated. You can judge for yourself, but I think it is difficult to dismiss the effect of a decision to tell applicants that their money may matter just as much as, possibly more than, any brains or talent they can muster.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this issue is about numbers. I can imagine few topics that touch upon more deeply personal issues. It is the person who lives on your hall who was terrified to apply for financial aid because ze was afraid of getting rejected and now has a family laboring under an unfairly heavy financial burden so ze can attend. It is the younger sibling of one of your friends from high school who loves film but hears the words “need-aware” and thinks to zirself, “Wes doesn’t want people like me.” This is not a fight about numbers. It is a deeply personal struggle over our friends, our values, and the character of this school that we all care about so much.
President Roth, you asked us to hold your feet to the fire on this policy. You asked us to be the loyal opposition, to stay on your back and in your face to ensure that clawing our way back to a need-blind admissions policy remained your first priority. In light of these terrifying numbers, and the myriad human tragedies that they signify, I’m asking you, and all of us, to work harder, smarter, whatever it takes to not let our school become one more bastion of the unearned privilege we’re working so hard to eradicate.
Blinderman is a member of the Class of 2014.