From the top, the 2015 undergraduate veteran count U.S. News’s top ranked most highly selective colleges: Yale, four; Harvard, unknown; Princeton, one; Williams, one.
So what? Every day this slap in the face to the potential of men and women who have served the nation in war rolls right down to my door at Bunker Hill Community College (which has about 500 veterans). These are men and women who too often believe the message sent by the top four -- that veterans can’t do the work at selective colleges. I do not tell these men and women they should go to these colleges. I do suggest they take a look. That suggestion is a hard sell. Isn’t a point of education, most highly selective colleges, everyone, to show students how to test their limits?
The big picture here: more than one million veterans have used or are using the 2008 Post-9/11 GI Bill.
More than the most selective salute and follow the big four listed above. The American Association of Community Colleges has no recent or planned programs I could find. AACC President Walter Bumphus did not reply to queries for clarification. The American Council on Education, however, front and center on its web page, has an invitation to a free webinar at 2 p.m. EST tomorrow, “Preparing Military Veterans for Leadership and Success in Higher Education.” The talk is by the leaders of the Warrior-Scholar Project, an astonishing free academic boot camp for veterans that blows the roof off the generally low expectations we, the people, have for low-income students generally.
John Around Him, a Lakota Sioux in my very first section of College Writing I, a U.S. Army veteran who drove a tank in the invasion of Baghdad, handed in a paper I couldn’t improve. I suggested he check out Dartmouth. He has graduated from Dartmouth. He is teaching at-risk high school students, which he once was, just what he wanted to do when he first arrived at Bunker Hill. When he has visited other veterans at Bunker Hill to encourage them, I often ask if he remembers when I first suggested he check out Dartmouth. John smiles and turns to the other veterans. “I do remember,” he says. “I thought Professor Sloane was out of his (expletive deleted) mind.”
The sachems and panjandrums and powers at Yale, Harvard, Princeton and certainly Williams, where I went, seem to agree that I am out of my (expletive deleted) mind. That’s because I keep objecting to their baseless, lazy and continued public slap in the face of all the student veterans I know. And because I object to institutions with tax-free endowments collecting dividends and gains to spend on luxurious buildings while off-loading the harder work, with prejudice, to underfunded public community colleges.
Columbia University’s School of General Studies continues on the good side as the leader in reaching out to veterans. This fall, 408. Read for yourself this essay by one of their student veterans. Georgetown enrolls 58. At Wesleyan University, the number of undergraduate veterans has risen from two to 11 to 22. Wesleyan joined the Posse Foundation Veterans Program, which helps Wesleyan find, prepare and enroll 10 veteran freshmen each fall.
Vassar College, new to the list, was the first selective college to join Posse and now has 30 undergraduate veterans. And Dartmouth, with 17 veterans and always a leader in encouraging undergraduate veterans, will enroll its first Posse in September 2016. The Posse colleges, then, enrolling 10 new veterans each year, will have 40 undergraduate veterans. Keep in mind this year: Yale, four; Harvard, unknown; Princeton, one; and Williams, one.
I can’t say exactly how this year’s total, 643, compares with previous years because this year the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Rochester, Cornell, Harvard, Swarthmore and Oberlin had no answers or declined to reply to many requests. The saddest mystery is that every year so many of the self-described most highly selective colleges have no interest in the number of undergraduate veterans enrolled. Until I ask, almost none have made a count of their own. Penn hasn’t counted and reported that no one would be counting for another week or two.
So what? This lack of interest means at least that most presidents at these most highly selective colleges have no plans to welcome veterans with dinner or a cookout. Most troubling is the possibility that these colleges, then, have no idea if individual veterans need help on the torrent of paperwork to access GI Bill benefits or the obstacles within the VA health system.
Penn and the rest might take a professional-development trip to Rhode Island to visit Brown. The most enthusiastic, forward-thinking statements this year are from Karen McNeil, of Brown's Office of Student Veterans and Commissioning Programs.
“We have 10 undergraduate veteran students, which makes them 0.25% of the student body,” McNeil said in an email. “But, on the bright side, five of those students are new this year, so there is progress being made, and I'm hopeful these numbers will be improving fast and far.” She added a simple IT step that the other colleges surveyed should check out. This year, again, several colleges sent last-minute revisions to their veteran counts. “Our veterans are specially coded in our registrar's computer systems, so we know exactly who they are and can track retention and graduation rates.”
Also new on the landscape this year is the growing numbers of groups working to give veterans the confidence to apply to selective colleges.
Beth Morgan, director of Service to School (S2S), reports that 167 veterans planning to transfer to four-year colleges in 2016 and 2017 have accepted the free admission and application advising S2S offers. S2S advisers in past years have helped 127 veterans win admission to top business schools and eight to top law schools.
“S2S really jumped into the undergraduate space this past admissions cycle because this was an area of great need,” Morgan said in an email. “Helping active-duty service members get into the best school possible to maximize their GI Bill benefits is our mission.” Twenty veterans helped by S2S are undergraduates this fall at colleges including Yale, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, USC and Columbia, according to Morgan.
Other news this year is the number of veterans who are succeeding in rigorous academic programs. This is evidence to begin a rebuttal of the belief expressed once to me by an Ivy League president: “Veterans can’t do the work.”
At the urging of William Treseder, a Stanford Marine veteran, Stanford added a free, six-credit program -- called Stanford 2 to 4 -- for veterans at community colleges to its summer school. The program immerses veterans in the academic skills required for success in college. Ten veterans, including two from Bunker Hill, attended last summer. This summer, 2016, will be the third summer for the Stanford program. Stanford staff report that veterans are succeeding.
More than 20 undergraduate veterans, too, have succeeded in the nine-week summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Kit Parker, a Harvard professor, U.S. Army major and two-time Afghanistan veteran, runs the labs that host the program. Veterans, many from Bunker Hill, have spent the summer working alongside … students from most highly selective colleges. Harvard has invited all the BHCC veterans to return in the fall to continue working in the labs. With a Harvard postdoc, one co-wrote a paper that they presented at an academic conference. That veteran is studying engineering at Northeastern.
The Posse Foundation Veterans Program, with 50 undergraduate veterans enrolled so far, is succeeding. Catharine Hill, president of Vassar, and Debbie Biall, founder of the Posse Foundation, wondered if the Posse model -- cohorts or posses of about 10 prepared low-income, urban high school students attending a selective college together -- would work for veterans. Vassar this year has three veteran posses -- freshman, sophomore and junior -- and Wesleyan two. (Disclaimer: Hill is a friend, and we have worked together on veterans’ issues.)
“Volunteering to serve in our country's military services shouldn't preclude attending some of our most selective colleges and universities,” said Hill in an email. “These schools offer a superb education, with high graduation rates, for which our veterans should be eligible. We are in our third year of the Posse program, and these students have been a great addition to our student body.”
One hundred veterans over the past three summers have completed the two-week academic boot camp that the Warrior-Scholar Project offers on the campuses of selective colleges. Faculty from the hosting colleges teach the seminars. “We track our graduates,” said the program’s founder, Jesse Reising. “One hundred percent who have completed WSP and started school have stayed in school.” I’ve watched veterans debate Thucydides and de Tocqueville.
I asked the colleges in the survey this year, too, about recognizing Veterans Day. These universities -- Yale, Princeton, Washington University, Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Stanford, Chicago -- have substantial ceremonies for Veterans Day. The Princeton ceremony will close with a benediction from the university’s Muslim chaplain. Columbia veterans also have a float in the New York City Veterans Day Parade. The universities do have veterans, often hundreds, as graduate students. (A bachelor’s degree and a good academic record are required for these graduate schools. My interest is in the veterans who have not been to college.)
Trinity College will have “Veterans Day: A Sacred Conversation,” a discussion between the college chaplain and Trinity students who have served in the armed forces. Carleton reported that the chaplain sends an all-campus email inviting students, faculty and staff to light a candle for veterans in the chapel. Williams said it might run a story on the single veteran there on the college web page.
And this year I asked a veteran at one of the most highly selective colleges what he makes of the potential for veterans at these colleges. “I would challenge all of my fellow veterans at every level of education to strive to do one better than where they are at present,” said Chad Rairie, a Marine veteran with two Afghanistan deployments who is vice president of the Dartmouth Undergraduate Veterans Association.
“If veterans are at a junior college, apply to a four-year. If they are at a four-year, apply to transfer to a better one. If you don’t think you will get in, fill out the application anyway. The worst that can happen is someone tells you no,” Rairie said. “But if the rare opportunity should arise where you are accepted to a school like Dartmouth, seize the opportunity and don’t look back! Remember, you miss 100 percent of the shots you never take. So take a shot.”
For next year, I’ll bet then on the applications of 167 veterans in the S2S pipeline, on the 100 alumni from Warrior-Scholar, and on all from Stanford 2 to 4 and the Harvard REU to flood these laggard most highly selective colleges with applications. I’ll hope these applications, packed with evidence that veterans can do the work, may open some doors.
Student outrage erupted at Yale University recently when the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s call for students to be thoughtful in their choice of Halloween costume was denigrated by the faculty leaders of one of Yale’s residential colleges. Tensions were further exacerbated by reports of racist behavior at a fraternity party on campus during Halloween weekend.
Having spent 2013-14 at Yale as an American Council on Education Fellow, I know how deeply President Peter Salovey, Provost Benjamin Polak and Dean Jonathan Holloway care about equity and inclusion. It was especially disheartening to see this story in the national news just when Yale is launching an initiative to increase faculty diversity.
The IAC sought to remind students to be sensitive in their choice of attire; its message stressed that wearing costumes embodying stereotypes of racial or ethnic groups indicates to peers from those demographics that they are neither welcome nor respected.
Responding that “we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween,” Yale faculty member and Silliman College associate master Erika Christakis objected that it was not educators’ place to judge a student’s costume, that costumes are protected free speech, that college should be “a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience” and that it is up to students offended by a costume to start a discussion with their peers.
Her email to the college’s students quoted her husband, Nicholas Christakis, also a Yale faculty member and Silliman’s master, as advising that “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.”
These objections are fallacious, especially coming from faculty members who co-lead a residential college community and are therefore “charged with setting the intellectual, social and ethical tone of the college.” The original letter from the IAC called for students to be more thoughtful in judging their own attire; it is incumbent on each of us to consider how our free speech may impact another’s life; so-called transgressive actions that attack other members of the community do not create a "safe space" for intellectual maturation; and a university should help all students recognize when a situation raises issues worthy of reflection and debate.
Moreover, the topic was not simply costumes that an individual might not find to their taste, but costumes that are overtly hostile to entire racial or ethnic groups. As I discuss below, faculty and academic leaders should help students learn to apply the rigorous analytical tools they learn in our classrooms to complex societal issues they will encounter outside of academe; we do this best when we model this behavior ourselves.
It is good to see reports that Erika and Nicholas Christakis have since offered an apology, acknowledged that “many students feel voiceless in diverse ways,” and invited students to come discuss their concerns. When we cause others pain (regardless of our intention), taking responsibility and seeking dialogue are appropriate steps. I hope that the leaders of Silliman will be able to use this painful incident as an impetus to make their college, and the university, more truly welcoming of all students.
But the episode goes far beyond a single campus on a single holiday weekend. Indeed, it reminds us of the university faculty’s unique role in supporting free intellectual inquiry and teaching students how to take part.
The essential responsibility of a university educator is to teach students to gather information, analyze it critically, reflect upon its larger meaning and use it to make a difference in the world. Our special role is to help students consider how they will navigate society as adults and to help them acquire the intellectual tools needed for that journey. This involves teaching students how to have tough conversations about sensitive issues in a spirit of respectful inquiry -- including discussions with those whose views they neither understand nor share.
To this end, we must show our students how to discern when a situation raises challenging intellectual or societal questions worthy of their consideration. While it is not our job to tell them what conclusions to draw about a particular Halloween costume, it is precisely our job to help them understand that they should give the matter serious thought.
Moreover, to prepare our students to take up the mantle of free speech and engage in vigorous public discourse on the issues of the day (including the impact of racist Halloween costumes on a community), we must teach them how do so in a manner that respects the right of others to join the debate. We need to set standards in our classrooms and on our campuses that let those from marginalized populations know their voices are welcomed.
Until those students are invited to share their perspectives and questions, until their words are heard and accorded reflective (not reflexive) responses, they are not truly being afforded the education they enrolled to obtain. Until classmates from majority populations comprehend that their own understanding will be enriched by listening deeply to those peers, their educations are also being compromised.
Academic leaders have additional responsibilities in this arena because of the authority conferred by their roles. As the Yale incident demonstrates, communiqués from the campus’s cultural diversity center or inclusion committee are not always accorded the respect they deserve. The very fact that the group is formally charged with speaking out on topics related to inclusion can erode their messages’ perceived legitimacy and impact.
Conversely, when other university leaders stand up for the principles of equity and diversity, this is received as a more neutrally grounded and less biased expression of support for these themes. Given this, we who are officers of the university must publicly support the importance of paying attention to (and openly discussing) civility and community. Our doing so fosters the very sense of safety and trust that is essential for broad-based public conversations about sensitive issues.
Similarly, faculty members who are accorded privilege by their race, gender, ability or other personal characteristics should make an effort to model inclusive principles for students, rather than relying on our colleagues from underrepresented groups to do so. We should show publicly that we are open to becoming more aware of the unearned benefits our majority status confers and to better understanding the ramifications for other community members. We can do this, for example, by reading some of the many books and blogs on these topics and by listening attentively when members of marginalized communities raise concerns -- even when the subject matter is painful to face.
We can examine relevant evidence in our classrooms, to show that these topics merit the investment of precious course hours and warrant intellectual discussion by all students, regardless of personal background. When we see a questionable Halloween costume, we can express our concerns and ask others what they think, rather than making it the responsibility of the person whose ancestry the costume mocks to open the topic.
Some critics claim that campus diversity centers are trying to cocoon students of color, students with disabilities or students on the LGBTQ spectrum, to shield them from the rough-and-tumble world of free speech.
I firmly disagree. Based on what I have read, observed and heard from my own family and friends, individuals from marginalized populations in our country do not generally have the luxury of living in a safe, sanitized bubble. Like it or not, issues of race, power, gender and ability confront them daily -- often quite literally, in the form of microaggressions, slurs or threats hurled without provocation. Indeed, it is only those of us in the majority who have the luxury of remaining oblivious to these considerations as we choose our Halloween costumes.
The university is intended to be a safe space for intellectual growth, a place to test ideas against the best available evidence, a place to deduce the concrete implications of theoretical visions, a place to examine unfamiliar or uncomfortable issues. Clearly, even such a plebeian topic as the choice of holiday attire offers rich opportunities for applying tools acquired in the history, sociology or philosophy classroom.
Through our daily work, professors and university leaders should show students how to be responsible members of a diverse community who listen carefully to opposing views and reflect upon the impact of their actions. If the university is to truly become an academic haven for all our students, we are the ones who must make it so.
Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Michigan State University.
Media pundits agree: college students are politically correct, infantile whiners who can’t tolerate discomfort regarding their values or sense of identity. Versions of this narrative have become common in recent months as student activism has increased around issues of sexual assault, race-based discrimination and hate speech.
Descriptions of exaggerated behavior are trendy: Judith Shulevitz’s article for The New York Times in which she expresses concern about student hypersensitivity has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times since it was published in March. One anecdote from Shulevitz’s article, describing students’ creation of a “safe space” for sexual assault survivors that featured a video of puppies, has been recycled by thousands of other media outlets.
At Princeton University, we saw an uptick in student activism during the past academic year, including demonstrations and social media campaigns. I’ll admit that, like every college administrator, I’ve encountered a few student activists who are strident or immature. Some students reflexively oppose everything proposed by “the establishment,” and some don’t understand the concept of freedom of expression. These activists undermine their own causes by making themselves ripe for caricature.
But we should resist this dismissive depiction of college students, which uses the most egregious examples to mischaracterize the full range of activism. It’s seductive to buy in to this distortion because it allows colleges and universities, as well as the general public, to play down the causes for concern.
We can’t allow trivializing stories about the beliefs and behavior of a few students to distract us from the responsibility to prevent unfair and discriminatory experiences for those with minority identities.
Explicitly bigoted events still happen with painful regularity on campuses. This year, Bucknell University expelled three students for racist comments made on a radio program, and the Westchester County district attorney’s office is investigating images of swastikas and nooses spray painted in dormitories at the State University of New York’s Purchase campus. The University of Oklahoma closed a fraternity chapter after video footage surfaced of a racist chant by the chapter’s members.
When incidents are so extreme, colleges and universities typically respond with reprobation and swift disciplinary action. But many of the barriers to an inclusive campus climate are more nuanced and difficult to address. When students challenge their institutions about these issues, they are expressing real concerns about real experiences.
When Harvard undergraduates launched the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign in 2014, they used self-portraits to express the subtle ways in which they were made to feel isolated or stereotyped. “You don’t sound black … you sound smart,” one student recalled being told. The campaign has since spread to more than thirty universities on four continents.
Two new studies confirm that these interactions -- ranging from the small slights often labeled “microaggressions” to outright harassment -- are common and have lasting effects. One study (Caplan and Ford, 2014) describes the ways in which racism and sexism on four campuses undermined students’ academic performance and ability to take advantage of extracurricular offerings. A second project that surveyed students of color at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Harwood, Choi, Orozco, Huntt and Mendenhall, 2015) found similar outcomes.
On another front, student activists have pushed college administrators to respond more aggressively to sexual harassment and violence on campuses. Cases like the recent rape trial at Vanderbilt University get the most attention, but evidence continues to accumulate that the risks in general, particularly for young women, are inexcusably high.
In June, both a University of Michigan internal survey and a broad-based Washington Post poll reported that one in five women say that they were sexually assaulted in college.
These negative personal encounters are being exacerbated by anonymous social media platforms like Yik Yak. These apps, which work within a restricted radius close to campus, have become a well-documented vehicle for anonymous abuse, including racist, homophobic and sexist statements as well as threats of mass violence.
Examples like these remind us that issues of campus climate and safety are not just the fantasies of thin-skinned students. On the contrary, coping with these experiences requires resilience.
I won’t claim that students on my campus always knew how to organize effectively, or that their indignation was always well expressed. Contrary to the media portrayals, however, they were consistently constructive. Stimulated by the episodes of police brutality nationally, our students worked with faculty members and administrators to apply the problem-solving skills they were learning in the classroom and make recommendations to enhance the campus climate locally. Both the undergraduate and graduate student governments sponsored forums and referenda that provided useful feedback.
Let’s not allow cherry-picked examples and silly stereotypes to distract us from the responsibility of colleges and universities to guarantee equitable experiences. Nor should we underestimate the meaningful role that student activists can play.
This year is the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, when students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University decided that they would no longer tolerate segregated lunch counters. As the sit-ins spread to multiple cities, anxious college leaders disavowed the protests and tried to persuade the students to halt.
We can be grateful that the Greensboro students ignored their elders. Our students will ignore us, too, if we waste the opportunity to work with them to create the fair, inclusive environment that they deserve.
Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.