Class Bigotry at Washington University in St. Louis: A Resignation

I just sent the following open letter of resignation to Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.

Dear Chancellor Wrighton:

I’m Chris Pepus and I work in the university’s Film & Media Archive. I am sending you this open letter to resign in protest against ongoing class bias in the university’s admissions policies.

Washington University has consistently ranked last in social diversity among leading colleges, measured by the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grants, a need-based federal scholarship. In January, your administration promised a new commitment to social diversity, but we both know it is a sham. It is time the people did as well, since they pay for Wash. U.’s tax exemptions.

Describing your new policy in The New York Times, David Leonhardt wrote that your administration “will commit to more than doubling the share of undergraduates with Pell grants, to at least 13 percent, by 2020.” He was wrong. Your administration committed to ensuring that 13% of students in the 2020-21 freshman class are Pell-eligible. The number of Pell recipients in preceding classes could be lower, even significantly lower, and you would still be able to say that you kept your promise.

Leonhardt also wrote: “The leaders of Washington University in St. Louis have decided that it has a distinction they no longer want: the nation’s least economically diverse top college.” He was too optimistic on that point as well. Currently, Wash. U. is last in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of economic diversity at its top 25 national universities, with only 6% of students receiving Pell Grants. You could meet your goal of increased Pell numbers and still be last in that ranking.

Even modest increases in Pell enrollments by Wash. U.’s nearest competitors at the bottom of the U.S. News list (Cal Tech at 11%, Notre Dame and Princeton at 12%) will keep the university ranked 25th out of 25. If Wash. U.’s increase in Pell recipients among pre-2020 classes is low enough, those three institutions can keep their Pell enrollments where they are and Wash. U. will still remain in last place.

Likewise, if we consider just how many Americans are financially eligible for Pell Grants, we can see how hollow your promise is. According to a recent report by the Southern Education Foundation, most U.S. public-school students are officially low income, based on eligibility for anti-poverty programs. Certainly a majority, and probably a large majority, of those students would qualify for Pell Grants—if they went to college. In light of that fact, a ratio of 13% Pell recipients in the freshman class five years from now appears positively miniscule.

Look closer and it gets worse. Eligibility for Pell Grants has increased dramatically since the 2006-07 academic year. The number of the program’s recipients is up 73% nationwide. Among those with family incomes over $60,000 per year, the number of Pell recipients has grown by nearly 900%. (Those figures are based on raw data available here and here.)

Aided by that enormous expansion (weighted disproportionately toward middle-class students), other socially exclusive universities, such as Harvard, have seen their percentages of Pell students rise out of single digits, finally. But not this institution. In recent years, Wash. U. has actually been declining in terms of social diversity.

The barriers to inclusion will not be removed at Wash. U., or other leading colleges, until an aggressive policy of affirmative action based on social class is added to existing affirmative-action programs. Your new “commitment” is atravesty of that essential policy.

Your administration has described the plan to increase Pell enrollment as “ambitious” and cultivated the notion that it is difficult to enroll qualified working-class people. But the case of the University of California at Berkeley destroys such myths. According to the latest federal data, 36% of UC Berkeley’s students receive Pell Grants, compared to, again, 6% at Washington University. UCB has managed to enroll six times the percentage of Pell recipients as Wash. U., despite having (according to contemporary federal data) an endowment of $1.2 billion, as opposed to Wash. U.’s $5.3 billion.

Nor can anyone say that UC Berkeley’s academic reputation has suffered due to its socially inclusive admissions policy. In the most recent installment of the prestigious Times Higher Education rankings, UCB is rated 8th in the world to Wash. U.’s 42nd. The University of California at Los Angeles, with an even higher ratio of Pell recipients on campus (39%), ranks 12th.

You may well note that Wash. U. is placed ahead of UC Berkeley and UCLA in the U.S. News & World Reportrankings, but that is principally because U.S. News assigns great weight to institutional wealth. The most salient category of the magazine’s rankings is the “peer assessment score” given by administrators and faculty at other colleges. In that category, Wash. U. is rated 4 out of a possible 5, versus Berkeley’s 4.7 and UCLA’s 4.2.

If you and other top administrators can’t figure out how to reach the degree of social diversity that UC Berkeley has achieved with an endowment valued at less than one-quarter of Wash. U.’s, perhaps you should all resign and let administrators from UCB replace you.

This institution’s terribly low percentage of Pell Grant recipients is the result of systemic class bias. The university’s official pronouncements make that all too clear. Wash. U. administrators have attempted to excuse low enrollment of Pell Grant recipients by resorting to doubletalk insulting to working-class people.

For instance, Provost Thorp consistently tries to justify Wash. U.’s record of social exclusion by pretending that theuniversity had to choose between strengthening academic excellence and enrolling more working-class students. Last December, Student Life quoted the Provost’s remarks on why the administration had failed to address theuniversity’s low Pell enrollment. “Wash. U. has made some smart strategic decisions that may have made it the place that it is,” he said. “It’s easy to say that this should have been done differently, but . . . to say we shouldn’t have invested in things when we did is kind of false logic [ellipses original].” Back in October, he offered the same excuse, with a more aggressive conclusion: “We’re not going to apologize for that.”

If Provost Thorp cannot bring himself to apologize for the university’s derisively low number of working-classstudents, I question whether he is capable of apologizing for anything. At the least, his remarks show that he isn’t facing the problem.

It is deceitful to claim that administrators ever had to choose between academic excellence and social inclusion. In 2012, economist Elise Gould found that low-income students who earned high scores on 8th-grade tests were less likely to attend college than rich students who scored low on the same tests. There is an enormous pool of talented students who are not being recruited by other leading institutions.

Maybe the student who would have brought new prestige to Wash. U. through, say, a great scientific discovery wound up working at Wal-Mart because the university instead admitted a less qualified rich person now busily engaged in coasting through life. Had you been interested in enhancing academic excellence, rather than enhancing the privileges of the rich, recruiting qualified, low-income students would have been a central element of your campaign to improve the university’s reputation.

Instead, Wash. U. grants preferences to “legacies,” children of alumni and especially rich, well-connected ones. Make no mistake: legacy preferences are viciously discriminatory. They allow rich applicants who have had every advantage to take rare admissions places from better qualified, working-class applicants who overcame a great deal. Such bias in favor of the rich has a corrosive effect on the entire admissions process, since it fosters an environment in which the wealthy are viewed as superior. It reinforces institutionalized class bigotry.

You know that discrimination based on social class is wrong. In fact, you have admitted as much. Last year, your administration inaugurated the Bias Report and Support System on campus. Among the categories of discrimination reportable under the system is bias based on “socioeconomic status.”

That was a fine idea. But it is pointless to have a policy against class bias if the admissions office is exempt. The aristocratic monstrosity of legacy preferences will persist as long as non-legacies and their families allow. It is time we stopped allowing.

That means the people must cease to subsidize class bias with tax exemptions. Washington University does not pay taxes on its donations, investment income, or purchases. Those exemptions have consequences. Among the social ills highlighted by the Ferguson crisis are chronic underfunding of public schools, and municipalities’ fiscal reliance on a racially biased system of excessive fines. If we want to begin to heal suffering communities such as Ferguson, rich individuals and corporations have to start paying their fair share in taxes. That includes wealthy, socially exclusive universities such as Wash. U.

I have learned a lot working at the Film & Media Archive, which houses materials from powerful documentaries on civil rights and social justice, e.g. Eyes on the Prize and The Great Depression. I got to help researchers learn more about such subjects as the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and labor activists who fought racism and economic oppression.

The stories contained in the archive’s materials can be very inspiring. But they can also be a criticism of your life. These days, they feel like the latter to me. I am ashamed of myself for failing to send you a letter like this one before now. My working-class status and freelance writing on class issues also accuse me, despite the reasons I gave myself for staying on the job this long. (“I need the health insurance.” “The work schedule lets me write on evenings and weekends.” “I can use vacation time for writing.”)

After my years at Wash. U., I no longer believe that elite private colleges can be reformed. I believe education must be public, and free to students. In any case, no university as wealthy as this one should be allowed to keep its tax exemptions unless it ends legacy preferences and does at least as well in admitting Pell Grant recipients as UC Berkeley. We need that tax money for the education of the people, not just the rich.

No top American college is as far away from social diversity as Wash. U., and you are clearly happy for it to stay that way. So here is my two-weeks notice. I can no longer stand to be associated with the class bigotry that is deeply entrenched in this institution.


Chris Pepus