In a year of upheaval, the University’s attempts to defend its elite reputation are more vapid and vain than ever.
By Kelsey Kitzke
One year ago, I arrived at Barnard in the late summer heat of New York City for a once-standard experience that is all but obsolete this year: moving into my first-year dorm room with my new roommate. With the terrifying exhilaration that accompanies the beginning of one’s college experience, we chatted with each other and our families, hoping to get to know the person with whom we would spend the next nine months living in markedly un-socially distanced proximity. My roommate’s mom peppered me with questions, asking about my interests, accomplishments, and goals before commenting, “Well, you must be talented to get into this school.” I politely laughed and thanked her before continuing to stuff as many of my sweatshirts into a drawer as I could.
The comment struck me so much that I still remember it a year later—not because it felt like an unfamiliar sentiment, but rather because I had not yet heard such a blatant equation of Barnard’s prestige with my intrinsic abilities, the former as proof of the later. But once all the sweatshirts had been stuffed into all the drawers, NSOP greeted me with similar refrains. Between forced social gatherings and campus tours, we were repeatedly told that of all the young women who had applied to Barnard, we were the best and brightest. We were smart and talented and hardworking and we were destined for great things—and our admission to Barnard proved this.
Though NSOP (and the rest of the semester) is bound to look much different for this year’s incoming class, comparable welcomings will surely be made over Zoom. In fact, the congratulatory rhetoric began months ago. In June, when President Beilock hosted a webinar to welcome new students and share plans for this peculiar year, she started with a common refrain: Barnard’s Class of 2024 is “the most selective in the college’s history”—the shiniest badge of honor for both the college and its newest students.
Usually, when a new class enters campus for the first time, its members are given hats, sweatshirts, and tote bags emblazoned with their college’s logo. This moment cements the notion that your college should become a reflection of you, and that you are always a reflection of your college. Above all, the goal of this orientation process is the internalization of your school’s prestige–the Barnard logo becomes a stamp of approval, a universal indicator of your worth to society.
But can this same branded flattery pervade when students are clicking on Ivy League Zoom links instead of walking through Ivy League gates? As many have noted, the pandemic has marked the beginning of monumental and possibly permanent changes to higher education in America. However, for those taught to crave educational elitism, the notion of online education still evokes the University of Phoenix.
Illustration by Samia Menon
Presidents Beilock and Bollinger have attempted to reframe the coming semester as something more in line with their institutions’ powerful brands. In an announcement in early July, Bollinger explained that the next semester “is designed to give students the skills, understanding, and ways of thinking that will be needed to lead a world so desperately in search of knowledge to endlessly complex problems.” Beilock bolstered these sentiments in several summer emails to students, including one on August 14th that first informed students Barnard would be moving fully remote, then assured them that “the world needs Barnard’s scholarship and creative thinking more than ever, and it will need the impact made by Barnard graduates for years to come.”
Rather than assuage concerns about–let alone address the tenets of—a declining educational experience for students, Beilock and Bollinger seem intent on tempering worries about the diminishing reputation of a Barnard or Columbia education. In the face of circumstances that might appear to equalize higher education by gathering students from all colleges into online classrooms, Barnard and Columbia have made clear that they will prioritize their brands.
Despite the administration’s rhetoric, many of us have spent the past few months debating the value of enrolling under these circumstances. Meanwhile, we’ve witnessed historic protests against anti-Black racism across the country; young people in particular have taken to the streets to demand changes. Now, as the summer ends, many of these same students are going back to school only to sit at computers and listen to professors drone on about subjects that might now feel trivial and removed from the life-and-death consequences that roiled the streets only a few months ago. They also might find themselves asking new questions about the purpose of education, especially in its new sedentary state, now that young activists have found avenues for change without help from large institutions like universities.
Instead of addressing the potential dissonance between the current political moment and the educational experience they offer, Barnard and Columbia continue to isolate themselves rhetorically. Under the guise of explaining how our schools are adapting to the times, the University is reinforcing the educational superiority that encourages enrollment and justifies tuition. In effect, they are arguing that they are uniquely positioned to solve racial injustice and to alleviate social inequities, as if graduating from Barnard or Columbia is practically a prerequisite for effecting change.
These ideas remind me of what my roommate’s mom said as I unpacked last fall. But recent language takes this flattery a step further: It encourages us to see our schools not just as badges of honor, but as kingmakers uniquely equipped to lead a society in uniquely difficult times.
This rings as ironic to anyone who knows that our schools’ prestige is built on exclusion, and that this exclusion has disportionately harmed people of color and others who have been systematically denied opportunities that are needed to get into selective schools. And as young activists across the nation focus on tearing down structures and systems of race- and class-based oppression, how will students who have benefited from prestige built on these systems join them? Is this even possible?
Despite our misgivings about the coming semester, most of us are returning to school. And although we will not be returning to campus, we will still walk through Ivy gates each time we internalize ideas of our own superiority.
Maybe the students who once filled Barnard and Columbia’s campuses will do what our generation now seems determined to. An important first step is to reject—personally and radically—the language that insidiously encourages us to do the opposite.