Monday, December 31, 2018

Deerfield Academy confronts its male-only past

The slick, student-produced video could be a recruitment tool: a sun-washed campus, nestled in rich Western Massachusetts farmland, featuring students dancing, singing, and living a seemingly idyllic life.

“There is so much to learn here,” says a young man in a green Deerfield Academy cap, looking into the camera. “I’d send my son here for sure.” Then he pauses, and looks down. “I’d have to think about sending my daughter here, but I’d definitely send my son.”

Another young man states matter-of-factly: “It’s a pretty toxic place for girls.”

Thirty years after boys chanted “better dead than coed” in protest of the school’s decision to admit girls, one of the nation’s oldest and most elite boarding schools remains a place where female students have a sense this is not their Deerfield.

It’s a place, students say, where boys get away with breaking rules that girls can’t. Where girls have been shunned from prime seating at hockey games. And where a letter of apology was punishment enough for groping a girl.

Many of these issues are laid bare in a federal sexual discrimination lawsuit, in which a popular former teacher said young women faced unequal treatment in disciplinary hearings and when they filed sexual harassment and misconduct complaints. The ex-teacher, Sonja O’Donnell, alleged she faced administrators’ wrath for years for standing up to the school’s unwritten rule that “boys will be boys.”

Separately, a 2015 graduate told the Globe she is still stunned that a male student who groped her several times in class was only made to apologize in a letter. “Deerfield had many great professors and I learned a lot,” said the woman, now a senior at an Ivy League college. “But the culture is really backwards.”

Though the student body is split nearly equally along gender lines, inequity is spread across campus and woven into the way of life, according to 17 current and former students, most of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from Deerfield and classmates.

Until recently, girls were not welcome in the sought-after upper bleachers at hockey games, long a males-only seating area, and hadn’t been considered for the coveted position of Captain Deerfield, the school’s mascot.

Students and alumni are still chafing over a message earlier this year from Deerfield’s top administrator to “Deerfield girls,” with the subject line of “self worth.” It suggested female students more “carefully consider [their] clothing choices” after visitors to campus were shocked by some girls’ short skirts and high-heeled boots.

“I wish there was more of an acknowledgment that being a girl at Deerfield is tough,” said one 2017 graduate.

The 300-acre campus of red brick buildings and rolling fields, book-ended by a tiny village of 18th-century houses along Old Main Street, seems a quaint outpost. Or as some students describe it, a bubble separated from the outside world.

Leaders of the 220-year-old academy say they are trying to shed the vestiges of an all-boys school and deny the allegations in the lawsuit. Drawing on its $590 million endowment, Deerfield hired an inclusion officer and has ramped up antibias initiatives to tackle these issues.

In a statement to the Globe, Deerfield denied O’Donnell’s allegations and said its actions against her — including cutting her pay, barring her from serving as an advocate in student discipline hearings, and not renewing her contract — were “entirely legitimate.” It called discrimination and retaliation “antithetical to who we are and what we teach.”

O’Donnell, an English teacher at Deerfield for 18 years until administrators opted not to renew her contract this year, said the school offers students incredible educational opportunities. She and her husband, Michael O’Donnell, a Deerfield teacher who resigned in August because he said the situation had become untenable, sent their son there and he graduated in May.

“I love Deerfield,” Sonja O’Donnell said. “I have never stopped believing in the potential for that community.”

On campus, pictures of Abraham Lincoln and other historic figures line the reception area of the administration building. Two statues, a confident “Deerfield Boy,” books casually slung under an arm, and a “Deerfield Girl,” clutching her books at her chest, still stand in the library.

In a 2009 survey, conducted by a consortium of private schools, nearly 90 percent of Deerfield’s 12th-grade girls said boys enjoyed more influence than girls at the school. Some students say things haven’t changed much in the nine years since.

Deerfield said it has taken robust steps to tackle these issues, including housing ninth-graders exclusively in a village of dorms to foster healthier male and female friendships from the get-go.

It also said it has added extensive gender sensitivity training and reviewed the selection process for student leadership and faculty positions, with an eye toward gender balance.

Deerfield’s reckoning has come later than others. As a wave of boys-only prep schools started opening their doors to girls in the 1970s, Deerfield’s trustees twice voted to stand firm. But in the fall of 1989, faced with a declining pool of applicants, Deerfield acquiesced.

Today, Deerfield enrolls about 650 students in grades 9 through 12. Its $590 million endowment is the fourth largest among more than 300 US and foreign schools tracked by Boarding School Review, a clearinghouse for boarding schools.

With tuition and fees about $60,000 a year, Deerfield draws from a largely affluent applicant pool. Fewer than one out of every five applicants is accepted, according to the school’s website.


Let’s Make Colleges Better at Serving Their Students

A growing chorus of voices is calling for universities to have more “skin in the game,” that is, stronger incentives for desirable outcomes. This is discussed most often with regard to student loans. Much of the blame for the student loan problem rests on college admission and retention policies.

Many schools accept numerous applicants they know are very unlikely to graduate. At some schools the six-year graduation rate is under one-third: There are at least two dropouts for every student earning a bachelor’s degree. This tragedy creates unrealistic expectations and then shatters them.

How might colleges be given a stronger stake in avoiding this problem? One way is to make them liable for part of their students’ defaulted loan balances. (Schools could be left off the hook for the default rate expected to arise from job-hindering illnesses and accidents.) If schools bore some of the costs of student loan defaults, this would induce them to become more selective regarding admissions, a change that many people would view as inconsistent with the ideal that higher education should reduce inequality.

To these people I ask: How are justice and opportunity promoted by a system that assures such large numbers of college dropouts? Shouldn’t we focus on educating students well and helping them obtain gainful employment? “Skin in the game” is a powerful inducement to help achieve these twin goals.

How else might schools develop stronger incentives for better outcomes? In 1955, economist Milton Friedman proposed that schools invest directly in their students by lending them funds to be repaid after they graduate and start earning more income. As in so many other policy areas, it took a while for academia to catch up to Friedman’s ideas. Today, Purdue University and some others have implemented Friedmanesque income-share agreements (ISAs).

Under such programs, the school pays some or all the cost of attendance in exchange for a share of a student’s future income. If the students fare well after graduation, the university benefits. Highly endowed private schools could devote some portion of their endowments to similar programs.

Adam Smith also knew about incentivizing educational excellence. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), he noted that professors at Oxford University were more effective teachers when they had skin in the game. Students paid them a fee, so the more students a professor had, the greater his income. Today, however, professors’ compensation often has little correlation to clearly identifiable performance indicators.

In contrast, corporate executives and other high-level employees in the for-profit business world typically have much skin in the game, in the form of performance bonuses, stock options, and the like. Admittedly, it is more difficult to implement performance incentives in higher education, because the “bottom line” of universities is often difficult to define and measure.

But since part of the mission of our great research universities is to make important discoveries, few tasks seem more appropriate than discovering efficient ways to improve students’ lives in the classroom and beyond. Surely, “skin in the game” will play a role in restoring the promise of higher education. Without it, we will continue down the road of burdensome debt loads, academic mediocrity, and shattered dreams.


Agenda activism takes over Australian university history classes

Agenda-driven activism has subverte­d the teaching of Aust­ralian history at the nation’s universit­ies, with gender, race and class politics dominating two-thirds of subjects on offer.

Australian history is no longer taught as a study of past events, according to a report by the Institute of Public Affairs to be released today. It argues that students are more likely to be ­exposed to disconnected themes, or “microhistories”, presented through the lens of identity ­politics, than key concepts explain­ing Australia’s development as a modern nation.

An audit of the 147 Australian history subjects offered across 35 universities this year showed 102 were preoccupied with identity politics. Of those, 13 subjects were solely focused on gender and sexuality, race or class.

ANU’s Sexuality in Australian History examined “how an understanding of sexual diversity in the past can illuminate current debates in Australian ­society”.

Monash University’s History of Sexuality 1800-the Present had topics that included “the construction of masculinity and femininity, courtship and marriag­e … heterosexuality and homosexuality”.

In comparison, four subjects featured democracy as a major theme, three covered industrialisation, and capitalism was the focus of just one subject.

Prime ministers appear to be largely overlooked, but Queensland senator Pauline Hanson is mentioned in the descriptions for three subjects.

The report’s author, Bella d’Abrera, said the audit highlighted that students were not being taught basic concepts explaining the origins of Australian society, including its successes as a ­modern nation.

She said historians had instead “recast themselves as political ­activists” and students were being “politicised in the classroom” as a result of the courses that were available to them.

“Historians occupy a special position because they have a unique ability to shape our society and to shape the future … but they should not attempt to rewrite the past,” Dr d’Abrera said.

“By reframing Australia’s past using the lens of identity politics, they are warping history to fit their own agenda.”

The report highlights how ­indigenous history has been framed around common themes of resistance, colonisation and the frontier wars. Twenty-nine of the 57 indigenous history subjects ­offered ­focused on indigenous-settler relations “in terms of violence and conflict rather than co-existence and co-operation”.

Dr d’Abrera said many Australian history subjects were better suited to the disciplines of politics, sociology or anthropology.

She said there was a dearth of subjects that discussed Australia’s economic and political development since 1788 and only one subject looked into the cultural conditions in Britain that led to the development of our liberal democracy.

No subject mentioned “the fact the Australian nation had ­benefited enormously from the Western legacy”, Dr d’Abrera said.

She said this shed new light on the opposition that the ­Ramsay Centre has come up against in its bid to establish ­degrees in Western civilisation at several Australian universities.

After rejection by ANU and a push-back from academics at the University of Sydney, the ­Ramsay Centre recently signed up the University of Wollongong as a partner for a course and scholarship program planned to launch in 2020.

Bachelor of Arts student Oscar Green took the University of Queensland’s The Australian Experience during his first year of study expecting to be introduced to issues around Australian history and culture.

Instead, the 19-year-old, who is involved in the IPA’s Generation Liberty program for students, was disappointed by a “disproportionate focus” on race and gender and “revisionist approach” to studying the past.


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