Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi mastermind that swindled $50 billion from his investors, has mesmerized our nation in recent months. His surname has even permeated the American lexicon, as the term “Madoff” is now synonymous with “fraud.” Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman deemed our financial system “the Bernie Madoff of economies,” and several media outlets have labeled the large-scale banks that invested in risky, mortgage-backed securities as “legal Madoffs.”
Though no “Madoffs of higher education” have emerged just yet, I think the No Limits Project (NLP) struck a resonant chord in the letter to the S&B last Friday, pointing out the contrast “between the rhetoric used for marketing of the College and the reality on campus.”
We all came to Grinnell expecting a fair place precisely because of such marketing, yet we’ve encountered so many instances where our institution lags behind its soaring values. For me, the most glaring example came in my second year at a large study-abroad orientation. There, an administrator began his presentation with a slide depicting a sub-Saharan African man dressed in traditional regalia, alongside the phrase “Culture Shock.” Unfortunately, this display more closely resembled the human zoos that captivated our popular culture in the early 20th century than an educational presentation. This presentation encapsulated the notion of “third world voyeurism,” popularized by the British critic Alice Miles.
Professor Max Leung, Assistant Professor of Sociology, said of this incident, “Of all the images, he chose a tribal black man. That’s problematic because it invokes a discourse of primitivism, and a place of desolation that no one else wants to be in. Sadly, this way of using race to represent a place of ‘otherness’ is rather common in popular discourse because it’s so easy to use.”
Leung proceeded to tie the incident to the increasingly insensitive institution that facilitated it. “When you do not have institutional accountability to ensure that these practices aren’t replicated at a College administrative level, then it should surprise no one that you get screwed up stuff like that,” he said.
Clearly, this man did not stop and think about the way a student from Africa would have felt had they been sitting in that room. He certainly didn’t know how it made me feel, especially given the fact that not too long ago, my ancestors didn’t look and dress very differently from his Madame Butterfly figure.
The saddest part of this story is that this man has faced no repercussions for his action. And no one expected President Osgood to reprimand him. It would have obligated Osgood to discontinue his do-nothing leadership style. Indeed, the “Ten Years in Review” link at the President’s Office webpage hilariously resembles the Bush administration’s “accomplishments and results” booklet, released a few weeks before W. left office. Both lists are cluttered with “accomplishments” that now either lack funding or are on the verge of extinction. In any case, all of Osgood’s real accomplishments have been overshadowed by tremendous fiscal mismanagement and gaping unpopularity.
Though the presentation isn’t one of the major emblems of Osgood’s failed tenure, it reminds us of the damage that racism, as subtle and inadvertent as it may be, can carry, and therefore the importance of things like A Just training and the No Limits Project. While the NLP saga continues, I draw upon this personal and visceral experience in hopes of enabling the student body to better understand where the NLP students come from. While I concede that I’m one of many people here who have benefited from immense privilege, I urge students to try putting themselves in other people’s shoes. As Grinellians, we get irritated with pretentious peers pontificating in class, so try and fathom how painful it must feel to receive hate mail, bear nuanced racism, or watch the administration chuck your scholarship away for a plasma TV. Maybe then students will better understand the need for a hate crime response policy, greater diversity and more financial aid.
I’m frankly chagrined with the pettiness of the NLP’s criticisms, ranging from “self serving,” to “too confrontational,” to “idealistic,” to the most risible yet—that they employ exceedingly “sketchy petitioning.” The most frequent (and misguided) claim is that the College cannot enact these demands, some of which are expensive, because of the deteriorating economy—we should save money instead. These critics don’t seem to realize that they pose the exact same strategy that has failed us in the last decade. In fact, the NLP proffers creative and enlightened ways to dole out our cash, and by extension, live up to the College’s mission statement.
Of course, Grinnell’s administration does not represent the total ethical collapse symbolized by Bernie Madoff. But so long as our endowment spending contradicts our values, our community’s diversity remains stagnant, and aloof administrators can victimize students with no disciplinary recourse, a tranche of Madoff does exist right here in Grinnell. Like the businessman’s investors, it’s Grinnell students and their parents, many of whom have devoted their entire lives to service, who lose. They send their children here thinking that Grinnell is a just and socially conscious place. Thousands of dollars and almost four years later, it starts to become clear that it’s too often one big lie.