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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Staff Editorial: Transparency and discussion lacking in identity project

Last November, Grinnell hired Crane MetaMarketing to help articulate the College’s institutional identity in a manner that upholds its reputation for being accessible to all qualified students, while also emphasizing its position as an elite institution. College administrators have been adamant in saying that any changes to help realize this identity will reflect and uphold Grinnell’s core commitments. In an article published on Nov. 8 in the S&B, Vice President for Enrollment Joe Bagnoli cited the five characteristics that the Board of Trustees said every incoming class needed to have: academic potential, diversity, engaged citizenship, access and fiscal contribution to the College’s sustainability.

The administration claims that a shift in Grinnell’s perceived identity, one that is more “elite” and less “bargain,” would benefit all students—including those who are high-need. But given that administrators say it is currently low-need students, not high-need ones, who choose to attend other schools over Grinnell, it is reasonable to think that changes to make Grinnell appear more prestigious will be done chiefly to persuade more wealthy students to enroll. This implies that the fifth of the aforementioned mandatory characteristics will be stressed the most. Because, however, the administration hasn’t acknowledged this to be a guiding factor in the institutional identity project, there has been little discussion about the possible tradeoffs of such a change to future enrollment demographics.

President Kington’s recruiting trip to India last weekend confirms this sentiment. Kington’s visit was in tandem with an initiative decided during last year’s strategic planning process to increase the percentage of international students at Grinnell—students whose applications are need-aware, not need-blind. Associate Director of Admission and Coordinator of International Admission Jonathan Edwards explained the reason for the trip in an article in the S&B on Feb. 7: “If you think of the U.S. as an importer of [students in] higher education, India is the second biggest exporter. We’ve got some room to grow in India.” Again, the question that remains unacknowledged concerns the tradeoffs associated with a future increase in Indian enrollment. Will recruiting more international students, or domestic low-need students, come at the cost of admitting fewer high-need students?

The context of the institutional identity project is one in which the College is concerned about its long-term financial sustainability and market position. According to information provided to the S&B by Bagnoli and Vice President for Communications Jim Reische, between 2010 and 2013 applicants with no demonstrated financial need decreased by 12.5 percent, while higher-need students rose by 97.5 percent. The S&B does not have an explicit problem with the College taking measures to find ways to address the financial consequences of this disparity, but it is disingenuous for the administration to pretend that these numbers are not the motivating factor when they decide to change how Grinnell presents itself.

S&B co-Editor-in-Chief Hayes Gardner emailed Reische for the Nov. 8 article, saying that working to adopt a more “elite” identity would increase low-need enrollments. Reische replied, “You’re right that a well-crafted identity will also attract more low-need applicants. That’s not the same as low-need students. The distinction is subtle but important, because I view a powerful institutional identity as a way to attract the strongest applicants from all backgrounds. This then gives the College the power to choose the student body that satisfies all five of those Board criteria, within the context of our need-blind admission policy.” What Reische doesn’t emphasize here is that a main idea behind creating a new “elite” identity is to convince already-accepted low-need students to go here. When you consider that it is already-accepted wealthy students who go other places, the fact that need-blind remains is beside the point.

It’s difficult to not see the irony in a “socially-aware” student populace that gives no indication that they are concerned, let alone cognizant, of their College’s aggressive new strategy to enroll more low-need students. In Mears Cottage we challenge capitalist discourse that speaks of investments, returns and the obligation to grow, in the ARH we learn about Grinnell student protests against the College’s investments in pro-apartheid companies in the 1980s, and in Steiner we outline the mechanisms by which the East India Trading Company tapped into India’s “potential.” In this sense, the Grinnell we study in is very different from the Grinnell that is strategizing for ways to increase its revenue in a non-transparent way. In cases like this, becoming self-referential with our education may be a prudent move.

Regardless of whether dialogue with students would change the direction of this project, the administration needs to be open with its goals. As is, the precedent that the institutional identity project sets is one of a dishonest College—whether elite or not. While the S&B recognizes that economic thinking and strategizing are necessary and even desirable to ensure the longevity of this institution, the administration needs to be more forthright about the intentions motivating this project.

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