NYT Editor Jane Karr’s Contempt for Working-Class People

Last time, I was discussing The New York Times  and my efforts to persuade the paper’s Education Life Editor, Jane Karr, to fix obvious errors in an article from Wednesday. Specifically, I noted the penultimate message that Editor Karr sent me, which ended with these lines.

Good luck with any new venture. We see you’ve quit your job over this statistic, but we are comfortable with what we’ve written.

Though the Times made the corrections after I received that message, I felt I should reply to Ms. Karr and particularly to those last two sentences. Here is my latest e-mail to her.

Ms. Karr:

I am glad to see the revised text. I believe that our correspondence proved valuable. Your newspaper got to correct some inaccuracies. I got to know that I was helpful in some small way to The New York Times. And you got to taunt me about the fact that I may suffer financial ruin for confronting Wash. U. officials about their admissions policies. Everybody won.

However, I want to make clear that I did not quit my job over a statistic. I resigned my job at Washington University to protest systemic class bias. Looking at enrollment data at Wash. U. and other top private colleges, you may only see statistics.

But, behind the statistics, I see many talented, hard-working people from my background who are consigned to dead-end jobs because many top colleges discriminate in favor of the rich and well-connected. I also see those same working-class people paying their taxes, like good Americans, and thereby paying for the tax exemptions of the colleges that discriminate against them. Legacy preferences and other forms of invidious class bias are tolerated by most journalists who cover education, but they should not be tolerated.

I was heartened to read the stories of first-generation college students in Laura Pappano’s article. I wish we had a campus organization for “first-gens” when I was an undergraduate.

But just as the uncorrected text on Wash. U. exaggerated the degree and rate of change at that university, the article in general exaggerated improvements in social diversity at many of the colleges discussed. For instance, Ms. Pappano wrote:

Data compiled for the 1vyG conference by Dr. [Thomas G.] Mortenson shows that from 2000 to 2013, Amherst, Harvard, Brown and Princeton doubled or almost doubled Pell recipients. Yale’s growth was modest, while Cornell numbers declined slightly.

The increases in Pell enrollments at Amherst, Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Yale would have looked smaller had you noted that the number of Pell recipients nationwide increased 73% between the 2006-07 academic year and the 2012-13 year.

Likewise, in this passage, it may not have been a bad idea to mention that, based on the latest federal data, 36% of UC Berkeley undergraduates receive Pell Grants.

The proportion of freshmen at elite campuses who are first generation — 11 percent at Dartmouth, 12 percent at Princeton, 14 percent at Yale, 15 percent at Amherst, 16 percent at Cornell, 17 percent at Brown — nearly matches that of their low-income Pell grant recipients.

There is also this quote from Ms. Pappano’s article regarding comments by William R. Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard.

Despite efforts, the percentage doesn’t budge much, and Mr. Fitzsimmons expects it will take a generation before hard-to-reach students consider Harvard in substantial numbers. “We have a long slog ahead of us.”

Had an Ivy League administrator said that it would take a generation to achieve gender or racial diversity because women or minorities stubbornly refuse to apply, you at the Times would have rightly challenged that assertion. You would have noted examples of other leading colleges that did not seem to have the same problem. You would also have raised legitimate questions about institutional bias and victim-blaming.

Mr. Fitzsimmons’s statements were treated as valid, however. Why is it considered acceptable to blame working-class students, rather than administrators, for elite colleges’ lack of social diversity?

Despite my objections to your approach, and the NYT’s, I am not being facetious when I say that I benefited from our correspondence. I had been seeking a concise way to sum up elite media-makers’ contempt for working-class people—especially those of us who write about issues that matter to us.

You managed to do that in just two sentences: “Good luck with any new venture. We see you’ve quit your job over this statistic, but we are comfortable with what we’ve written.”

I am grateful for that.

Sincerely,

Chris Pepus

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