Open Letter to St. Louis Media

Dear St. Louis Media Professionals:

Hi. Remember me? I wrote to local media outlets a few weeks ago to announce that I had resigned my job as an archivist at Washington University to protest class bias in admissions. My open letter of resignation provided a detailed account of that problem. But no one here in St. Louis decided to do a story on the issues I raised. So I thought I’d do you a service by telling you why the public would be interested.

Dating back months before my resignation, I talked to many people here in St. Louis about Wash. U. and its lack of social diversity. These are well-informed people who have lived here many years and, in some cases, all their lives. Almost all of them were unaware of these facts:

1. Wash. U. discriminates in favor of applicants who are “legacies,” children of rich and, in most cases, white alumni.

2. Wash. U. is ranked last in social diversity among top national universities by U.S. News & World Report.

3. Wash. U. is a tax-exempt institution.

When the people I spoke to learned those three facts, they were outraged. When I noted Point 3, most initially thought I was joking.

In other words, local residents were shocked and angered upon hearing basic facts about the third-largest employer in the region, an institution with (according to the latest federal data) a $5.3 billion endowment that is subsidized by taxpayers. I don’t mean to tell you your business, but I would say that constitutes a failure on the part of St. Louis media.

When I reached out to local media, most simply ignored me. Two reporters did call, however. One interviewed me for about a half hour, but failed to write a story. The other lost interest as soon as he realized I was not a professor. I’m not sure how he formed that false impression. But I would suggest that, at some point, some of you might want to consider deciding newsworthiness based on the facts and their relevance to the public, rather than the social status of the person stating the facts. I wish I could get a rich, famous person to tell you that.

Attendance at a prestigious college confers lifelong advantages, so the stakes are high. For a working-class person who lacks high-level connections or the financial means to work unpaid internships, a degree from a highly rated university is often essential for a successful career. Discrimination in college admissions has devastating, permanent consequences.

Let’s look at a hypothetical case of two applicants to see how Washington University discriminates, and how taxpayers foot the bill. Student A is working class and the first in her family to apply to college. Student B is a wealthy legacy, and her parents donated substantial money to Wash. U. Student A has the better academic record. But Wash. U. rejects her and admits Student B, based on legacy preference.

Student B’s parents made donations to Wash. U. to ensure that their academically deficient offspring got admitted instead of someone more qualified. In other words, they paid bribes. Since Washington University is a registered non-profit, Student B’s parents got to take tax deductions on their bribes.

Likewise, when Wash. U. accepts such bribes, the university does not pay taxes on them: federal, state, or local. When the university invests money on Wall Street, the proceeds from those investments are also tax-free. And, finally, when Wash. U. uses some of that money to make purchases, it does not pay sales tax.

Who pays for all those generous tax breaks that subsidize discrimination? Student A’s family and everyone else who pays taxes and does not benefit from legacy preferences. If Student A’s family lives in St. Louis, the system is especially unfair to them, because they pay state and local taxes from which Wash. U. is exempt.

I think about such families often. You should try thinking about them once.

You’re not concerned about the effect of Wash. U.’s discriminatory policies on working-class St. Louisans. But there are other angles you could take on my story. For instance, I challenged The New York Times about errors in the paper’s coverage of Wash. U. and social diversity. At first, Editor Jane Karr refused to make the more important changes and also resorted to elitist insults. Then she made the corrections.

That’s right. I got The New York Times to correct one of its articles. That’s a big deal: it’s the closest a working-class person like me ever gets to writing an article for the NYT. Normally, you’re interested in stories of local people who get noticed by members of the elite who live on one of the coasts. Normally, you’re on the lookout for cases in which coastal elitists express condescending attitudes about people in the region. But not in this instance.

Are you really too scared of Wash. U. to take on this story? What else could be the problem? All the assertions I made in my resignation letter were based on publicly available sources, linked in the letter itself. I realize that my claims may have seemed shocking, but that is only because no one had put all the facts together before.

If you had any questions about me, my letter, or my motives, you could have asked. I told both reporters I spoke to that I would be happy to provide copies of my excellent work evaluations from supervisors, lest they think my resignation was somehow about my job, rather than the reasons I stated in my letter. Neither was interested.

I don’t expect this letter to change the minds of you media-makers who ignored this story. But there is one more question I’d like to ask. Over the past few weeks, many have commented on the case of Rob Kuznia, a reporter who received a Pulitzer Prize after he had already quit journalism for a job in public relations. If that happens to you (a PR job, not a Pulitzer), do you think your work will change much?


Chris Pepus