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Issues arise following efforts to create equity at NYC independent schools

Ginia Bellafante


Private Schools Brought In Diversity Consultants. Outrage Ensued.

In the way that college football grinds the Southeast to a halt on any given fall Saturday, a private-school drama in New York flattens the attentions of the city’s moneyed class for anything else, days on end. In this regard, it has been quite a season. Within a period of roughly 92 hours during the week of April 11, the news coming from the Ivy League training grounds hit observers with the pace of an angry linebacker tearing in from the blindside.

Here now, we were introduced to Andrew Gutmann, author of an enraged letter — sent through the mail and postmarked from New Jersey — to hundreds of families at Brearley, the Upper East Side girls’ school where his daughter was enrolled and where changes were making him very grumpy. Mr. Gutmann, the founder of something called the Institute for Finance Education and Career Advancement, who had once run an apparel wholesaler, was going to pull her out, he explained to many people who surely did not care. Brearley — a school with mandatory Latin, a ninth-grade experience full of Shakespeare and Jane Austen — was too busy “gutting” its curriculum and appeasing an “anti-intellectual mob.”

Thanks to Fox News and all the other outlets dedicated to the notion that elite liberal institutions have abandoned any hope of sanity in the name of social revolution, Mr. Gutmann soon became a minor celebrity on the right — which might have been the whole point.

There, he was joined by a math teacher named Paul Rossi, who had composed a letter of his own, seemingly to the nation at large, laying out his objections to the way that his employer, the Grace Church School in Lower Manhattan, was going about the business of changing its culture around race. Mr. Rossi’s note lacked the hysterical tone of Mr. Gutmann’s. It raised valid concerns about the squelching of free thought. But he also took the dubious step of publicizing part of a secretly taped conversation he had with the school’s headmaster, George Davison, in which he goaded his boss, as if he were a prosecutor grilling a witness, into acknowledging that the new programming demonized white students.

By the end of last week the conversation turned to the Dalton School, where Jim Best, the widely admired headmaster, announced that he was stepping down, amid conflicting agendas around these same issues. Who could blame him? Things were only bound to become more and more unmanageable.

The roots of all this chaos extend, more or less, to late last summer, as parents from Chilmark to Amagansett laid down their tennis gear, poured their Negronis and banged out angry emails to administrators and trustees, apoplectic that a $55,000 annual tuition might not guarantee that their children would receive in-person daily learning. Once the academic year got underway — with far more live classroom instruction than the city’s public schools — there were new dissatisfactions to nurture.

The calls for racial parity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder demanded a response from institutions that market their enlightenment even as they persist in advancing the privileges of largely rich, white populations. Over the summer, Black alumni and parents at some of the country’s most prestigious independent schools took to Instagram to document deeply troubling experiences with prejudice at the hands of teachers, students, families. Many stories came not from the long-ago past but from the annals of recent history. Former Dalton students, for example, relayed anecdotes about white classmates likening Black people to gorillas, about a friend’s mother who asked whether “Black men were really violent.” On and on went the horror and indignity.

Nearly every private school in the country thus spent the summer scrambling to intensify curriculums and training around race and racial sensitivity, often with the help of diversity consultants whose approach can feel dependent on jargon and contrived simplicities. The revolution was coming, but it would be filtered through the ethos of a re-education camp born on the campus of a business school.

Whether consultants were directly involved or not, it soon became clear that not all parents were on board with the new order. In November, the former newscaster Megyn Kelly announced on her podcast that she was pulling her sons out of their “woke” Upper West Side school, which turned out to be Collegiate, serving the intellectually adept since 1628. The breaking point for her was a letter circulating within the community, written by an outside champion of racially progressive education, arguing that “there’s a killer cop sitting in every school where White children learn.” However hyperbolic, it was hard to miss the irony: there are almost certainly no future cops in the classrooms of Collegiate, only future cabinet members and managing directors at Citibank.

The pushback did not end, however, with those who have had to make on-air apologies for remarks uncritical of blackface. In December, a group of Dalton parents and alumni wrote an anonymous letter to the school community titled “Loving Concern @ Dalton.” They worried about “an obsessive focus on race and identity,” filling their children’s days at school. With remote learning giving parents an opportunity to spy on what their children were getting taught all day, these parents did not like what they were hearing — “a pessimistic and age-inappropriate litany of grievances in EVERY class.”

The new programming seemed designed to divide and provoke guilt, they maintained, forcing white children to feel bad about being white. While guilt might seem like a fraught path to reform, it was also the case that these parents weren’t the best representatives of a viewpoint challenging the emerging orthodoxies. Their letter was seven pages long, and the sentence “To be clear, we abhor racism” did not present itself until paragraph 13. The Brearley dad was an even more appalling spokesman, given his belief that “we have not had systemic racism against Blacks in this country since the civil rights reforms of the 1960s.”

Private schools find themselves now at an existential moment. Over the past few decades, as they have become dominated by wealthier and wealthier families, they have found themselves more and more beholden to the habits of modern corporate culture, which has had a long love affair with consultants and the outsourcing of difficult problems. Right now there are lots of specialists popping up, eager to capitalize on institutional insecurity around diversity initiatives. One of them, Pollyanna, has advised Dalton, Brearley and also the Grace Church School.

The problem, though, is that consultants often present a blanket approach that fails to recognize the particulars of an institutional culture; the language deployed from one school (or company) to another is scarcely any different. Everything begins to sound as though it has its origins in Oz — inauthentic and alienating.

Mr. Rossi’s letter argued that students and teachers at Grace did not feel free to challenge a new language or ideology. When he did, he was reprimanded for “acting like an independent agent of a set of principles or ideas or beliefs,” he wrote. After the letter became public, Mr. Davison, the head of school, put together a committee to bring voices from all sides of the debate together. He asked Mr. Rossi to join, but Mr. Rossi instead chose to leave the school.

In a conversation I had with Mr. Davison last weekend, he was very frank about the imperfect nature of the changes at Grace. “We were in the process of developing programming faster than we ever had before,’’ he told me. “Whenever you build something quickly, you don’t always see all the pieces. The ones who are going to help you build it the most quickly are the true believers,” he said. But the truest believers are not always those in the best position to advance change without fear. “We need to be better at communicating those things. We need to get more opinion.” The truth, he said, was that most people were on board with the new mission. “If we were a school in Oklahoma, we might not have the consensus.”

When I asked a high school senior I know about what was missing in his diversity, equity and inclusion training at his private school, he said that often what was left out was “a basic focus on decency and empathy.” Kids want to know how to talk to their friends openly, he said, and they just don’t want to be jerks.

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