Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times editorial, “An Ivy League Twist,” discussed a new initiative from more than 80 colleges, including all eight in the Ivy Leagues, to try to support candidates from diverse backgrounds in their college application processes. Students who may not have college advisors, like their more privileged peers usually do, will be able to navigate a special website that will give them information and tips on how to compile their applications and apply for financial aid.
As Bruni describes, optimists think this may be useful to the stated goal of bringing greater numbers of qualified minority or low-income candidates to elite colleges and universities. Cynics think this is a lame and perhaps perverse effort to create access and equity, and that it will instead have the effect of reinforcing exclusivity in the face of the Common App.
Time will surely tell a more nuanced story. But this debate got me thinking about a phrase that plays often in my head, a phrase that the sui generis social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson shares in his powerful book, Just Mercy. His grandmother, who loved him so much and hugged him so hard that he “could barely breathe,” repeatedly told him: “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.”
Stevenson’s grandmother was able to see that proximity to people is what best helps us to transcend seemingly intractable issues. When I think about what it would really take for elite colleges and universities to reflect the diversity of American society, I wonder how anything other than a face to face conversation, or better yet embrace, can get us there.