Steve Turner ’63 recently joined the Emeriti Club Leadership Council, formerly known as the Emeritus Club. Those are not the only changes to the E.C.L.C. The group has a new president, Sally Padley ’62, and their reunions will now occur at homecoming rather than during commencement weekend. Congratulations, Steve.
Deanne serves as class agent for the class of 1994. She used the occasion of her 20-year class reunion to renew her marriage vows to husband (of 10 years) Seth Watkins. Classmates played big roles in both the wedding and renewal ceremonies. Amy (Schwaderer) Henthorn officiated at the renewal ceremony. Jessica (Deretchin) Olson was Jeanne’s matron of honor at the wedding. At the renewal ceremony Jess walked Deanne down the aisle “to the song ‘At Last,’” said Deanne, “which Seth played on his phone.” The phone rendition was a 10-years-later reprise because the couple had the song played at their wedding. There were several reasons to renew at Stetson Chapel, according to Deanne. “One, beautiful location; two, convenient during a reunion to have friends present; three, during our K days Wendy [Bamberg] and I used to joke around and sing ‘Going to the Chapel’ occasionally (I even had it played at my wedding). So it just seemed right to actually ’go to the (K) chapel’ to renew our vows.” The renewal party included (l-r): Caelin Olson, Mike Olson, Cole Olson, Jessica (Deretchin) Olson, Seth Watkins, Deanne Bartkowiak, Amy (Schwaderer) Henthorn, and Wendy Bamberg.
Before first-year students even arrive at Kalamazoo College they are shaping their class into a cohesive educational community. By way of K’s Summer Common Reading program, now in its 15th year, incoming first-years read the same book at the same time, connecting not only with their classmates through this common-but-uncommon experience but also with the many faculty and staff and the significant number of current students who also read the book and together share their insights afterwards.
“It gives the students something to talk about, something besides ‘where are you from?’” says Dean of the First Year and Advising Zaide Pixley. “It’s all part of the teaching moment.”
Pixley helped launch and expand the Summer Common Reading program in 1999 and subsequent years. “I love to read,” Pixley says. “And I wanted to give students a way to enter the world of ideas.” In 2000, with the support of the Provost’s office and Student Development, the program became official.
“The first book we chose was Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver,” says Pixley. “But we didn’t ask the author to come to campus. We soon decided that should be one of the criteria—that the author be here for orientation, meet with the students, and later, if possible, return for that class’s commencement.”
The book of choice in 2000 was Independence Day by Richard Ford, an author whom then-Provost Greg Mahler knew personally and had invited to attend. Writer-in-residence Diane Seuss, Professor of English Andy Mozina, Mahler, and Pixley were the original members of the committee that chose the books and organized the events. Membership on the committee has changed over time. Associate Professor of English Marin Heinritz was a member for many years and was responsible for bringing to campus journalist David Finkel, the program’s first nonfiction writer. Neither she, Seuss, nor Mozina are active members of the committee today, but Pixley’s presence has been a constant.
Is the reading experience relevant, even (or especially) when a book’s protagonist differs significantly from the predominantly 18-year-old readers?
“Oh my,” Seuss chortles, recalling the first-year students meeting the Ford. “A student asked Richard Ford how he expected young people to relate to his middle-aged, white male real estate agent protagonist. His answer: ‘Are you a Danish prince? If not, then don’t read Hamlet!’”
Mozina nods. “I’ve seen great discussions happen. I often see the energy grow during the course of the author’s time on campus, with students saying that now they understand and like the book a lot better than they thought they would, or did initially. By the time some authors left, the students seemed ready to adopt them.”
As the criteria for the book choice developed, Pixley made one point immoveable.
“The author must come to campus,” she says. “We look for someone who makes a good guest, who is an engaging speaker and enjoys interacting with students. That’s what makes our summer reading program different than the programs at many other schools—the presence of the author.”
Committee members meet to discuss new and upcoming authors that fit the bill.
“New book and author choices are challenging,” Pixley admits. “We have no flexibility on dates. They have to be here when the first-year students come in. We look for books that have been nominated for prizes, books that are being talked about. Although she isn’t on the committee this year, Di [Seuss] is very plugged in, she has 2,000 Facebook friends and they are almost all writers. An A list and a B list begins to take shape, and we get student peer leaders involved, too.”
Committee members read lots of books and talk about authors who might be an appropriate and feasible guest. Criteria include the content of the book, of course, the way in which it can represent a boundary-crossing for the students, and an author who is willing to be here and participate in person. “We all keep our eyes out for ‘the next big one,’” said former committee member Seuss, “often finding the perfect fit with a younger author on the rise, like Chimamanda Adichie, who visited us with her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, and has since won the Orange Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and a MacArthur Fellowship.”
Gail Griffin, professor emeritus of English, has been involved with the program since its inception. She adds: “We’ve often joked about it: either the day before or the day after an author visits, she or he will get a MacArthur award/Pulitzer Prize/National Book Award nomination. The track record is quite amazing; it defies logic.”
“It has to be good literature,” Pixley states. “We look for something that is engaging to young people and doesn’t come with 400 pages of footnotes. Coming of age themes are good, and we want a book that is intercultural in some way, and that doesn’t have to mean that the book has to be about different countries. Detroit can have a different culture from Kalamazoo, too. We look for books that can foster intercultural understanding.”
The book choice of summer 2014 covers that cultural boundary, in fact. Incoming members of the class of 2018 read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. The 2013 debut novel depicts the impossible situation of the person in exile, in this case a child leaving a beloved homeland beset with political turmoil and violence, poverty, starvation, and illness. As she grows to adulthood in a new place she realizes that she is caught between two cultures without being home in either. Bulawayo won the 2014 PEN-Hemingway Award, the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, and the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014. The novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.
Anna Gough ’15 is a first-year experience coordinator along with Bryan Olert ’15. Both experienced the value of bonding over a book that often pushed their comfort zones.
“I still think about the book we read when I was a freshman,” Gough says. “In 2011, it was The Good Soldiers by David Finkel. I would never have picked it up on my own.”
“It’s really the whole idea of liberal arts,” Olert, a history major, adds. “The Summer Common Reading program challenges you to read outside of your field, all over the field.”
Now seniors, Gough and Olert helped plan all of this year’s first-year events, and both consider the reading program their favorite.
“As an English major, it was fun to organize something I enjoyed so much in earlier years,” says Gough. “I felt like I was a part of creating the future for the new students.”
“And it’s great job experience in event planning, networking, organizing,” Olert adds.
Beginning to end, the Summer Common Reading program has drawn together not only freshmen, but the entire campus, as older students find themselves picking up the chosen book as well, wanting in on the hot topic of the campus. Faculty and staff are involved, too, teaching to the book or participating as discussion group leaders.
“The program asks a lot of faculty,” Pixley admits. “Yet K faculty members are always game. I’ve been asked—how do I get people to read the book and lead discussion groups? People here are willing to step out, willing to try new things.”
“We prepare the peer leaders and discussion leaders, write a lesson plan, host the guest, and do all of the often complex negotiations with agents and publishers to bring the next writer to campus,” Seuss says.
“I can tell you that very few people comprehend the work involved,” says Griffin. “In choosing the book, in negotiating with the writer to come to Kalamazoo, in organizing the visit and the sub-components of the visit, in turning around the students’ submitted questions and consolidating them for the author, in shepherding the author around. That detailed, thoughtful, exhausting work is what has made the program go.”
While the committee does prepare a lesson plan and suggested questions for the discussion group leaders, Pixley says that “everyone is free to improvise as they see fit.”
Reading contemporary books rather than classics, Pixley says, is another aspect of the program that differentiates Kalamazoo College from other institutions that have started similar programs.
“The National Association of Scholars singled us out as being subversive in our book choices,” Pixley smiles. Challenging students to think and question, however, is part of the program’s goal.
Says Seuss: “Each book lands differently, and each entering class receives it in its own way. What I love is that the reverberations continue long after the writer has left campus; students live with the book, in one way or another, for the rest of their lives. Students in my first year seminar often refer back to the book or something the author said, and I hear seniors doing the same thing. Maybe the best sign of the program’s success is when we witness students struggling to make connections, to approach and understand differences.”
“Our student body is more diverse than ever,” says Stacy Nowicki, library director at Kalamazoo College’s Upjohn Library and a member of this year’s committee. “We have students from many different areas in the United States and the world and from different socio-economic backgrounds. The Summer Common Reading book helps students learn to interact with someone different than themselves. It gives them entry to each other. This summer’s book is about the immigrant experience, and any student coming to Kalamazoo College may feel like they are immigrating to a new community. Through discussing the book, they can bring up their own issues.”
Nowicki joined the committee this year because of her involvement with the Reading Together program. Reading Together is administered by the Kalamazoo Public Library and has much in common with Kalamazoo College’s program. In both, an entire community reads the same book, joins in discussion, and meets the author.
“The important thing is for students to feel connected,” Nowicki says. “It’s a good way for professors and staff to get introduced to the incoming students, too. I’m guessing in that way it helps retention. And the discussion groups help students learn how to express their viewpoints and defend them while listening to the viewpoints of others.”
Griffin adds: “If you lined up all the books that have been chosen, they cover an amazing array of contemporary writers and a mighty inclusive list of perspectives and issues of the sort that we want our newest students to begin thinking about: race, economics, global politics, gender, sexuality, nationality, international issues, American issues, immigration, ‘home’ and leaving home, you name it.”
Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of the 2012 Summer Common Reading book, Once Upon a River, offers her perspective as a participating author. “It was a great honor and a thrill to have all the freshmen and many of the upper class folks read Once Upon a River. Kalamazoo College students are conscientious scholars and careful readers, and they had a lot of smart questions to ask. The world I presented in the book was very different from the world of the students, so it was interesting to see how they grappled to understand the choices my protagonist made, which were often so different from what they would have chosen. As an author it is always great fun to be surrounded by smart people who have read your book.”
Pixley smiles to recall some of the discussion around Campbell’s book. “Oh, I’m still hearing complaints about Margo, Bonnie’s character in the novel. Why did Margo do this, why did Margo choose that. But Margo had different circumstances in her life, and it was a different time. It’s wonderful how invested students can get.”
The interaction between author and students, all agree, can be one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.
“So often their first reactions to the texts have been resistant, defiant, because the committee has rightly selected challenging texts at the forefront of current fiction, and that material is often difficult, not easy reads,” says Griffin. “And then you watch them come to terms with it, chew on it, hear the author, stand in line for hours to meet the author, and suddenly—the book is theirs. I have seen an incoming class become a class over three days because of this program.”
Seuss lists favorite memories of students interacting with authors: “Chang-Rae Lee flying out of New York City and joining us just a few days after September 11, 2001. The students starting a Chimamanda Adichie Adoration Facebook page. Junot Diaz’s sass. Vaddey Ratner talking about her childhood as a captive of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the way she greeted people with the namaskara, her beauty.”
Heinritz most strongly recalls the moments “students got turned on by what they’d read or something the authors said. Often, years later they would bring up something Junot Diaz or David Finkel had said about writing when they were on campus, and it would become part of the fabric of that day’s class discussions.”
She also cites the generosity of the authors. “So many of them agree to offer a craft talk for student writers while they are on campus,” Heinritz says. “David Finkel got real with journalism students about what the profession requires and where it is headed. Bonnie Jo Campbell gave practical advice to aspiring fiction writers.” Finkel even offered to read and critique Heinritz’ writing, “which he did and was very helpful,” she says. “I consider him a friend. I know Di has also developed this kind of relationship with a couple of the authors, especially Chimamanda.”
Pixley nods. She remembers many of those moments, and more. The Summer Common Reading program is her labor of love.
“It’s a thrill,” she says. “To hear an author reading to the students, and the students are so quiet, listening so carefully, that you can hear the pages turn.”
Summer Common Reading Program Books
(1999 Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams)
2000 Richard Ford, Independence Day
2001 Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life
2002 Ha Jin, Waiting
2003 Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
2004 Aleksandar Hemon, Nowhere Man
2005 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus
2006 Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
2007 Edward P. Jones, The Known World
2008 Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
2009 Rachel Kushner, Telex From Cuba
2010 Colson Whitehead, Sag Harbor
2011 David Finkel, The Good Soldiers
2012 Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River
2013 Vaddey Ratner, In the Shadow of the Banyan
2014 NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names
Rose Kennedy and the K-Tucky Derby live on the same Kalamazoo College website—Story Zoo—separated by a decade or so, both upstream and downstream time’s river.
Every homecoming Story Zoo is open on the Quad or in the Upjohn Library recording studio, a chance for alumni, faculty, staff and students to share a K story that matters to them. Perhaps better than any other medium, the stories in aggregate articulate the joy and struggle, the grace and disorder, and the “serious quirky” that makes K what it is.
Some stories will move you, like the paean of David Kessler ’70 (An Arresting Exam) to the courage of former president Weimer K. Hicks. It changed David’s life.
Some are downright poetic, like the extended metaphor (coat-to-cape) of Pam Brown Gavin ’74 (10 Best for the Clueless).
Forgot what it was like the first Saturday in May at Angell Field? Let class-of-1985 friends Elizabeth (Fiore) Vogel and Carolyn Dadabay remind you of K-Tucky Derby. See if you can spot Carolyn in the video.
What punishments and penalties marked your K day or era? In the late 1950s being “campused” was the sentence for “late minutes.” Head Proctor Karen (Lake) DeVos ’59 met some good friends in “lock up.” And big changes were coming (French Influence to K: “Lighten up!”), originating from foreign study in France.
Some stories solve longstanding mysteries. The Student Observation Bureau. Remember? Well, it didn’t last long, but it sure caused quite a stir. Where, exactly, did it originate? Rachel Robinson ’85 finally reveals that secret (S.O.B.–Old Rules, New Prank).
So take some time and time travel—through the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, the aughts, the 10s and more. You’ll discover memories of great professors like Chen and Doc Stowe, Nelda Balch, T.J. Smith, Karyn Boatwright and Mickey McDonald, among others. You’ll recall small but vital details of the elements of the K-Plan: foreign study, career service, civic engagement and the SIP. Great parties (Beach Party) and enduring relationships (A Lifetime of Friendship).
Most stories are one to three minutes. There is one however, that is longer (about seven minutes), and it is worth the time: David Easterbrook’s (class of 1969) moving story about the delivery of a 20-year-old message from a Masai elder to the Kennedy family (When You See Rose Kennedy in the Market). In this day of social media and shortened attention span, please don’t miss the beauty of David’s “longer” lyric.
Whether your K story is the memory of an unforgettable moment, or the trajectory of your career, we want to hear it. All alumni, students, faculty and staff are invited to contribute to the Story Zoo. Individual or group stories are welcome! Nor must you wait for homecoming or commencement. Feel free to record your own video, upload it to the video-sharing site of your choice (e.g. Vine or YouTube), and send us the URL.
The next campus recording is scheduled for Saturday, October 15, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the fire circle next to Stetson Chapel. All alumni, students, faculty and staff are invited to stop by the Cavern Fire Circle to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and to record your favorite K memory.
One of the most special times to be a part of the action on campus is during Homecoming weekend. Some of us, like my colleagues on the Alumni Association Executive Board (AAEB), are fortunate to be on campus several times a year. When was the last time you came home to Kalamazoo College?
Homecoming at Kalamazoo College can mean many different things… fall colors in the Midwest, football games, the Hornet 5K run. For me, it’s about connecting with old friends, making new connections, and reconnecting with my alma mater.
The AAEB would like to welcome you back to K every year for Homecoming. This year’s festivities occur October 23 through October 25. But it doesn’t have to be your reunion year for you to come to campus and feel the energy of a new academic year. After all, it’s likely you knew far more K students than just the members of your immediate class year! The campus is buzzing with activities of all kinds, and the city of Kalamazoo is a vibrant community.
Happenings worth your return include departmental gatherings, at which you can connect with professors and alumni who shared your major and various opportunities to see new buildings on campus or visit old haunts.
The AAEB sponsors two very special Friday evening events for alumni during Homecoming weekend. The first is a networking reception that informally gathers current students with alumni, faculty, and staff. Alumni share stories of their own career paths, listen and learn from others’ work experiences, and explore professional possibilities both local and global.
The second event is the Alumni Awards ceremony where we honor the achievements and service of fellow graduates. These special awards include recognition of a younger alumna or alumnus who has accomplished a lot in the first several years of life after K.
We welcome and encourage any and all alums to attend both of these events and the many other fun activities throughout Homecoming. That weekend is your chance to come home, to see what feels the same and to discover new connections.
So whether your reunion is right around the corner or several years out, Homecoming 2015 will provide opportunities to stay connected with one another other and with our alma mater.
And if you aren’t able to get back to campus as often as you like, we encourage you to seek ways to connect in your local community. From regional events like Hornet Happy Hours to being a part of a career fair or recruitment event, there are ways to engage with K and your fellow alumni close to your home. The AAEB has created a menu of Alumni Bites to outline the many opportunities.
And in those interims between local and regional events and our class reunions on campus, we can always find each other and stay connected through the alumni directory, alumni Facebook pages, and occasional informal gatherings with groups of K friends.
I recently spent a weekend camping with my K roommate and several other K friends and their families (together we now total 18!). It felt like no time had passed, and our bonds with each other and our alma mater were reinforced. I know we will stay connected and see each other in between, but it makes me that much more excited for our next reunion!
If there are other ways you would like to connect with Kalamazoo College or the AAEB directly, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear your ideas for events at Homecoming and in your area!
On Tuesday, March 22, 2016, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) released findings of an investigation conducted collaboratively with Kalamazoo College. The report concluded K committed three major violations: the use of a noncompliant formula for awarding financial aid to student athletes, a recruitment impropriety, and inadequate internal monitoring. The investigation was prompted by reports to the MIAA commissioner of a possible recruiting impropriety at K.
The NCAA concluded there was no intent by Kalamazoo College to circumvent NCAA rules. About two decades ago the College chose a process to award merit aid that considered, among other factors, every student’s entire extracurricular résumé. The College believed that formula to be the most fair to all students, and it believed (mistakenly) that formula to be compliant with NCAA rules.
When K discovered its financial aid formula was not in compliance, it immediately made the changes to ensure its procedures were consistent with NCAA rules. Student athletes who matriculated in the fall of 2015 have compliant merit aid awards. K continues to consider extracurricular information in the admission process, which is permissible, but no longer considers extracurricular activity of any kind when awarding merit aid for any student.
The dissemination of incorrect information to a small group of prospective student-athletes constituted the recruiting violation. The information suggested incorrectly that a coach could influence financial aid award protocol. No coach at a Division III school has that capability, including those at K. None of the prospective students who received the communication came to K. And the College has implemented new procedures for training new athletic department personnel.
The third major violation, standard in these cases, cited the College for not having had in place measures to prevent or detect the other two violations. All of the NCAA concerns have been corrected. Kalamazoo College is committed to complying with NCAA rules and regulations.
The NCAA placed K on probation for a period of three years, beginning immediately, and banned postseason competition, including conference tournaments; regular season conference championship consideration; and NCAA championship opportunities, for any K team whose roster contains a student athlete who received impermissible financial aid.
The College accepted the terms of the probation. It has appealed the postseason ban, which has been stayed pending the appeal’s resolution. The ban, in the College’s opinion, unfairly penalizes student athletes—those who had no role in determining financial aid awards and who were unaware of the violation and those whose aid is compliant with NCAA regulations.
If the appeal is denied (a decision is expected this month), the NCAA would allow Kalamazoo College to recalculate the financial aid packages of next year’s junior and senior student athletes in order to maintain postseason play and championship consideration.
To address the possibility the NCAA will deny the appeal, President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran and Provost Mickey McDonald have selected nine teams that will be repackaged and nine teams that will not. Next year’s junior and senior student-athletes on the following teams will have their financial aid awards recalculated in order to make these teams eligible for postseason play: baseball, men’s cross country, women’s cross country, men’s golf, women’s soccer, men’s swimming and diving, women’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and women’s tennis. Most junior and senior members of these teams will not see a change in the amount of financial aid they receive. But some will receive less financial aid from K, and they will have two options. They can accept the new financial aid package and continue to play on the team, or they can retain their current aid package and not play on their team.
The president and provost’s decisions were deliberate and difficult, factoring several complex criteria. Among these were the number of team members facing an adverse financial effect; the range of those adverse effects; the continued affordability of a K education for some student athletes and their families; the indispensability of postseason play in composing a meaningful season for some sports; the effect of recalibrating financial aid on retention and recruitment; the College’s desire to honor as many of its original financial aid commitments as possible and to minimize the number of cases where student athletes and their families would feel they had no option other than discontinuing intercollegiate athletic participation.
“On behalf of Kalamazoo College I apologize to every student athlete and family member affected by an error the institution made in good faith so many years ago,” said Wilson-Oyelaran. “We know if the appeal is not successful that nine teams will be denied postseason competition for, at most, two seasons. And even though the nine repackaged teams will be eligible for postseason competition, some of their team members will have to cover a loss in financial aid or discontinue playing on the team. All of those possibilities hurt some student athletes (and their families) in some way, and we profoundly regret that.”
The Kalamazoo College Statement on NCAA Infractions can be found at hornets.kzoo.edu/ncaareport/index
They arrived as friendly competitors. They left as collaborators and comrades. And that was kind of the point.
It’s only been two short years since the inaugural Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership Global Prize competition in the fall of 2013, but the event is fast becoming a sought after platform for grassroots social justice organizations from the United States and around the world to showcase their work and learn from like-minded organizers.
For a weekend this past October, 10 finalists from five counties, including the United States, gathered at the ACSJL on the Kalamazoo College campus to present their projects to a panel of judges comprised of social justice advocates from the local K community and leaders in the movement, each vying for the $25,000 Global Prize. Almost 90 social justice organizations submitted their projects to be considered as a finalist.
Projects ranged from a Ugandan group working to empower youth and reunite them with their tribal pasts by using elements of modern, popular arts and culture, to a Chicago-based organization trying to expose the darker sides of the foster care system, to a grassroots effort in India seeking to protect the language and way of life of indigenous people from the steady march of technology and industrial-based progress.
But there could be only one winner, and Familia: Trans Queer Liberation, the only national LGBTQ Latino organization that focuses on racial justice through a trans and queer lens, took home the prize of $25,000. For Jorge Gutierrez, national coordinator with the Los Angeles-based organization, the award was less about the money than the exposure and cooperation seen at the biennial global prize event.
“These spaces are needed – global or not – to showcase the work that’s being done,” says Gutierrez. “There are big obstacles in front of groups like those who attended the competition. They don’t have the big name connections or access to millions in funding or staff with the grant writing skills that many large, non-profits do. Events like the Global Competition level the field.
“The weekend provided a platform where everyone could be seen – even small, grassroots groups like ours – and showcase the fact that important work is being done by social organizations that are not in the headlines.”
Of course, the money helps, he says.
The prize money means that Familia will be able to hire more fulltime staff and broaden their reach in to the communities they serve, while at the same time leveraging the award as a means to raise more funding.
“These types of events are vitally important for grassroots social justice groups, which often do not have a fundraising department or dedicated staff tasked with drumming up money,” Gutierrez says.
Two organizations won an Audience Choice Award of $2,500 each: Mujeres Lucha y Derechos Para Todas A.C. (MULYD, “Women, Struggle, and Rights for Everyone”), a Mexican-based organization that works to educate and empower indigenous women about health and reproductive rights; and the Association of Injured Workers & Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores (ASOTRECOL), a group working to draw attention to the plight of employees injured at a GM plant in Colombia.
In an example of the cooperative spirit nurtured at the conference, Gutierrez – who had become close with representatives of MULYD during the weekend – announced that Familia would donate $5,000 of its prize to the organization.
“We were inspired by their work,” he said. “We have been helped by the award, and in a way, it’s our responsibility to help others, too.”
Frank Hammer is the lead organizer with ASOTRECOL, a group of injured GM workers who for years have lived in tents outside the U.S. embassy in Bogotá to shed light on the unfair treatment of workers at the auto plant there. Some have sustained work-related nerve damage; others suffer with spinal, hand or shoulder injuries. The workers have undertaken four hunger strikes, some even sewing their mouths shut with needle and thread to protest GM’s treatment of workers at the plant. Some hunger strikers endured several months without food.
“The Audience Award helped stabilize our financial needs and sustain the direct actions of the guys in tents,” Hammer says. “It’s so hard for us to keep fighting. We have so much gratitude for the award we received. The guys in Colombia are ecstatic.
“Such a unique event,” he adds. “It’s our version of the Oscars. It’s not a competition against each other, but rather a competition to excel. Even if there was not a dime to be won, we would still have attended. It was such an elevating event. It was award enough to be around so many inspiring people.”
In many ways, that was the main point: the value of the cooperative spirit that emerged from the weekend, as well as the wellspring of mutual inspiration.
“It’s less about the money and more about the visibility. It’s about giving social justice advocates a platform for their work and to celebrate them,” says Lisa Brock, academic director of the ACSJL. “There is an energizing atmosphere at the competition. It’s a special event where like-minded people gather to learn from one another. Opportunities for collaborating emerge organically.
“The quality of the groups and their work is what we value at the Center. They get exposure, and the Center is better known in the social justice community.”
May 2014, the first ever Kalamazoo College Economics and Business Development Senior Individualized Project (SIP) Symposium was underway, and the excitement at Hicks Center was palpable. President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran walked from project to project, leaning in to examine the details, taking time to question the seniors. The economics professors mingled, glowing like proud parents.
“For me, seeing these SIPs is seeing the culmination of a K education,” President Wilson-Oyelaran said, pausing between posters. “We are seeing the power of faculty mentorship. I’m thrilled the department of economics and business is doing this. I hope it will become a tradition.”
“It will be!” assured Ahmed Hussen, the Edward and Virginia van Dalson Professor of Economics. “This is our new tradition. We had workshops with the students and saw great improvements—we had only 14 of our majors participate this year, but we expect the symposium to grow over the years.”
Topics varied greatly: crowdfunding and the lean startup; new growth opportunities in Detroit; economic analysis of property rights in outer space; measuring the effectiveness of a buy-local campaign; economic impact of hosting the Olympics; analysis of produce pricing dynamics in Kalamazoo; effects of patient protection and the Affordable Care Act on the medical cost trend; a marketing plan for a luxury travel planning business in Spain; and more. Something for everyone, yes, even those who might one day prefer to live in outer space.
Among students, faculty and administration, and here and there the proud family members of seniors, wandered Will Dobbie ’04. A decade from his own school years at K, where he majored in economics with a minor in political science, he has made a name for himself as a result of his research on school effectiveness. Dobbie today is an assistant professor himself, teaching economics and public affairs at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs. He was back on campus to deliver the keynote address for this inaugural symposium.
“When I received the invitation to speak at K,” Dobbie said, “I wondered – about what? Then my fiancé reminded me. She said, ‘Everything you do, Will, everything you are today is because of K. Talk about that.’” Dobbie smiled. Obvious. His talk on this evening at K would be about the value of a liberal arts education in business.
“We raised the bar immeasurably this year,” said Timothy Moffit ’80, associate professor of economics and business, in his remarks at the dinner that concluded the symposium. “All in the spirit of learning,” he said. “Friction was natural in this process of making improvements. It was the friction of change.” Then Moffit introduced Hussen, who serves department chair as well as (in Moffit’s words) “the SIP czar.”
“I loooove talking about my former students!” Hussen crowed, and his audience laughed. “It’s a way for me to brag about what I’ve done, to claim that everything this former student has done is because of me,” Hussen smiled. Then he became more serious. Will Dobbie, was special. Will, Hussen explained, earned the highest grade he had ever given a student.
“Will Dobbie’s SIP on the decentralization of government in Kenya is one of the best, still, that I’ve seen,” Hussen said. After K, Dobbie earned his master’s degree in economics at the University of Washington, and his Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Just a few weeks prior to the economics department SIP symposium, he had been in Kalamazoo to receive the W.E. Upjohn Institute Dissertation Award for best dissertation on employment. In addition to his teaching at Princeton he serves as a research fellow at the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University.
Dobbie’s speech that evening was titled “The value of an (economics) liberal arts education,” and Dobbie illustrated that value by talking about his November 2011 study, “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City,” in partnership with Roland G. Fryer, Jr.
In their study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dobbie explained, the two professors compared 39 New York charter schools to find out if the charter schools were any more effective than traditional models of education. Did class size make a difference? Would spending more money per pupil improve quality of education? Did teachers with more credentials and advanced degrees teach better?
Quite simply: no.
Dobbie and Fryer state in their study: “Improving the efficiency of public education in America is of great importance. The United States spends $10,768 per pupil on primary and secondary education, ranking it fourth among OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Yet, among these same countries, American fifteen-year-olds rank 25th in math achievement, 17th in science, and 12th in reading.”
When the two conducted interviews with school principals and teachers, studied lesson plans and conducted student surveys, made video observations, and examined homework assignments, the usual remedies to improve the quality of education made no measurable difference in student outcomes.
“We looked at social outcomes, we looked at health outcomes, we looked at crime outcomes in terms of incarceration,” said Dobbie. “The conventional solutions were ineffective. We seem to be spending a lot of money on education, but not getting a lot out of it. Everything we’ve tried, if it worked at all—it was barely.”
What Dobbie and his research partner did find was that looking at a child’s life in the classroom was not enough. Other influences in that child’s life could have just as much, if not more, effect on how well a child does in and after school, throughout life.
“Community programs also seem to have little to no effect,” Dobbie continued. “Yet they are fantastically expensive. Head Start, for instance, as popular as it is, does show some positive effect, but it’s very small.”
So what does make a difference? What are the magic buttons of quality education? Dobbie smiled as he gave the answer, and more than one audience member reflected that smile. What he described often sounded like a description of a Kalamazoo College education.
“It’s basic stuff,” he said. “The five tenets of effective schools are: extended day, week, and school years; individualized tutoring; rewarding teachers for performance and holding them accountable if they are not adding value; data-driven instruction, with students being assessed frequently, then being retaught the skills they haven’t yet mastered; and students buying into the school’s mission that education will improve their lives.”
No surprised faces lit up in the audience. Preaching to the attentive choir.
“Charter schools educate only about five percent of our kids nationwide,” Dobbie said. “Can we duplicate their success in traditional schools? When similar policies were implemented in 20 of the lowest achieving schools, they worked. They worked everywhere. Having high expectations for kids, expecting them to go to college, was effective. Making them fill out just one college application, that alone increased the number of students going on to college by 10 percent.”
More: in schools where the five tenets were implemented, incarceration rates dropped to zero. Education proved to be the solution to keeping kids away from crime. Teenage pregnancy rates also appeared to take a dip.
Dobbie then flashed the next question on the screen above him. It said: “The value of a K education?”
“Passion,” he began. “Intellectual creativity and flexibility. Critical thinking, or asking the ‘obvious’ question. Professors at K really care about their students. When I was at K as a student, when there were speaking events, we had standing room only—people were that interested. People at K study what excites them, not just what they should be studying. That’s passion.
“We develop critical thinking skills. When we wrote a paper, we didn’t just write the facts, but how they fit together. As it turns out, that is remarkably rare out there in the world. Asking the obvious question seems normal to us at K, but out there,” Dobbie raised a hand and held it out in a gesture that would encompass the world beyond the campus, “out there, asking that obvious question is incredibly rare. Even rarer is what K students learn to do well: ask the next question.”
Dobbie’s words seemed to resonate with the K students in the audience. When he opened the room for questions, the passion to which he’d referred was evident. He was peppered with “obvious’ questions and “next” questions.
Why is education not a priority in the United States the way it is in some other countries? How to get past the political pushback of extending the school year? What about funding? What is corporate responsibility and how does one get corporations involved? What are the incentives? It was a lively interchange of passionate inquirers.
“So many people do things by default,” Dobbie concluded. “People choose their jobs because that’s where Dad worked or what Mom did or wants. I wanted to do what I wanted to do.”
For Dobbie, what he wanted to do and what still drives him as a lifelong learner today is to keep asking the next question.