Kendra: can admissions overhaul facilitate systems change?

The readings this week prompted me to want to share Dr. Carmen Kynard’s “On Graduate Admissions and Whiteness: A Love Letter to Black/ Brown/ Queer Graduate Students Out There Everywhere,” which surfaces for readers some of the ways in which white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal ideologies played out during an admissions process in 2019 at the CUNY Graduate Center. But that is an inadequate synthesis of a tremendously powerful and nuanced account. I hope you will read Dr. Kynard’s words for yourself:

While I was appalled anew by the data on the inherent racism and classism of legacy admissions, the ableism of athletic admissions, and the admissions process more generally, I was unsure about how to respond to this week’s reading. To my mind, equity, diversity, and inclusion should be hallmarks of the admission process at elite institutions, but I am so totally elite-institution averse, that I am less fired up by the idea of reforming Harvard’s admissions policies than I am by the idea of creating an alternate path forward for potential students that better serves individual and collective uplift at well-resourced public universities. By strengthening public institutions, building toward educational spaces that are much more just, joyous, inclusive, and accessible, there may be an opportunity to weaken the hold elite, private institutions have the production of wealth, power, decision-making capacities, privilege, white supremacy, patriarchy, and knowledge.

In the intro to C. Wright Mills The Power Elite, he breaks society down into two rough-hewn categories: those who make big decisions, precipitating major historical events, and those who do not have the power to make great decisions or influence historical occurrences. But he also suggests that there is no power elite consisting of specific individuals who make decisions and determine history. The real historical actors are major institutions, corporations, and militaries who produce and reproduce power and the powerful. His suggestion reminds me of a talk Amitav Ghosh gave years ago at the GC’s annual Victorians conference. He mapped the influence of the opium trade on the formation of mass markets, carceral capitalism, and universities. He mentioned, I think – my memory is hazy! – Brown University and Franklin D. Roosevelt as two different kinds of entities whose wealth, prestige, and influence was purchased through the opium trade. Can just admissions processes wrest the wheel from the power elite and reroute elite institutions toward more just ends? Maybe! But if institutions are the real actors, as Mills suggests, then institutions – and the societies they engender – have to be reconfigured completely too.