Opinions, Column, Featured Column

The Effects of BC Exceptionalism

About 35 minutes into the interview, its direction shifted. Our conversation on underrepresentation in the media moved from the Oscars to The Heights. “It just seems like a white club, and that shouldn’t be the case,” student filmmaker Cai Thomas, MCAS ’16, said.

There I was, editor-in-chief of the largest student newspaper on campus, and in all honesty, I had never had this conversation about my organization before. It was a disarming moment, and I find myself frequently thinking back to that exchange.

I was first inclined to explain to her that there was actually little I could do to change anything, having only a semester left before leaving the paper’s editorial board, which turns over once per calendar year. But then, how ridiculous would it sound for me—as leader of the group—to not only admit that I never before thought of my organization’s identity as a problem, but also that I was powerless in changing it?

The craziest part is, for all intents and purposes, it probably was too late to do much at all. This is a conversation I wish I had sooner, and while I’m mostly proud of what I achieved with The Heights, this is a point I wish I had the bravery to act more aggressively on. It’s a flaw in the University’s culture that we often use the good we do as justification for not trying to do better. And when our organizations fail to sufficiently build on the school’s diversity, we’re all on the losing end of the conversation.

Boston College is a place with a lot of memory, which is to say that most of the institutions making it up move slowly—if at all. Its culture is heavily governed by tradition, and I’d hazard to guess that, for most students, the historic mystique of the school is actually a big part of their initial attraction to it.

And central to the endurance of these traditions is a belief that the bones of this University are essentially good—that the BC DNA is exceptional, and on some level, our happiness here is dependent on our faith in the institutions we inherit.

Perhaps this is why when Princeton Review ranks BC among the top schools for “Little Race / Class Interaction” for seven consecutive years, the gut reaction is to question the validity of such polling samples. Meanwhile, we’ll happily suffer a poll’s shoddy data collection practices if its conclusion is favorable. And while campus climate surveys conducted internally as recently as 2012 have similarly highlighted a dissatisfying state of race relations at BC, each time these problems resurface the institution seems taken off guard—as if the problem just arrived at BC, and couldn’t possibly be built into the way our University functions.

To “Eradicate Boston College Racism,” as the campus’s most recent wave of student activism has urged us to do, demands we investigate the very architecture of a BC education. This certainly extends to policy and curriculum decisions made at the top, but it does not stop there.

And while much of the criticism of this group has targeted its tactics, I believe it’s actually its message which really offends proponents of the University’s exceptionalism. BC does good, so it can’t do better. If we’re interested in seeing a solution, as individuals we also need to take stronger ownership of the problem. As students, it’s easy to reduce BC’s troubles to some caricature of Father Leahy, making all University decisions from some mahogany-walled room in Maloney—but the reality is that senior administrators are relatively limited in their influence on the day-to-day of student life. Furthermore, such characterizations diminish student autonomy in improving the institutions closest to them.

I do believe, in your four years here, you can have a profound impact on how the University functions—but this requires some strategy. As the national conversation on race at college campuses turns to safe spaces for solutions, I’d argue that many of BC’s problems endure because of “safe spaces” built into student life. While some Walsh eight-mans might indeed be centers for diverse discussion, my experience is that University housing can lock students into relatively narrow perspectives on college life. Meanwhile, student organizations similarly enforce cultural homophily among BC students, bringing them together based on shared interests and backgrounds.

It’s not a problem in itself that these environments exist. It’s most often in these groups that we create the friendships that define our experiences at BC—and if there is a place BC is truly exceptional, it’s in the relationships this community affords us.

But I have come to see that these environments can pull students apart or bring them together for relatively superficial reasons. Take, for example, junior year housing. The people you live with junior-year are very likely to be who you’re close with through graduation, and currently, those living situations we end up in are heavily dictated by our financial ability to do things like live off campus or go abroad. This housing divide slices up undergraduates by family wealth, and reinforces a culture that “otherizes” those of modest means.

The challenge of BC housing is that it forces us to abandon the diverse experience of freshman housing, and can often direct us toward more limited, homogenous communities. And when it comes to student organizations, the current process for joining them does force you to make snap judgments on just where you best fit. It might be based on high school history, it might be based on an upperclassman you know, but regardless, student groups consistently struggle (or are altogether lacking in the resources) to bring together an organization fully taking advantage of the diverse pool of students at BC.

Of course, each student group has its unique set of challenges in recruiting, but smart outreach and collaboration between groups has potential to really broaden an organization’s perspective. What I can say from experience is that, if you wait until junior or senior year to begin identifying where your organization could do more, odds are those areas will remain wanting. Most BC institutions move slowly—if at all. If a piece of the culture feels too exclusionary to you as a freshman, it probably is. Someone could probably use your help. You can do better.

Featured Image by Alex Gaynor

January 21, 2016