All things being equal

MacArthur Foundation President John Palfrey ’90 and Cameron Frary ’20 discuss equity in education. 

Cameron Frary '20
May 10, 2022
John Palfry and Cam Frary

John Palfrey '90 (left) and Cameron Frary '20.

Diversity, equity and inclusion have risen to the forefront of educational thought in recent years. Exeter hired its first director of equity and inclusion in 2018 and accelerated its efforts in DEI after the events of the summer of 2020. This push for equity helped lead Exeter to institute new curricular programs, to devote more administrative attention to DEI topics, and to announce need-blind admissions this past fall, among other initiatives.

I recently had the pleasure of discussing this movement for equity with John Palfrey ’90, president of the MacArthur Foundation and former principal of our sister school to the south. During his time at Andover, he helped implement need-blind admissions, and he has continued to support equitable policies at the MacArthur Foundation by leveraging “creative people and institutions” and supporting socially responsible investment. He talks about equity in education as making efforts to safeguard equitable educational outcomes and making sure everyone feels a sense of belonging and can participate fully in school life.

Given this conception of equity, I think it’s possible to sort discussions about equity and its promotion into two categories: conversations of policy implementation and conversations about maintaining equity in daily interactions. The former has to do with institutional programs and the latter has to do with the day-to-day experiences of marginalized groups, such as in the classroom. And while conversations about equity in education typically and rightfully often focus on inequities in the public education system, independent boarding schools such as Exeter might be able to support equity in their own important and unique ways.

First, and perhaps most obviously, the Deed of Gift established Exeter as a school to educate “youth from every quarter,” a straightforward and seemingly simple statement for a diverse student body. As Palfrey notes, the charge highlights the power education has “to bring people together across all kinds of difference in ways that almost nothing else can.” I think that like the U.S. Constitution, the way we interpret those words — and that document as a whole — has evolved over the past 240 years, but the purpose and the message remain much the same. In the 1850s, a commitment to “youth from every quarter” meant building Exeter’s first dorm to support students who couldn’t pay for room and board in town. In the 1950s, it meant expanding financial aid outreach by bringing in newspaper boys from the Midwest. In the 1970s, it meant making sure Exeter was working well for promising young women. Today, it means drawing attention to and supporting students of color and students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

The notion that Exeter should be a diverse, national school has its roots in a pro-democracy project. That hope, in 1781, was to help educate the youth of the new nation as a means of strengthening it. This project continues: The kind of intermixing possible at a national school like Exeter, Palfrey says, “could help bridge some of the stark divides that we suffer from as a democracy.” However, given the inequity still present in our society, it’s not easy to figure out exactly what means would best further Exeter’s goals. As Palfrey sees it, persisting inequity seems to indicate that “very few of these programs have worked especially well.” This is not to downplay the significant progress made in the past few decades; we merely point out that institutional policy- making is often not as straightforward as one may hope. Further experimentation and exploration are necessary. This is why moves such as instituting need-blind admissions are crucial in ensuring Exeter can make good on its unique position in higher education.

The conversations about managing day-to-day interactions within the Academy prove little easier. While it is straightforward to point out the benefits of treating people equitably, humans are notoriously fickle beings and myriad factors may impede our behaving equitably. So, what can we do to make sure our daily interactions support an equitable environment, or at least do not perpetuate inequity? How can we make sure the Harkness table works for everybody?

Palfrey thinks that the project starts before anybody walks into a classroom. It entails “approaching the Harkness table with an inclusive mindset and with attention to the students’ various backgrounds and needs.” He says it involves thinking carefully about the questions one poses before class and may require having conversations with students after class. And while Exeter boasts a phenomenal faculty, it can be difficult for even the most skilled instructors to support their students every time they need it and with the right type of support. Addressing errors and learning to fine-tune methods will help ensure support is always there for a struggling student.

However, there is a robust and growing literature at the intersection of philosophy and psychology that argues on normative and pragmatic grounds that we should address such mistakes without calling into question the character of the person who made the error. People are imperfect, and studies show that to denigrate someone for making an honest mistake tends to alienate peers and undermine the good intent on which they were trying to act. Palfrey and I agree that this method of constructive, amicable feedback can be difficult given the sensitivity of the topics involved, but it seems important to maintain the type of open, honest conversation that allows discussion-based learning to thrive in classrooms, dorms, faculty and trustee meetings — indeed, at all levels of the institution.

Exeter has laid significant foundations for further progress in the push for equity. The decision this fall to go need-blind, the creation of a DEI Task Force and the adoption of a DEI vision statement address the challenges of accessibility, and address the hard intellectual work done in conversations about institution-level policy implementation. But the hardest work may be yet to come. It is tricky to balance discretion and the openness that gives Exeter’s distinct pedagogy its strength and helps bind the community together. Figuring out what to do when things go awry is likewise a delicate task. Palfrey and I believe that, while it may be challenging for Exeter’s leadership to guide the community through these difficult topics, their directives in making the Academy a more equitable institution have the potential to invigorate and further strengthen Exeter as a place of learning.

Cameron Frary ’20 is currently a student at Bates College. While at Exeter, he penned columns for The Exonian with a focus on the Academy’s history. He is also the 2020 recipient of the Gordon Editorial Award, given annually to an Exeter student who displays through editorial journalism a passionate dedication to personal freedom, particularly freedom of conscience and its expression.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.