Palfrey Addresses Community Struggle With Race

At All-School Meeting (ASM) on Wednesday, Head of School John Palfrey took to the stage after the Means Essay readings to speak to the community.

His surprise speech at ASM specifically addressed equity, inclusion and respect as it pertains to the Andover community and the discussion of diversity.

Below is the entirety of Palfrey’s ASM remarks.

“We have been struggling of late, as a community, with how to talk about diversity. We are struggling in our classes, in the pages of The Phillipian and, particularly, in social media. I want to share with you this morning a few thoughts on this matter. There are two main things I offer this morning: one is simple, one is complex.

First, the simple point. We, as a faculty, share a commitment to educate ‘Youth from Every Quarter.’ This concept is not new. It is enshrined in the Academy’s constitution. It dates back 236 years, and it is restated in our school’s Statement of Purpose, which I encourage you all to read with care.

We, as a faculty, also know that you all chose to come to Andover. Over and over again, in survey after survey, you told us you have chosen Andover because of its diversity, not despite its diversity. The same is true, by the way, of our nation’s colleges and universities. In survey after survey on this topic, students tell researchers that they have chosen college X because, in no small part, of its diversity.

Turn to your left, for a moment, and acknowledge who is sitting there. Now turn to your right, and acknowledge who that person is. Think now, for a moment, of yourself — yes, I am encouraging you not to be Non Sibi, but to be Pro Sibi for a moment.

The simple point is: every single person in this chapel deserves to be here. You were chosen — for reasons that have nothing to do with your background and also for reasons that have everything to do with your background. We believe, as teachers, that each one of you has the potential to take full advantage of this school — and to become graduates of whom we can be exceedingly proud. Our admissions office does not make “mistakes.” Everyone who chooses to come to Phillips Academy belongs at Phillips Academy, and everyone we admit can find success here.

Admissions decisions, or decisions about hiring faculty members even, do not evolve from a single calculation. Sometimes I fear that we get it wrong: we talk in terms of absolutes, each of which is equally untrue. A Post-Graduate is here to play a sport. A Lower is here because her father went here. A Junior is here because he plays the oboe. An Upper is here because he had a perfect score on the SSAT and never received a grade below A. A Senior is here because she is Latina. This is nonsense. No Admissions Officer, no Dean of Faculty thinks in such reductive and simplistic means — not here and not at any college I know of.

Let me use myself as an example. When I applied to college, did it help that many people with my last name (and my same first name and middle name, for that matter, dating back centuries) went to a certain college? Did it help my cause that I was the great-great-grandson of a president of the United States, who went to that same college? Did it help that there is a building with my family’s name on it on that same campus? Of course it did. Did it help that I was an athlete, who played a sport that is a competitive one at that same college? I certainly wasn’t at the top of the coach’s list, but I’m equally sure it didn’t hurt my chances. So, you could look now at me and say: you did not deserve your spot at that college. John Palfrey, you took “my” spot at that college. You might say that, but I think that would be both dangerous and wrong. Do you know what my recommendations said? Do you know what my test scores and grades were? Do you know how my interview went? Do you know what the Admissions Officer thought about my essay, about who am I, what my potential is? Do you know whether the faculty thought I would be a person of great integrity and leadership? Of course you don’t. Even I don’t. There’s no one reason why any of us is admitted to any school we get into. There are many factors. Legacy, athletics, race — these are all factors considered by colleges, yes. And there are many more.

I don’t kid myself about the privileges I have enjoyed. At the same time, I am proud of the family I come from, and I love my family; I am proud to be an athlete and proud of all the sweat and tears and learning that had to go into that; and I am proud of the hard work I have put in to my studies and music and everything else I have struggled at, just as you do. Every single person here should be encouraged to take pride in where they came from, what they have done, who they are and what their potential is.

Frankly, I think this is the easy part. I know I speak for the faculty when I affirm that everyone who is here with us deserves to be here with us at Andover. We believe in the value of having an intentionally diverse community where we choose to admit you based on our view of your potential, based on very many factors, all of which speak to your potential in the future and the kind of community we seek to create here. These ideas are central to our purpose as a school.

Now, for the harder part. How can we get better at being an intentionally diverse community? How can we get better, here and now, at Andover? This is much trickier because we need a way to talk to one another that does not divide us, but rather brings us together.

Think of this school community at a crossroads. There’s a flare up of discussion about race and about difference. We can let it go in one of two directions. We can let it get the better of us and divide us. We can each go back to our camps. We can point our way back toward a community that is segregated and that feeds on mistrust and anger.

Or we can choose a different path. We can choose a path that is grounded in a belief in inclusivity and respect. We can listen to one another. We can learn about one another’s backgrounds. We can find common ground across differences.

We can and must take the time to learn about the pressures that many Asian students here face to perform in certain ways. We can and must take the time to understand the deep and enduring cultural hurt associated with blackface and why a cartoon in a newspaper would be sure to upset many members of a community here in the United States in 2014. We can and must take the time to learn about what it is like to be here, no matter our background.

In fact, this ability to talk to one another, to live with one another, despite our differences is one of the most important skills you ought to learn at Andover. It is a form of excellence that I aspire for each and every one of our graduates to master. This is one of the very many reasons why, with total conviction, I can say to you that there is no tension between excellence in academics, athletics and the arts and having the diverse community that we have here. These ideas are completely in synch with one another. In fact, I would put it in a stronger form: we cannot pursue excellence if we do not have an intentionally diverse community in which we are educating one another. This competency is central to what we are trying to accomplish as a community, and I believe that this competency in diversity is essential to our succeeding, as humankind, in an increasingly global, interconnected world.

Before I close and urge you all out into the sunshine of this finally-spring day, I want to respond to a few direct questions I’ve been asked in recent days. I share my views not because I know them to be right or to ask you to agree with me, but out of respect for the conversation and out of respect for all of you as students.

One is whether I support affirmative action. The answer is yes, I do. I believe that affirmative action is essential to the creation of a world that can grapple with the problems that we face, now and into the future. I believe that the long-running support for affirmative action in admissions, upheld consistently by the Supreme Court, though much under fire all that time, is right and good.

Another question is whether I support the right to free expression and open, honest dialogue on campus. The answer is yes, I do. I believe in the First Amendment to our Constitution in this country. It provides an important framework for the protection of free expression, of dissent and of progress in a democracy. We need diversity of thought at Andover; we need freedom of expression at Andover.

At the same time, it is important to note what the First Amendment does and does not do. The First Amendment does provide some of the broadest and deepest protections for speech in the world. But it does not afford anyone the right to say anything at any time. The First Amendment is much more complex than that. Even in this free country, there are what are called “time, place and manner” restrictions on what you can say and do. You may dissent, but you cannot shout fire in this chapel right now if there is no fire. Here at Andover, you cannot practice hate in ways that harm others; you cannot lie about others and do them harm; you cannot publish or look at certain obscene things. I believe in a form of free expression that has sharp and appropriate limits. Our job here, on this community, is to define those limits in a way that enables us to be a respectful, inclusive, welcoming place for every single person who is here.

A final note: I’ve been challenged about the email that Paul Murphy, Linda Carter Griffith and I sent over the weekend, asking you to refrain from taking up these issues further in social media. ‘How,’ I’ve been asked, ‘can you square that message with your message here that we need to talk about these things and to work them out? How, Mr. Palfrey, can you say that, when you love social media and you, yourself, Tweet all the time?’ There are two reasons. The first is because I don’t think that social media is a great forum for the discussion of something as sensitive, personal and nuanced as this; we need classrooms, dorm rooms, dining halls and art spaces to do it; we need teachers and students working together, with a common sense of purpose.

The second reason is that I want to protect you from yourselves. Some of you have written things online that you may come to regret. When it comes to social media, all of us — whether or not we are teenagers — tend to post first and think second. It’s a proven fact. The problem with this approach is that you may hurt others and hurt yourselves. I worry that you will be putting on digital tattoos — in the form of your words or images — that someday you will wish to rub off, but will not be able to do. If you find yourself in an interview for graduate school or for a job, and you are asked about a posting about other people you typed one day in haste and in anger, how will you feel then? You will almost certainly regret it.

I have a simple rule: before you post something online, think about whether you’d be O.K. with that statement appearing on the front page of the ‘New York Times’ tomorrow or any day into eternity. If not, then don’t post it. I am urging you to keep this particular conversation out of social media for our collective good and your own good.

We all came to Andover to live, learn and work together as an intentionally diverse community. We are not perfect; no one of us is perfect. We are all a work in progress, individually and collectively. I am so glad that each and every one of you is here, with us, right now, and I am so glad that we have the great privilege, together, to sort these matters out. I believe in our ability to do this, Andover.

All-School Meeting dismissed.”