Against “Excellence”

Harvard just denied tenure to an award-winning Latinx scholar and teacher who is working in the field of Latinx studies. (Yale did the same thing last year.) Thousands of students and scholars have already signed an open letter in protest.

There is so much to say, and so much already eloquently being said, about the ways that, over and over and over, elite universities fail to support people of color and the fields of knowledge that center them. These repeated failures to recognize excellence in non-white forms demonstrate the systemic racism that pervades these institutions.

But this problem isn’t limited to the treatment of scholars of color and/or people working in ethnic studies. These failures illustrate fundamental problems with the elite definition of excellence itself, and the way this narrow and nebulous definition has colonized conversations about higher education both within and beyond the Ivy League.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the story with a piece headlined “She’s a ‘Star’ Latina Professor. But Not Good Enough for Tenure at Harvard.” I hate this use of the phrase “good enough.” Even if it’s intended as sarcasm, it’s the wrong framing. It’s a euphemism that upholds the status quo.

My educational and professional experiences have caused me to resist the implications of “good enough.” As a white woman from a working-class background, I received a high-quality higher education at institutions including my local community college, a non-elite liberal arts college, and Princeton. I then spent seven years as a lecturer in an Ivy League department that excluded people like me from the department’s intellectual and communal life as a matter of policy, because as non-tenure-track faculty we were judged unworthy for inclusion by the people in power. (Sometimes we were excluded from academic or social events as a result of our social invisibility, but when these oversights were drawn to the attention of people in power, they were defended as a matter of principle.)

As community college students, my peers and I were often underestimated by college admissions committees and potential employers, and we had to learn not to accept their classist judgments as a reflection of our worth. This was exhausting but necessary spiritual work. I welcomed my admission to grad school at Princeton as a stamp of approval that would relieve me of the need to keep proving myself, but later as a lecturer at Yale I was reminded every day of the danger of accepting elite standards of value.

I found that the only way to survive intellectual invisibility in the Ivy League with your sense of self more or less intact is to reject the constant invocation of narrowly-defined “excellence” and to see it as the self-justifying scam that it is. In this way my non-tenure-track status was a gift. I had no incentive to ever accept or defend Ivy definitions of “good enough.” Instead, I wrote what I wanted to write, knowing that nothing I wrote mattered according to the prevailing standards. I tried, sometimes more successfully than others, to create classroom environments with and for my students where the suffocating kinds of evaluation that surrounded us did not apply. But trying to live as if power structures don’t exist does not undo their damage.

Every time one of these schools fails to tenure someone I respect—and, in another recent case, fails to tenure someone I both respect and love—I am filled with new rage. Because everywhere, from Chronicle headlines to the homes of Varsity Blues-style aspirational parents, from The Gilmore Girls to Queens College, CUNY, where I currently teach and hope to stay, “Harvard” and “Yale” are invoked as some kind of “good enough” standard. But honestly, give any school tens of billions of dollars and allow its affiliates to fill all the halls of power for centuries and it is going to seem “good enough.” Some schools just didn’t get in on that sweet slavery money in time. That is sarcasm.

It kills me that even people who would never think of applying to the Ivy League still judge themselves and their education by its mystical standards. Sometimes my Queens College students look me up online and then ask me “Why would you leave Yale to teach here?” and I always tell them that Queens College is a much, much better job for me (which it is) but I also tell them that the faculty at Queens College are as starry as the faculty at Yale (they are) and the students as brilliant and wonderful (they are). Every day I get cracks in my heart knowing that CUNY students do not get the resources and opportunities that my Yale students did. (As a Yale-and Princeton-affiliated teacher, I worked with three students from the current crop of Rhodes Scholars, but now that I’m at CUNY I may never work with another Rhodes Scholar in my entire career. That says a lot about the way academic resources are distributed and nothing about the respective brilliance of Ivy and CUNY students.)

Accepting elite judgments as the standard of “good enough” is a damaging delusion both for people at Ivies and people elsewhere.

I want my Queens College students to feel fully worthy of extensive personal attention, and working wi-fi and air-conditioning and heat, and internships and scholarships and opportunities and respect, even when they do not get their fair share of them.

I want taxpayers and politicians to have the same level of respect for public education that they do for the Ivies, so that my students will get their fair share.

I want people who have been judged “good enough” by elite institutions to remind themselves every day that the difference between their experience and others’ is sheer arbitrary luck, combined with the fact that for whatever reason their scholarship, style, and activism are not defined as a dealbreaker by the powers that be.

I want them to work to demystify and redefine excellence and to redistribute their institution’s hoarded resources, recognizing the brilliance that exists in the university’s adjuncts and dining hall workers as well as in its “star” students and scholars, and in the people who live in the segregated world beyond the wrought iron gates. (Some people already do this, but the vast majority don’t.)

And I want students and scholars who have been judged “not good enough” by elite institutions to never waver in their own sense of worth, and in their rage at the systemic inequality that such judgments represent.

Briallen Hopper: Raised by well-intentioned wolves.