Updated: Bowdoin Responds to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Food Fight’ Podcast

Bowdoin’s statement about Malcolm Gladwell’s “Food Fight” podcast was updated on Saturday, July 16, to provide additional information and to respond to Mr. Gladwell’s comments and messages on social media (jump to the update below).

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” (aptly named) takes a manipulative and disingenuous shot at Bowdoin College that is filled with false assumptions, anecdotal evidence, and incorrect conclusions.

Bowdoin gate

In the most recent episode, “Food Fight,” Gladwell argues that Bowdoin’s reputation for excellent, healthy food means that the College is not focused on providing opportunity for low-income students. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bowdoin’s commitment to meeting the full financial need for all admitted students is longstanding, unwavering, and unassailable. And it has nothing to do with food.

Here are the facts:

  • Bowdoin has one of the most generous need-based financial aid programs in the country.
  • Bowdoin is one of only fifteen colleges in the United States that provides need-blind admission, meets the full need of all who qualify for need-based aid, and meets 100 percent of need with grants only.
  • Bowdoin does not require loans as part of its aid packages.
  • The average grant for Bowdoin students on financial aid is currently in excess of $40,000 a year.
  • Fifteen percent of students in the incoming Class of 2020 are first-generation college students.
  • Bowdoin’s dining operation is self-run and self-supporting. The College does not subsidize the operation from other revenue streams or endowment. Dining expenditures represent 6.2 percent of Bowdoin’s operating budget.
  • Ninety-six percent of Bowdoin students sign up for the meal plan, which means they are not having to spend money off campus to eat.

A Disingenuous Approach

Rather than seeking to learn about Bowdoin’s financial aid practices, our record of supporting first-generation college students, and providing financial aid to both low-income and middle-income families, Gladwell and his producer focused only on Bowdoin’s food in a manner that was disingenuous, dishonest, and manipulative. Their only questions were about food and were directed at dining service staff and students, not the president, not the chief financial officer, not the dean of admissions, and not anyone else. Where were the questions for Bowdoin about student aid, institutional values, Bowdoin’s commitment to low-income AND middle-income families, etc., etc.?

Below is the full text of the e-mail sent by Gladwell’s producer to a Bowdoin dining service employee on February 17, 2016:

My name is Jacob and I’m a producer on an upcoming podcast with Panoply.fm, Slate magazine’s podcasting network. One of our episodes is focusing on campus food and amenities. I’m specifically investigating the food at Bowdoin, which tops lists of the best campus dining in the country, as an example of how good college food can get. I would love to get a quick recorded tour of one of your kitchens and dining hall for this episode. I’m hoping to come to campus this weekend or Monday of next week. Let me know what would work best for you. If there would be someone better for me to speak to about this, please let me know as well. 

***

Everything we do at Bowdoin is part of the educational experience, including our food, and we are extremely proud of the dining service staff who provide that food. Ask any Bowdoin student about dining and they will speak enthusiastically about the staff, their hard work, their level of caring, and about the strong relationships they build with students over four years and maintain thereafter. At Bowdoin, dining isn’t just about the necessity of eating. It is about bringing students together with peers of different backgrounds and experiences, and with faculty and staff. We see nothing wrong with making sure these members of our community actually want to gather in our dining facilities to eat healthy food.

This healthy food that Bowdoin provides is part of a longstanding tradition and a point of pride at the College, not, as Gladwell suggests, some recent marketing tactic to attract privileged students used to such fare.

The facts are clear. Bowdoin is committed to access and opportunity for students of all backgrounds, and is a leader among educational institutions. We invite Malcolm Gladwell to visit campus to learn more about Bowdoin. We would be happy to answer his questions over a good meal.

 

Update (Saturday, July 16):

Malcolm Gladwell’s response to the facts Bowdoin presented and the questions we raised leaves something to be desired.

First, this on Twitter:

In retrospect

Then, another tweet…

Lobster

Well, let us comment.

The above photograph was taken at a Commencement event in 2005. This annual lobster bake, where seniors dine with their families, is one of two lobster dinners a year served at Bowdoin (the other one is for students at the very beginning of the academic year). This particular photograph shows a student, eleven years ago, carrying lobsters to his family—lobsters they very likely paid for.

Yes, the College does cover the cost of the lobsters—through its self-sustaining dining service—for the graduating seniors at this event. And we also give tickets to families who are stretched financially. But everyone else pays. The good news is that this is Maine, where a lobster dinner costs the College only about $5.00 more than your average meal. And it is worth noting that based on data from the National Association of College & University Food Services 2016 Operating Benchmark Study, the cost of our (made from scratch) food is below the average per meal cost of college food in the northeast United States—the result of the fantastic skills and dedication of Executive Chef Ken Cardone and the dining team.

The question remains, what does this photograph have to do with financial aid and opportunity at Bowdoin?

And then we have this today from Malcolm Gladwell in an e-mail message to The Boston Globe:

“Bowdoin College is a school with a rich and privileged alumni group, over a billion dollars in the bank, a tiny student population, and every conceivable material advantage — that nonetheless ranks 51st nationwide in offering opportunities to low income students. If I am ‘disingenuous’ in pointing out that disgraceful fact, then what is Bowdoin in choosing to deny it?”

Malcolm’s fixation with food and his unwillingness to ask a single question for his podcast about our financial aid program, our practices, our record, or our philosophy—has caused him to miss the point about access and opportunity at Bowdoin.

Bowdoin has never “denied” that The New York Times ranked us 51st (out of 179 colleges and universities) last year in their list of “Top Colleges Doing the Most for Low-Income Students,” a survey that relies solely on Pell Grant statistics to rank the schools (here’s a link for those who want to read it).

Leaving out the fact—as Malcolm does—that several of the institutions above Bowdoin on the NY Times list are NOT need-blind (and therefore consider family income in their admissions decisions) and that many others require loans in their aid packages, our main point (which is shared by many others and even recognized by the editors at the Times) is that Pell Grant data is only one way (and a limited way at that) to measure a school’s commitment to socioeconomic diversity.

Make no mistake, the Pell program is a very valuable and important program for those who qualify (typically, families making less than $70,000 a year). But what about families that don’t qualify? What about students whose parents—school teachers, fire fighters, office workers, among many others—make more than $70,000 a year but cannot afford a college like Bowdoin? What about so-called middle-income families that have more than one child to put through college?

Rather than building a student population that reflects the “barbell” approach described in Malcolm’s podcast—a school where wealthy families subsidize low-income families, with few (or no) students in between—Bowdoin enrolls and supports with need-based financial aid a socioeconomically diverse student body that includes both low- AND middle-income students.

As we’ve said, Bowdoin’s commitment to meeting the full financial need for all admitted students is longstanding, unwavering, and unassailable. It is also expanding with an eye toward allowing our graduates to enter any field of endeavor without the burden of excessive debt. 

How do we do this?

We do it in a way that is well-established and sustainable. We do it by restricting nearly one-half of our endowment to need-based financial aid and by working to build our endowment through smart investments and prudent spending.

We also do it with the generous support of alumni who contribute to their college with one of the highest rates of participation in the country and who understand from their Bowdoin education the importance of serving the common good and giving back. We are proud of our alumni and grateful for their support.

All of this information—and more—would have been provided to Malcolm Gladwell by Bowdoin had he bothered to ask. But he didn’t. And now he responds with snarky tweets and disingenuous and simplistic comments. What a shame.

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