“harm created not out of malice but habit”

“We don’t have an admissions problem, we have a completion problem. Recognizing this means re-thinking who college is for. College is run by those of us who did well in college, so we tend to underestimate the harm we do to students whose lives aren’t like ours, harm created not out of malice but habit.” Clay Shirky, The digital revolution in higher education has already happened. No one noticed.

There’s a sentence that’s a kick in the teeth. All the more so because it feels like confirmation of something I’ve been worrying about.

This year my home institution welcomed an incoming class in which 43% of our students, largely the traditionally-aged 18 year olds, self-identified as a racial minority. Many of those students are, loosely, from Downstate, which is to say, New York City and its environs.

I am a married, straight 40 year old white woman from a small farm town in rural Illinois who lives in Potsdam because it’s like where I grew up.

Last week I reached out to our Center for Diversity on campus, writing,

“I have had on my to-do list for a shamefully long time an item that says “CFD: student group outreach.”  It’s past time for me to do it. Here’s what I’d like to do: I want to meet with BSA, Soca Loca, and any other groups you would recommend — on their schedule, I’ll come to them — to ask them what they’d like me to know about the libraries, about how they interact with our staff and services, and about what they would like to see us change, add, or do. I obviously can also answer questions, but my goal is not to tell them things, but to listen. Ultimately I’ll take the feedback I get and make a plan for making changes where change is needed, and then report back on what we’ve done and why.

What do you think? Are you willing to help me get this organized? Do you have a different approach you think I should take?”

We are in the process of setting up those meetings. I worry that it’s nowhere near enough. I worry because I don’t know what else to do. I worry because my job is to serve our students, to help them succeed, and I think I know how to do that. And I think I might be wrong.


  1. Shirky’s quote sounds accurate, and it’s scary. We want diverse students to succeed, but we don’t always know how to make that happen. Something does need to change, somehow, somewhere.


  2. I can honestly say that this is why my son wants to attend a tech school instead of a 4 year:
    Cost vs earning potential
    A 2 year will qualify him for the same position in less time and he wants to do game design / video graphics which no 4 year offers.
    He loves the library, but doesn’t want to take “unnecessary” classes (humanities- because he never did well with them and he’ll be paying for) don’t get me started.. Ugh.
    So yes, that quote hits me hard and accurately. I see it as an institutional issue as well as a larger societal one.
    Thank you for trying to address it. I appreciate your efforts.


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