Grinnell College Quits the Posse Foundation: Students and Alumni Up In Arms

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April 18, 2016; Inside Higher Ed and Scarlet & Black

Grinnell College in Iowa has decided to cut ties with the Posse Foundation, much to the dismay of students and faculty members. Announced on Wednesday, April 13th, the decision to sever ties with the Posse Foundation comes at the heels of two years of contract negotiations and the decision made earlier this year not to accept students through the New Orleans Posse program.

“Posse has helped us to pursue our goals for diversity and student success and grow as a diverse institution,” said Raynard Kington, Grinnell’s president, in a memo announcing the decision. “We are interested in a more comprehensive approach to achieving our goals for diversity and overall student success. Posse’s model dedicates extensive resources toward small cohorts of students.”

The Posse Foundation is a nonprofit organization focused on youth leadership and college enrollment. Founded in 1989, Posse identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes. Posse gives these students the opportunity to pursue personal and academic excellence by placing them in supportive, multicultural teams—posses—of 10 students. Posse partners with colleges and universities that award Posse Scholars four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships.

Posse Foundation had been sending students to Grinnell for the last 14 years. Each year, the Posse Foundation would send two groups of 10 students who might not otherwise have attended (or thought they would have been able to afford education at) a small, competitive liberal arts college. Posse students pay no tuition and are paired with a campus mentor who provides support and guidance. The model works because the students come in a cohort, meaning they have an automatic support system, a group of students like themselves, on an otherwise foreign campus.

In February, Grinnell decided not to accept a group of Posse students from New Orleans. This decision was reportedly in light of discussion between the College and the Posse Foundation about whether the relationship was mutually beneficial, according to Dean Mike Latham.

“Any long-standing partnership like ours periodically needs to be reviewed, especially when the two organizations involved are dynamic and continually evolving,” Latham wrote in an email to the Scarlett & Black, Grinnell’s student newspaper.

The decision has led current Posse scholars to question the college’s commitment to diversity. “Diversity has been increasing recently but I just feel like taking away Posse is taking a step back from what you could potentially be getting,” New Orleans Posse Scholar Hassan Thompson (’19) told the college newspaper. “I feel like what they call ‘diversity’ is more international diversity rather than domestic kids of color.”

“We think it’s a mistake,” said Debbie Bial, president and founder of the Posse Foundation. “We think the partnership has been great, period. I can’t explain to you how disappointed we are because we now lose this opportunity.”

Bial went on to say that only a “handful” of colleges have severed their relationships with Posse in the past. “It’s so unusual for something like this to happen, we don’t sometimes understand the reasons ourselves, frankly.” Academically, Bial said, Posse students at Grinnell perform comparably to the student body as a whole, and their graduation rates have been over 90 percent for the last five or six years, so the program has proven itself successful. Many people both on and off campus wonder if this decision was a financial one, though the college denies this.

“Saving money was not part of the motivation for the change,” Dean Latham said. Rather, Latham noted, this new approach would cost “substantially more,” but did not expand further.

“We respect and understand [Posse scholars’] disappointment and frustration with the college’s decision,” he added. “We also hope that, given our shared goals to promote diversity and student leadership, they will join us in helping to design and implement a new program.”

But many students and faculty feel that this explanation is not enough. A letter addressed to the president, signed by hundreds of alumni, reads in part:

The memo suggests that our campus is so diverse that we have outgrown Posse. Many alumni, Posse and otherwise, would disagree. The memo also implies that a Posse presence on campus is incompatible with our comprehensive approach to diversity and success. We don’t understand how this could be the case. Shouldn’t Posse be a part of our comprehensive approach?

The letter goes on to say, “We are worried that this decision is the wrong one for Grinnell because our partnership with the Posse Foundation is constitutive of the college’s commitment to diversity.”

Posse Founder Debbie Bial agrees. “It’s not just about the cancellation of something that’s been working,” she said. “It’s such an important way of building diversity in a campus community and engaging the community, especially when it’s working. We want to see it continue.”

It’s yet to be seen if the students and faculty will ever receive a sufficient explanation from Grinnell. Mark Levandoski, another Posse mentor and a professor of neuroscience at Grinnell, says, “If we can be told that we’ve learned a lot from Posse and that it’s been a good program, one has to ask the question why would you cancel the program. It remains unclear to me how simply discontinuing this program and saying that we’ll do these things, when there’s no evidence that they’re doing these things, how those two things fit together.”—Alexis Buchanan