The premature resignation of Trinity College President James F. Jones Jr. marks not only the loss of an innovative educator and intellectual leader, but also leaves this 2007 graduate with the very uneasy sense that Trinity has become a community so resistant to change that it has castigated someone for making the brave choice to remain loyal to the best interest of the students and the school.
Jones, 66, announced May 6 that he will step down on June 30, 2014, which is a year earlier than he had originally planned. He has been at the school since 2004. His departure seems unavoidably intertwined with the measures to reform the school's fraternity system that have incited so much student, parent and alumni fury in recent months. Jones has been the subject of protests since October, when the school's board of trustees approved a plan, which he supports, that requires fraternities to go coed starting this fall.
Fraternity and sorority members have argued that going coed will effectively shut them down. Alumni have threatened to withhold donations, and some called for Jones' resignation.
Assessing the merit of fraternities brings in a whole host of complexities, and it's simplistic to attribute the various ills that Trinity is currently battling to the influence of a single social structure. But the fact that such tireless effort and impassioned discussion, both publicly and privately, has gone into fraternities, an institution that counts less than one-fifth of the student body among its members, illustrates a far greater issue.
A school should be committed to the betterment of 100 percent of its students. It's true that graduates of other colleges and universities routinely refer to Trinity as a wild party school and a bastion of upper-class privilege, designations that can be intended as a badge of honor or shame depending on who is making them. This shallow classification, which has been perpetuated for generations, conflicts sharply with my memories.
My college years were spent attending classes, working on the Trinity Tripod newspaper and with the Student Government Association, and living alongside students from every socioeconomic class. Many of them found activities such as robotics, volunteering and the International Hip Hop Festival more compelling than fraternity parties. Trinity's greatest failure has been in not communicating to these students that they are as dearly valued as anyone else. When we let the public image of Trinity be defined by the experience of a small social subset, it's as if everyone else ceases to exist.
I would never argue that fraternities haven't made positive contributions to the culture, but Trinity is so much more than that and so are its students. President Jones' efforts to examine the pervasive culture, to take actions to change the reputation of exclusivity and to improve the campus environment should be met with admiration, not threats.
We're talking about a school first and foremost, which seems to have been lost in many alumni discussions. Trinity's responsibility is to educate students and maybe we should put a bit more faith into educators' ability to make the decisions that will allow them to do that. Just a year ago, 76 percent of faculty voted in favor of abolishing fraternities. In a compromise position, a committee of administrators, trustees, faculty and students recommended that fraternities and sororities go coed.
Fear should never be a reason to halt progress, nor should an entire institution be held hostage by the demands and money of a select minority.
The Trinity College education, both academic and social, that I received was shaped, for the better, by the tireless efforts of President Jones. I'm proud to know him.
Adrienne Gaffney, 28, is a free-lance writer in New York.
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