Food fight: Bowdoin College, The New Yorker magazine writer in messy feud

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BRUNSWICK — There’s a fight going on in the dining halls at Bowdoin College, but not the kind that might take place late on a Friday night during the school year.

Instead of food being hurled, words are being exchanged between two unlikely adversaries: On one side, Bowdoin College officials, students and alumni, on the other, author and The New Yorker magazine staff writer Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell published a piece Wednesday, July 13, about the college on his popular podcast “Revisionist History.” In it, he argued that the money Bowdoin spends on its dining services, consistently ranked the best in the country by campus guides like the Princeton Review, amounts to a “moral problem.”

Gladwell’s producer begins the episode with a guided tour through Bowdoin’s dining hall, which on that day was serving dishes like an orzo and tofu salad, and a smashed chickpea, avocado, and pesto sandwich.

Gladwell then argues that a consequence of Bowdoin’s spending is that it allocates less money to financial aid. Peer schools like Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, spend less on food and more on aid, he says.

He cited statistics from The New York Times that ranked Vassar eighth of 179 schools “doing the most for low-income students.” Bowdoin was 51st.

Gladwell ends the piece by saying, “Don’t go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin. Don’t give money to Bowdoin, or to any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall.”

Bowdoin quickly responded to Gladwell’s swipe in an official capacity, posting a point-by-point rebuttal of the piece on its website the next day.

“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,” the statement said.

The statement took issue with Gladwell’s sole use of The New York Times data, which relied heavily on the share of students receiving federal Pell Grants that typically go to students whose families make less than $70,000 a year.

“Pell Grant data is only one way (and a limited way at that) to measure a school’s commitment to socioeconomic diversity,” the statement said.

It argued that Bowdoin is committed to access to higher education for low-income students, saying the school is one of only 15 colleges in the country that does not consider a student’s financial aid during admission. The college, it said, “meets the full need of all who qualify for need-based aid, and meets 100 percent of need with grants only … (and) does not require loans as part of its aid packages.”

It also said that, on average, students on financial aid receive grants of more than $40,000 a year. In addition, 15 percent of students in the incoming freshman class are first-generation college students.

The school also provided a copy of the email received from Gladwell’s producer, asking if he could come to campus for an interview:

“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,” the producer, Jacob Smith, wrote.

He never mentioned a focus on or comparison with financial aid, and did not ask to meet with any other college staff. Gladwell, meanwhile, interviewed several administrators at Vassar, including the president.

Bowdoin’s response also pointed out that the school’s dining services essentially operate as an enterprise fund, operating from meal plan revenues, and are not subsidized by the college endowment or other revenue streams.

Gladwell’s piece ignited fury online, with many current students and college alumni responding critically on social media like Twitter and Facebook.

Deray McKesson, a 2007 Bowdoin graduate from Baltimore, Maryland, and leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, called Gladwell’s piece a “sham” on Twitter: “There are many fair critiques of Bowdoin. But saying ‘the food is good therefore the college isn’t focused on equity’ is a sham,” he wrote Friday, July 15.

“Framing inequality in higher ed as a battle between a place with kale salads and a place with slightly worse kale salads is so weird,” John Branch, a 2016 graduate from New Haven, Connecticut, tweeted on July 14. “If we’re going to do this, let’s talk about criminally underfunded state university systems and predatory student debt arrangements.”

David Cohen, a Portland-area alumnus and former member of the college board of trustees, defended Bowdoin’s financial aid program on Tuesday.

“I am proud of (Bowdoin’s) long-standing commitment to needs-blind admission and an aid program that doesn’t leave scholarship students with a financial burden at graduation,” Cohen, a member of the Class of 1964, said. “To suggest that Bowdoin’s well-deserved reputation for healthy and appealing food is somehow at odds with this is … disingenuous.”

Joe Sherlock, a 2016 graduate, on Wednesday said he found the piece “shabbily done” on multiple fronts.

Sherlock is from Haverhill, Massachusetts. His father works at Wal-Mart and his mother is a nurse. He said he couldn’t have attended Bowdoin without the “tens of thousands” of financial aid he was offered.

“It was actually cheaper to go to Bowdoin than to go to my state school,” he said. Sherlock also worked for dining services, as a cook and a manager, for three years.

“The work that dining does, they have it down to a science,” he said. “To imply that because they have such a high-quality dining service is taking away from their aid budget … I don’t think is founded in reality.”

He said he thought the tension Gladwell posed was valid, but the research itself “was lacking.”

“The idea of finding some kind of example where a small liberal arts college institution, probably in New England, has ‘done something crazy again,’ is journalistic low-hanging fruit,” he said.

Gladwell, for his part, has been largely quiet, but not silent. “In retrospect this week’s episode … should have included a trigger warning for Bowdoin grads,” he tweeted July 14.

He then posted a picture of a Bowdoin student holding two platters of lobsters at a lobster bake with the caption “Presented without comment.”

Bowdoin later revealed the photo was taken at a graduation event in 2005, when families either purchased tickets, or the school distributed them from its dining revenues for students and families in financial need.

Gladwell and his staff did not respond to The Forecaster’s request for comment.

But he was quoted in the July 15 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?”

Meanwhile, at Bowdoin dining, life goes on. On Tuesday afternoon, the summer lunch menu was posted online: “Buffalo Tofu: Deep fried tofu tossed in buffalo sauce and served on basmati rice with steamed broccoli and blue cheese dip.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Students sit on the quad in front of Hubbard Hall at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.