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My Turn: Deerfield Academy – another perspective



Monday, January 07, 2019

The Boston Globe headline reads, “It’s a pretty toxic place for girls” and the front page highlights the quotation “better dead than coed.”

These remarks prominently highlight the beginning of an article that portrays a Deerfield Academy that supposedly is insensitive to women and fails to address gender issues since co-education began 30 years ago.

In a nutshell, the above quotes dominate the article and thereby define, from top to bottom, this elite Western Massachusetts prep school.

I have not returned to Deerfield for many years after graduating as a day student in 1971. As day students, we constituted about 3 percent of the student population and had limited exposure to the day-to-day student activities outside of academics and sports. Back then, it was an all-male institution and the best description for the place was it was — tough. Just plain tough in every sense of the word in academics, sports, study halls and discipline. We certainly never fell in love with the place. But somehow, it worked.

Times have changed, however, and many would argue that our limited experience provide us little or no standing to comment on the content and tone of the “toxic” article on the school. There is, however, a latent sense of loyalty that emerges when unfair criticism dominates an evaluation of the place.

Changing an all male institution into a co-educational school should require an immense effort to accommodate the needs and sensitivities of an adolescent female student population. I have followed, in publications from the school, the progress and growing pains involved. There have been, and always will be, examples of aberrant male student behavior involving alcohol, sexual harassment, and other insensitive actions that warrant discipline, from probation to expulsion. And when they occur, a determination of the proper sanction will always be a difficult process, rarely satisfactory to all. It is the differential in these sanctions that often becomes the genesis of institutional disputes in gender based complaints.

The problem, and it is a serious problem, occurs when articles such as that written by Ms. Lazar, focus on the aberrations and fail to acknowledge the thousands of male and female students who have graduated from Deerfield and appreciate what the school did for them — while acknowledging that progress is still needed. The quotations in the article, “I’d never send my daughter there” and a “cycle of white male power,” prevent an evenhanded evaluation of the school by a thesis that the school is a toxic environment for all.

With regard to the teacher who is now in litigation with the school, whose husband also taught there and whose son recently graduated from Deerfield, her perspective and complaints are best left to judicial evaluation. However, some of her quotes about the institution are worthy of repetition here, “I love Deerfield. I have never stopped believing in the potential for that community.”

It is always easy to reduce an evaluation of a person or institution to black or white, good or bad, desirable or undesirable. That is what Ms. Lazar did with her article. Examples of lax discipline for male students who commit transgressions are rampant, along with the reactions of those who understandably resent their behavior and penalties imposed. Nowhere, however, are there suggestions of the alternative sanctions that should be substituted — short of expulsion.

Is Deerfield still tough? I’m sure it is.

But in the end, there always was, and I’m sure still is, a preoccupation with making it a fair institution that is “Worthy of the Heritage” that Frank Boyden ascribed to the school a long time ago. For coeducation, it is a heritage that has had to change and adapt itself to provide men and women the same opportunities, keeping in mind you can never please everyone.

A final message for those who question the institution. It needs to keep changing. For those of us who went, the glass may not have been full, but we’re grateful for the half full glass we received, and evaluations of the place should do a better job of telling that side of the story.

Steven E. Kramer, then of Greenfield, entered Deerfield Academy in 1967.