During the week of June 22, Minerva hosted Precedent, a series of four conversations between Minerva students, alumni, staff, faculty, and external guests about racism in the United States. Minerva administration celebrated Precedent as a valuable first step towards further change — its tagline is “Ideas Precede Action.” Multiple students, however, questioned the value of Precedent, including three who published their arguments on the Quest.

Minerva’s response to the recent anti-racist protests

The concept of Precedent was first announced to Minerva students on June 1, after the May 25 murder of George Floyd ignited an intense weekend of protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality in the United States. In an email to all Minerva students and alumni, Ben Nelson pledged four “small steps in the face of a great wrong.” 

Two of these steps focused on better addressing U.S. racism for incoming first-year students in San Francisco: reframing the intercultural competency course to address “the unresolved history of slavery and racism in the United States” and working with local organizations addressing racial issues in the city. The other two steps built on pre-existing programs for current students: the summer incubator (projects designed to give students work experience) and Consequent

“We sought to look at the complex problem of systemic racism through multiple lenses: the language of persuasion, the composition of the movement, the economics of reparative justice, and the systemic changes necessary to realize true equality.”

Ben Nelson

Precedent, which had the same organizing team and underlying structure as Consequent, was formally announced via email on June 15. Like Consequent, the Precedent  organizing team did not include students, according to Nelson. Each session was organized around a theme: 

  1. “The Message: Framing the argument for change” 
  2. “The Movement: Galvanizing effective support” 
  3. “The Economics: Determining who pays and how” 
  4. “The Systems: Defining viable solutions.” 

“Just like we do with Consequent programming we brainstormed ideas, read and listened to a number of resources, engaged in dialog with leading thinkers in the field, and then honed the structure of the programming,” Nelson told the Quest. “Here, we sought to look at the complex problem of systemic racism through multiple lenses: the language of persuasion, the composition of the movement, the economics of reparative justice, and the systemic changes necessary to realize true equality.”

Over ten external guests participated in the sessions — about a third of the 30-plus professionals Minerva had invited, according to Nelson. The attendees included an activist/entrepreneur, a comedian/diversity-specialist, senior officials from several African universities, and impact investors. 

When asked if any guests had been directly involved in Black Lives Matter or other anti-racist activist moments, Nelson told the Quest that “I believe all of the guests were involved in social justice movements (both domestically and abroad).” The Quest’s research on the external guests found that most had spent a lifetime thinking deeply about racism and inclusion. Many had built careers at the intersection of social justice and business, technology, or education. However, few to none of the guests were expert activists or organizers within the Black Lives Matter movement or other anti-racism campaigns.  Some students were especially eager to hear from such perspectives and found this expertise missing from the line-up of Precedent guests given the event was a response to Black Lives Matter protests. 

Student and alumni responses to Precedent

Over 20 students and alumni actively participated in Precedent alongside external guests and Minerva employees, with an average of about 15 participants per session. Many more observed the conversations, though the exact number is unknown. Eight of these students shared their thoughts on Precedent with The Quest. 

Many said they signed up for Precedent to learn new perspectives on racism, an expectation that was fulfilled for some of the participants the Quest spoke to. Pedro Bastos (M’21), who participated in the third session, said that he “honestly learned a lot, especially from professionals who have been dealing with the issue for a long time.” 

Ang Li-Lian (M’22) participated in the second session because she wanted to have a serious conversation about race. She hoped to better understand racism in Malaysia, her home country, which she says parallels anti-Black racism in the United States. She was disappointed, however, because she felt the Precedent sessions lacked clear learning outcomes and failed to intellectually challenge participants. 

Other students participated because they had doubts about Precedent. “I was skeptical of the set up [and] the lack of prompted self-reflection,” Amelia Kroner (M’20), who participated in the fourth session, told the Quest. “I wanted to bring in that perspective, and I wanted to see if I was right. I can’t be skeptical unless I actually engage.” 

“The voices that need to be heard the most are opting out of being heard. The setting isn’t ideal, but the platform is there. We can use it and influence it.”

Rebecca Mqamelo (M’21), Precedent participant

Rebecca Mqamelo (M’21), who participated in the second session, decided to get the most she could out of Precedent despite the limitations she saw. She sympathized with the criticisms of students who decided to not take part, but was disappointed that “the voices that need to be heard the most are opting out of being heard. The setting isn’t ideal, but the platform is there. We can use it and influence it.”

All of the student participants the Quest spoke to also said the contributions of the external guests exceeded their expectations. Many concluded that listening to the external guests was the most valuable part of participating in Precedent. Ezza Naveed (M’21), who participated in the third session, thought that the guests “had amazing wisdom and insights to offer, wonderful things that they shared in a very passionate and concise way.”

Michael Yang (M’19), who participated in the first session, appreciated that external guests and other student participants “made an effort to direct the discussion toward Minerva,” though this was not the stated focus of the session. Dulce Rivera Osorio (M’21), who also participated in the first session, said the external guests “were willing to criticize Minerva and the actions it was taking to address racism in the institution.”  Ang and Mqamelo especially appreciated one participant, a high-ranking university official from South Africa, for pushing the conversations to become more honest and challenging. 

Multiple students wished they had heard from a more diverse spectrum of opinions. Mqamelo noted that Precedent and similar events often function more as echo chambers than spaces where significant differences are reconciled. As Ibukunoluwa Aribilola (M’22), who participated in the fourth session, said, Precedent felt like “a bunch of brainstorming sessions about how we can do more in our different communities, which is great. However, I want to see more conversations between people with opposing views.”

Student criticism of Precedent and Minerva’s response

At least two students, Amulya Pilla (M’22) and Erin Paglione (M’21), decided to drop out of the sessions after initially signing on as participants. Kate Tanha (M’21) knew she didn’t want to be a part of Precedent from the beginning. (Full Disclosure: An early draft of this article was edited by Erin Paglione and Kate Tanha, who are both Quest editors. They did not edit the version of the article that quoted their interviews with the Quest.)

“The vapid way you have branded the event — ‘Precedent’ / ‘ideas precede action’ — already signals a completely whitewashed take on the issue,” Kate wrote. “[…] I have witnessed many instances of Minerva as an institution missing opportunities to create inclusive spaces, which discourage me from thinking that Precedent will be any different.” 

Pilla wrote that the framing of Precedent led her to fear that it was “just optics” without substantial changes beyond discussion and theoretical solutions. Erin Paglione (M’21) listed several more points of concern, including the lack of speakers directly engaged in Black Lives Matter activism. 

Asked to respond to these students’ reasons for not participating, Nelson told the Quest that “[it is hubristic] to question the value of the perspectives and expertise of invited guests, to pass judgment on the absolute value of a program even before it has occurred, to discount the collaborative work and thinking of a group of organizers with decades of experience, and to publicly stir up opposition and pressure against an initiative that seeks to build bridges, encourage multiple constructive viewpoints, and is in service of a greater good.” He challenged the students who protested the sessions to consider the potential benefits they could have gained by participating from a position “of open-mindedness and curiosity.”

“I was reasonably confident that what I was saying was accurate and that my criticisms would still be valid after Precedent. I thought it was important to point out that I could tell just from the framing of the events that I would not be satisfied by them.”

Erin Paglione (M’21), who publicly criticized Precedent

In separate responses to the Quest, Kate, Paglione, and Pilla each affirmed their decision to publish their opinion articles before Precedent began. Pilla noted that they waited until after the participant preparation session on Friday, June 19, to ensure they had a better understanding of the program before writing about it. Kate had stressed the importance of voicing their criticisms early so that they might have an impact on Precedent.

“I think it was important that we got the ‘first word’ about Precedent,” Paglione said. “I was concerned that my criticisms would seem too hasty and written without giving Minerva the benefit of the doubt. But I was reasonably confident that what I was saying was accurate and that my criticisms would still be valid after Precedent. I thought it was important to point out that I could tell just from the framing of the events that I would not be satisfied by them.”

All three writers reported hearing from some peers and Minerva employees that their arguments against Precedent had informed their engagement with the event. According to Kate, “one of [her] professors wished they’d seen it earlier in preparation for Precedent.” 

Paglione and Pilla observed all four sessions. While Kate did not have time to follow them as closely, all three also spoke about the sessions with other students. After watching Precedent play out, Kate, Paglione, and Pilla each stood by the numerous criticisms they had published in the Quest. 

In response to the lack of focus on Minerva in Precedent, Nelson told the Quest that “the dialogue and ideas that [Precedent] generates will help inform the work we can do as a community and as an organization.” For example, an external guest suggested replacing the concept of a “cultural fit” in hiring, which may exclude people of color from white-dominated workplaces, with the inclusive concept of a “cultural add.” Nelson said Minerva can easily implement the idea of “an explicit cultural add” in their hiring practices. He further stated that external guests unfamiliar with Minerva would not be able to guide internal work.

Nelson also held up Minerva’s actions as distinct from the “performative, exploitative, and vapid” statements that most colleges and corporations issued in response to the June protests. With this in mind, Nelson told the Quest that “we made a conscious choice NOT to post on social media empty words of support and declare victory.” To date, Minerva has not published anything related to the Precedent sessions or other anti-racist initiatives, a decision communicated to students in Nelson’s June 25 email.

Looking ahead to further anti-racist work at Minerva

After the final Precedent session on June 25, Minerva announced “next steps” in an email to students and alumni. These include a series of internally-focused working groups exploring how Minerva can “become an anti-racist institution.” Additionally, Minerva announced a partnership with Paul Quinn College, a faith-based historically-Black college (HBCU) based in Dallas, Texas. The email describes it as “an innovative program to address racial disparities in an actionable way.” Further details about the program were announced on July 9.

Paglione, Pilla, Elisha Somasundram (M’22), and Grace Sommers (M’22) formed a group called Students Organizing Against Racism (SOAR) and contacted Minerva’s Senior Team on June 24 to advocate for student-driven anti-racist initiatives. They believe their email may have been the basis for the anti-racist workshops Minerva announced on June 25. Nelson’s email does not indicate the origin of the idea; after reading this article, he told the Quest that the workshops predated the students’ proposal. Paglione and Pilla said their concerns about a lack of student-centered work remained after the workshops were announced — for example, Pilla noted there are few details on how much commitment is expected, which may discourage busy students from participating. 

Pilla was also concerned that “Minerva has absolutely no reason (as far as I can see) to implement systemic reforms regarding anti-racism, beyond [wanting] to do the right thing and [knowing that] the world is watching.” She said that the group of students asked Minerva to hire a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion professional to financially invest in anti-racist work and create more external accountability for institutional change. 

Some of the Precedent participants also mentioned the importance of holding Minerva accountable to the lofty ideals discussed in the sessions. Bastos told the Quest that, while he personally benefited from Precedent, “whether or not I participate [in a similar event] again depends on whether it turns out to have been a placating, performative allyship endeavor or whether we have evidence of real, sustainable change after it.”

Several students questioned the feasibility of any significant institutional change within Minerva. Kroner described the college as “anti-anti-racist, not necessarily because it is invested in actual racism, but because it buys into the systems that uphold racism — our capitalist, consumerist, and very American structures.” Kate was concerned about Minerva’s Silicon Valley origins and the resulting “neoliberal logic that sees students as products.” She believes “we are being taught to fit ourselves into the status quo without learning where and when to resist coercive structures and reimagine new futures.”

“Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students are not alone, white and otherwise privileged students and community members have an active role to play as co-liberators, and we are not free until all of us are free.”

Kate Tanha (M’21), who publicly criticized Precedent

When asked about future anti-racist work at Minerva, many students told the Quest that they saw the most potential in “grassroots” work that focuses on the staff, faculty, and peers they interact with every day. Kate highlighted the responsibility of students when she told the Quest she wanted the Minerva community to know “that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students are not alone, that white and otherwise privileged students and community members have an active role to play as co-liberators, and that we are not free until all of us are free.”

A recent example of student-led anti-racist action is an Instagram account created by SOAR to provide “insights on racism and the experiences of Minervans.” They invite students to submit their uncomfortable questions about race, which the team will research and answer on their feed. Additionally, Kate and Paglione are leading a Quest initiative to survey students about their experiences with racism in Minerva. 

Nelson suggested other actions individual students can take to make Minerva more inclusive, such as recruiting Black American students, designing capstones and tutorials that focus on racism, or working to build a community free of discrimination. After students act on their own, Nelson told the Quest, they can then “do the hard work necessary to understand why conditions are as they are and what it will take to address them within the constraints in which they exist. Perhaps most importantly, have the humility to celebrate the work that others are doing to fight racism even if you would have done so in a different way.”  

One of the most important things every student can do, according to Mqamelo, is stepping up to call each other out and have difficult conversations when they witness racism. “Within our immediate community, if racism is an issue we need to be vocal about it,” she said. “Complaining in hindsight [online] isn’t being vocal. We need all people to have a conversation, understand, and then move on.”

The Quest will continue reporting on Minerva staff and student anti-racist efforts; currently, we are collecting survey results about experiences with racism in Minerva. We are committed to making the Quest an accessible platform for all students, faculty, and staff. We are open to anonymous work as long as it meets our journalistic standards. If it is easier, you can also tell your story via an oral interview instead of writing an article. As always, we encourage anyone interested in sharing their experience to reach out to Emma Stiefel ([email protected]), Erin Paglione ([email protected]), or another Quest editor. 

Update: This article was updated to include a link to details on the Minerva Project and Paul Quinn College partnership after they were announced on July 9.

Correction: The location of Paul Quinn College was corrected. It is in Dallas, not Austin.

Correction: A quote from Erin Paglione was revised to clarify that Paglione is speaking on behalf of herself, rather than all three students who publicly criticized Precedent, and to ensure that the tone of the quote aligns with her intentions in writing the opinion piece: “I thought it was important to point out that I could tell just from the framing of the events that I would not be satisfied by them.”

Correction: This piece was updated to include Ben Nelson’s clarification of the origin of the anti-racist workshops: “after reading this article, he told the Quest that the workshops predated the students’ proposal.”

Correction: This piece was updated to clarify that both Kate Tanha and Erin Paglione, rather than just Kate, are leading the Quest initiative to report on racism in Minerva.

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