Tuesday, August 30, 2005

One Embarrassed Alumnus

Boy am I embarrassed.

I had the enormously good fortune to attend one of the very best private boarding schools in the world, Phillips Academy, from which I graduated in 1973. My wife also graduated from Andover, in 1976. Her brother and I were classmates there. And my daughter is entering her junior ("Upper") year in days. To this day, I regularly socialize with a small group of my classmates who long ago became life-long fast friends.

Over the years since graduating, I have religiously made gifts to the school, sometimes well in excess of my means -- and I have been actively involved in alumni affairs for 30 years.

Most assume that a place like Andover is a playground for rich kids. It is not. While many of my classmates were from privileged backgrounds, just as many were not. I shared a dorm with a guy from South Bronx, a guy from south-side Philadelphia and a guy from inner-city Baltimore. Because of its enormous endowment, Andover was able to execute a "blind" admissions system, and the great majority of the student body was enjoying some degree of financial assistance. That's what great institutions do with their endowment, and it is how they remain great institutions.

So when I found this column by Alex Beam in today's Boston Globe, I was red-faced:

...why did the prestigious Phillips Academy at Andover, a $33,000 a year upper-class finishing school that claims both George Bushes among its alumni, recently threaten to sue a brand-new, tiny, all-black charter school in the poorest part of New Orleans? Because the school calls itself the KIPP (for Knowledge Is Power Program, a San-Francisco based chain of charter schools): Phillips Academy.

[uh...finishing school?]

Now, I might be willing to accept the notion that a school of Andover's reputation might be overly protective of its tradename, and for the sake of this piece, let's assume that is legitimate in this instance. Phillips Academy doesn't wish to have its tradename diluted by the presence of other private schools with the same name...But there is a time, a place and a method for pursuing one's interests, and my alma mater blew it big time on this one. According to the original story in the Times-Pickayune, after a series of "nasty letters and phone calls" from Andover's attorney, Michele Whitman, a co-managing partner at the white shoe Boston firm Foley Hoag & Eliot,

Robichaux called her to assure that the two schools, serving opposite ends of the socioeconomic scale, one in the Deep South and the other in New England, couldn't possibly be confused. "I said, 'You can't be serious,' " Robichaux recalled. "I started laughing on the phone. She didn't like that."

Whitham, of the Boston firm of Foley Hoag, could not have been more serious, Robichaux said.

"Are you aware that President Bush graduated from our school?" Whitham said, according to Robichaux. "There's nothing funny about this -- we could go further. . . . And do you have the resources to fight this?"

This sort of "do you know who we are," "we'll bury you in paper" attack on a tiny minority school is dispicable and ludicrous, and is the type of behavior that makes a caricature of the school as an institution and lawyers as people. (I wonder where Michele Whitman did her finishing -- hopefully not at Andover).

Now the story ends on an up note:

But cooler heads have prevailed: Mike Feinberg, the head of the Knowledge is Power Program foundation, had a cordial conversation with Barbara Landis Chase, the "head of school" in Andover. They agreed the KIPP school would change its name to KIPP Phillips College Prep, and the Andover school would contribute $2,000 to their costs for changing the name on signs and students' uniform T-shirts.

Barbara Landis Chase is a brilliant, good humored and charitable soul, and she has done an impeccable job during her eleven year tenure in making Andover accessible to an enormously diverse world of young students. Although Beam accuses her of having "initiated this idiocy," I sincerely doubt that she called up Ms. Whitman on the phone and said "I want you to call this man and threaten to sue him -- and be sure to mention that George Bush went here."

It would be my hope that in the future, Dr. Chase sees the efficacy in picking up the phone herself, before the white shoe litigators are unleased on the unsuspecting principals of struggling minority charter schools in the Louisiana bayou, and suggesting (in the convincing manner that heads-of-school quickly develop) that Andover would be most willing to contribute the cost of a name change, if that would be fine with him, and "do please keep me informed of any of your students who you consider to be compelling candidates for an Andover education."

Come to think of it, there was no one from New Orleans in my class.

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