Our obligations at Vanderbilt eclipse our appreciation of the people back home

“Todd, there’s an incoming ballistic missile heading towards Hawaii. No matter what happens, know that I love you.”

It was 12:14 PM on Saturday when I heard those words from my father, a workaholic who had said the word “love” fewer than five times in his entire life. During that 57 second phone call, nothing felt real. Just moments before, I had been curled up over my computer, filling out applications and getting ready to join the waves of students looking for summer internships. As the reality of the outside world broke through, I called my mother and turned to Twitter for news. In seconds, my parents would be gone, vaporized in an attack that would plunge the world into chaos.

Thankfully, like a diver breaking through the surface, I could finally breathe again once I found out that the missile alert was a false alarm. I called my dad and mom again to check on them, relieved to hear their shaky voices. Someone had flipped the wrong switch. Crisis averted. No World War III.

After that morning, the world itself seemed like a dream come true. The laughter of my friends was music to my ears. The thought of my parents still smiling under the Hawaiian sun warmed me amid the snow, as if I was right next to them. For the first time in awhile, I could feel how lucky I was to have them all in my life.

When the adrenaline high fell to a low buzz later that evening, I was able to introspect. Looking at my current situation, I realized how life at Vanderbilt isolates its students from the outside world. It filters out more than messy parts of reality, like responsibility and privilege. It insulates us from our roots. It makes us forget how we got here.

We rush from class to class, scurry from one club meeting to the next and pile our plates high with activities meant to secure our futures. We have an opportunity at this university to make something of ourselves, so we give our all. When we put in the work, we honor those who have helped us become who we are today. Nonetheless, it’s still important to keep perspective.

It took the threat of nuclear war to show me just how quickly everything can disappear.

Loved ones can vanish in an instant. A sorority sister can drop out of college. A mentor can fade into the background. A parent can die before they get a chance to see the light of their life on that stage with a diploma in hand. It can happen to any of us.

This story, however, is not about the uncertain future. It’s about the precious present. No club meeting should be worth a friend’s birthday. No homework should stop anyone from celebrating Valentine’s Day with their loved one. No internship application should stop you from picking up a call from a parent hard at work to pay tuition this semester.

We can’t wait for holidays and birthdays to start caring for those we love. Whether they’re across the state, across the country or across the world, make time for them. Cancel that Writing Studio appointment. Skip that optional extra-credit lecture. Take one of those free unscheduled absences from class. Let’s thank our ‘ohana, our family of cheerleaders and supporters, with our time and attention. It’s least the least we can do.

Todd Polk is a sophomore in Peabody college. He can be reached at todd.o.polk@vanderbilt.edu.

category: Featured, Opinion

Consent is not a nicety

It was the first weekend back from winter break. Everyone wanted to get all their fun in before they had to buckle down for the semester. After going out, I woke up the next morning, got breakfast and listened to my friends describe their nights.

One of my friends said that he was at a pregame, talking to a girl. The rapport was pretty flirty. One thing led to another, and they ended up in the guy’s room. They started making out, and clothes started coming off. When he asked the girl if she wanted to do anything more, she gave an unclear answer. She was drunk, he was drunk—he decided that he’d be taking advantage of her if they had had sex. She wasn’t in a state of mind to be giving consent. And so he bid her goodnight and they went their separate ways. What shocked me was not the story itself, but what followed.

After hearing this, two of my girl friends said that that “was so sweet of him” and that “he’s such a good guy.”

Men violate women’s consent so often on college campuses that when they don’t, they’re treated like heroes. The standards are so low that consent is treated like a cordiality instead of a basic human right.

It would be ridiculous to compliment someone for not stealing another person’s wallet. Being a not-horrible human being is not cause for celebration—it should be cause for nothing. Decency should be assumed. When it is not assumed, those who practice it are exalted. They become the nice, sweet guys.

At Vanderbilt, the men who don’t rape are the good guys. This means that we don’t assume that the norm is to respect women’s consent. And that says a lot about our expectations and our culture.

category: Featured, Opinion

Switch your voter registration to Tennessee

Midterm elections are like stay at-home moms: often overlooked, but very important. And with the craziness of the 24-hour news cycle, it can be easy to forget that there’s a national election this year. But it’s imperative that we pay attention to this one.

If you oppose the president’s agenda, it’s imperative to turn that into a vote against his party this November. It’s what Republicans did to Obama in the 2010 elections–they mobilized around opposition to the president, took back Congress, and derailed much of Obama’s legislative agenda. The same goes for anyone who supports Trump: if you want to protect the Republican majorities in the Senate and the House you’ve got to fill out your absentees with bubble next to the magic R.

In pretty much any other year, Tennessee would not be the place for a contentious statewide election. We’ve been solidly red since the early 90’s, and only one Democrat has been elected Senator or governor in this century.

But there are signs that this year is going to be different. For instance, pollsters have shown that Democrats are viewed in a much more favorable light than Republicans right now, so red-state liberals have a shot at succeeding in unlikely arenas. Tennessee, which went for Trump by a 26-point margin, might be one of those places.

The candidates’ personalities also seem conducive for a Democrat to make a Cinderella-run. As of right now, the primaries are looking lopsided, and both parties have a prized horse. For the Republicans, it’s the staunch Trump-ally Marsha Blackburn, a self-described “hard-core conservative” congresswoman. She’s an immigration hardliner and swings right of most voters. Conversely, the Democrats are likely to put their weight behind former Nashville mayor and two-term governor Phil Bredesen. The fiscal conservative and moderate liberal has shown that he knows how to turn a ruby-red state blue–he’s done it before. And polling has reflected this: while the data is mixed, some show Bredesen with a narrow lead in a head-to-head matchup with Blackburn.

Bredesen and the Democrats have a feasible–if narrow–path to victory: pick off moderates and energize the liberal base. If hippy-dippy Nashvillians turn out in droves for Bredesen and center-right Republicans stay home or flip their votes, we could well be calling Phil Bredesen Senator Bredesen and Democrat Chuck Schumer Senate Majority Leader Schumer. If not, Republicans may very well maintain their razor-thin majority in the Senate.

So, if you want to leverage your vote, consider switching your registration to Tennessee. This race, like midterm elections themselves, is overlooked, but deeply important. You don’t want to miss out. The future of Trump’s presidency may very well depend on it.

category: Featured, Opinion

Revisiting the quota system as a replacement for affirmative action

Last month, the Department of Justice launched an investigation of Harvard University, that lightning-rod of higher-ed, for its affirmative action practices. The Department claims Harvard may have violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against applicants based on race.

Regardless of the validity of the investigation, affirmative action has a major perception problem; it is seen as discriminatory to individuals and forcing admissions officers to make subjective guesses. As an institution with a reputation for inclusion and excellence, Vanderbilt should consider implementing a quota-based system instead in order to preserve both fairness and diversity in admissions.

The current system was put into place to maintain diversity, and does so through a delicate ‘balancing’ of privilege. Affirmative action is definitely noble in intent; President Johnson described it as “the glorious opportunity of this generation to end the one huge wrong of the American Nation.” In addition, it crucially maintains diversity; a school system like the Universities of California, where affirmative action isn’t implemented, has major issues with diversity.    

The problem lies in the process. Every school’s goal is to have the “best” possible class, with the most talented students from each ethnicity, culture and class that the institution can attract. A purely meritocratic system, without adjusting for structural inequality, cannot provide diversity; and yet, the current system of affirmative action has too little meritocracy involved.

Admissions officers view every application received in the same pool, and then attempt to ‘boost’ those from underrepresented minority groups, by evaluating minority status as a boon. The perception issue lies here: two people, alike in everything but race, will be evaluated differently. For minority groups, this results in  students often being viewed as “diversity admits.” For majority groups, it seems to perfectly match discriminatory behavior.

Instead, I propose that Vanderbilt adopt a version of the quota system, frequently viewed as an alternative to affirmative action. The idea is that the applications are not viewed in a single sprawling pool; rather, applications would be sorted into smaller pools subdivided by class, race and other factors admissions has deemed important for diversity. Each pool receives, and is limited by, a certain number of spots (determined by demographics or another reasonable metric); admissions then seeks to fill each of those pools with the most qualified candidates they can attract.

This ensures diversity more reliably than the current system, but avoids the unfair comparison between applicants who are of different races or classes. Under this system, a majority-group applicant who gets rejected cannot claim discrimination, for they were never evaluated directly against a minority-group applicant. Rather, it enshrines the ideals of meritocracy, while also recognizing the need for diversity.

Quota systems often have problems with intersectionality, such as with African American women. I would propose that at least for the major categories of race, gender and class, the pools themselves be intersectional: that the University formulate a web of pools that span all the possible permutations of different identities.

One novel method of determining the size of each pool would be by application percentage: the percentage of the class who would be in each pool would be equivalent to the percentage of applicants in the pool. This system would provide a simple way for each class to match demographic shifts, and would be an impartial way of determining quota sizes. However, this method would only work with a removal of the application fee or income based recalibration, as poorer students are gated by application fees and so may not apply in the same quantities. No matter the method of determining pool sizes, the general concept is sufficient to ensure diversity and fairness at the same time.

The primary issue with a traditional quota system is legal; in Bakke v. UC Davis, Justice Powell, speaking for the Supreme Court, argued against a UC quota program that reserved 16 seats for minority students. The logic of the ruling was that the reservations gave minority students a boost of 16 possible seats, an unfair advantage over the rest of the student body. My proposal would sidestep that by limitations: though it reserves seats for each group, it also restricts them to those seats; if the percentages are unbalanced, it would be easy to remedy by recalibrating the numbers.

Another issue is that a quota system makes minorities seem like they need a boost. That’s completely true. However, we can’t simultaneously want real structural adjustments but also insist on an appearance of equal treatment. The truth (that the current system of affirmative action also assumes) is that minorities do need a boost, and that necessity isn’t a judgement on the individual merits of each minority member, but rather a judgement of the historical inequities perpetuated in America.

In the current system, the privilege granted from traits like race and gender is unquantifiable, yet admissions officers are called upon to weigh them for every decision. This quota process makes it so that applicants are evaluated against people in similar positions to them, rather than having to figure out how to adjust evaluations based on difference. Through subdivisions, Vanderbilt can make affirmative action a transparent and equitable process that still maintains a diverse, vibrant and excellent community, through proper implementation of a quota system with careful research and deliberation on the part of the administration.

category: Featured, Opinion
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