Q&A with Evan Mandery, Professor at John Jay College

Evan Mandery’s book, Poison Ivy, was published on Oct. 25, one week from when this interview took place. A professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, Mandery routinely teaches Macaulay John Jay students. As a student in one of his courses titled “Intellectual Foundations I: What is the Common Good?,” I sat down with him to discuss his background, writing process and what the Macaulay community can learn from reading the book. 

Below is the Messenger’s interview with Mandery, edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

Q: You went to Harvard College and Harvard Law School, but you are an outspoken critic of Harvard University. How, if at all, did your undergraduate or law school experience impact your view on the higher ed system in America? 

Well, first of all, I would say that I am more CUNY than Harvard. I have been at John Jay for 23 years and both of my parents are CUNY graduates. My dad was a high school math teacher and principal in New York City [while] my mom was a middle school teacher. I have always been interested in –– or maybe I would even say I have always romanticized –– public education. Basically, for most of my life I just wanted to be a writer and a teacher. I was acutely aware of the many respects in which I did not fit in at Harvard. In retrospect, I understand them principally through a socioeconomic class lens, as do most of the people who I interviewed for the book. But, I would say I have been thinking in one way or another, for my entire life, about the ways in which accidents of birth shape people’s opportunity. 

Q: Before becoming a professor at John Jay, you practiced law. What was the transition like from a legal career to an academic one? 

I can answer that question in a host of dimensions. I mean, when you are a lawyer –– I was an associate at a big firm –– you have no control whatsoever over your life. So you are just basically working constantly and you have almost no control over what you work on. Though, in my last job I was able to work on a pro-bono death penalty case in Alabama, and that very much shaped my academic interests. In academia, aside from when you are in class, you have near complete control over what you think about and how you structure your day, so in the most pedestrian sense it totally changed my work life. But, I went from a universe in which there is an overabundance of resources –– food, support staff, cars to drive you home if you worked past 8:00 p.m., and legal assistants to help you out with basically anything that you are interested in –– to a universe in which there are almost no resources, and that is true for both the faculty members and for the students. 

Q: Your bio mentions that you have been “an outspoken critic of legacy admissions since publishing an op-ed in The New York Times in 2014.” What prompted you to publish that op-ed? What was the response like? 

I was president of the student government when I was at Harvard and I was critical of Harvard in many respects when I was there. I think I am bolder now about my positions than I was when I was an undergraduate, but I think you would have recognized me when I was 21 years old as the person that I am today. I have always harbored very serious misgivings about Harvard’s admissions process. I was very briefly an alumni interviewer and I was uncomfortable with almost every aspect of the process, especially [regarding] the sense that there was any objectivity to it. It seemed like people just ended up advocating for people that were like them.

As I tell in the book, the op-ed came out of a dinner conversation I was having with a friend. He is one of my best friends and actually has a very similar upbringing to me. He was raised middle-class, his family moved to Long Island, and his dad was a math teacher like my dad. But we saw Harvard very differently. To his credit, he has come around to my view. I think it’s been about ten years since we had that dinner. He was an alumni interviewer for Harvard (I do not know whether he still is), and he touted Harvard’s financial aid initiative which gives people who make below a certain minimum threshold full financial aid. That threshold was $65,000, which was above the median income in the United States, and I said let us find out whether anywhere close to 50% of people come from families making less than $65,000 and of course it was not even close. We used Crimson data and I think it was about 18% of people who came from families making less than $65,000 a year. Since that time, our understanding of how wealth shapes opportunity has been immeasurably increased by Raj Chetty and John Friedman’s groundbreaking, comprehensive study. Nationally, more students at elite colleges come from the top 1% than the bottom 60% of the income distribution. 

Q: As a CUNY professor, how do you view institutions like the Macaulay Honors College within the larger scope of CUNY? What role do you believe honors colleges like Macaulay play in the higher education landscape? 

That is a great question. Selfishly, I like working with smart students. And I think what I am best at is challenging a very hardworking, serious student to unlock their full potential. I have been teaching honors students in one way or another for more than 20 years and I love it. I would happily do it for free. I presume if you interview other students than yourself, they will say that I am very challenging but that I am very dedicated to what I do. So from a selfish standpoint, I greatly like it. From an ethical standpoint, it is very hard for me to make an argument that any student is more deserving of resources than any other –– other than maybe some kind of minimal work ethic, but if you are trying to get through college I think you have a claim on us trying to help you get through it. 

Regarding Macaulay, I just finished with a cohort of students who I worked with for three years, several of whom are portrayed in the book, and we did a shared research project together. We ultimately chose to do it on a listening curriculum that I designed, but the other main candidate was diversity at Macaulay, both socioeconomic and racial diversity. I was shocked, because John Jay’s Macaulay program is highly diverse, that the students told me that that was not the case for Macaulay as an institution. And, I will say that if there is going to be an institution that exists that is going to give a particular leg up to a certain group of students, it is vital that that be diverse in every sense of the word, so I am very interested in how to diversify Macaulay. As a life-long New Yorker, whose dad was a principal at one of the specialized high schools, I am interested in how you make those special opportunities available to as wide a range of people as possible. 

Evan Mandery pictured in his office in front of a bookshelf.

Q: In your book, you talk about a John Jay alumnus who went on to win a Marshall Scholarship and was later a part of the program selection committee. When reviewing a CUNY applicant with another committee member, the student was described as coming from a school that was not “serious.” Do you have any advice for CUNY students who want to try for these competitive opportunities? 

First of all I want to say that that is one of the most horrifying stories I think that I tell in the book. That young man who you mentioned –– who’s  a colleague of mine now here, he is a professor –– it is one of the most extraordinary stories I’ve ever heard and the fact that somebody would say that to him just shows the extent of people’s ignorance about CUNY, about working class students and just about higher education in general. He is so far superior to his counterparts at Harvard and Yale. 

I think my book tells a story that two things need to happen: the ceiling needs to be lowered and the floor needs to be raised. There needs to be more funding and opportunity for students at public colleges and we also need to change the narrative and stop hoarding at elite colleges. I do not think overnight that Harvard and Yale will cease to be regarded at least nearly as highly as they are. Of course I think it is vital that CUNY students put themselves out into the world for all of these opportunities. I do think there have been some modest efforts to diversify these programs and in the chapter you mentioned the student actually is a part of an effort to diversify it. I think that diversification is largely driven by race, not by wealth. Mostly, what all CUNY students need to be are partners and ambassadors for public education and telling an honest story. 

Q: What is the greatest joy of writing for you?

I love writing. I am basically happy everyday to go to class and any day that I get to write. There is something joyous that happens [when] writing, which I presume that –– not to compare myself to these people –– great composers and musicians feel, where I hear the rhythm of a sentence or the sound of something that I have written. And I feel that I have connected with the deep music of the universe. I do not know what you feel about the conclusion of the book, but I think it is very rhythmic and emotionally moving. I think what I like most about myself as a writer is that I think I have a good knack for tying together seemingly unrelated bits of information. I greatly honor writers like Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell. I am probably ten percent more academic than they are, but I think my book makes a couple of contributions. I think the focus on downward mobility as opposed to upward mobility is novel. And I think that the connection that I draw between elite colleges and suburbs is something that really has not been pointed out by anybody else. I am not the only person in the world that would make that connection, I am sure, but I think that there is something about the way my brain works where I am interested in seemingly unrelated things. I try to make it fun. 

Q: What is the one thing you hope readers will take away from reading Poison Ivy

Obviously I have a lot of lessons that I would like people to leave with. But, I think what I am most deeply connected to, definitely because of my own childhood and upbringing, is a very deep connection with underdogs and a very hostile aversion to liars, bullies, and hypocrites. I think the narrative of meritocracy in America is a myth, as I discuss in the book. What I think I have done, which is a little different than other people, is show how that myth is actively constructed. So, elite colleges are not bystanders and Americans believing that they are admitting the best and brightest –– that high SAT scores and lots of extracurriculars somehow make people more qualified –– is a myth that elite colleges are constructing, because it serves their institutional interests. 

I want people to understand that the stories that we tell about people are written, they are not just existing in the ether and that particular story has a very dark underside. Meritocracy is a double-edged sword. If we say that people at Harvard and Yale are the hardest working and the most deserving of their status, then by implication we necessarily say that everybody who is not at Harvard and Yale is less smart, less hardworking and less deserving of that status. The thing I most viscerally reject is the idea that CUNY students are less hardworking or less deserving of a quality education. Every student I have ever taught in the honors program or at Macaulay could do the work at Harvard or Yale and they would do fine, because there is tons of grade inflation so everyone does fine anyway, it is just a matter of getting in. But they would be able to intellectually handle it, and what separates those people from everybody else is just luck and accidents of birth. I think treating that as anything but luck is really harmful to the students that I have taught for the past quarter-century.

Recommended Reading:

The Supreme Court Is Set to Kill Affirmative Action. Just Not for Rich White Kids.

University of Hypocrisy.

What Trump Gets Right about Harvard.

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