Mistakes Were Made

New York University apologized in August for screwing up food delivery for students in quarantine. Apparently not everyone who requested a special meal — vegan, kosher, halal — received one. “Few things in the day are more important than looking forward to something nice to eat,” a university spokesman wrote, “so this is a particularly regrettable error, and a letdown for our students.” The statement blamed the vendor and promised to remedy the situation.

As errors go, the meal-delivery snafu at NYU ranks fairly low on the significance scale (though, as noted, a nice meal is something to look forward to). But sifting through the many college apologies over the past year, the big ones and the small ones, the heartfelt and the pro forma, is a reminder of the unexpected, and usually unhappy, twists and turns of campus life since January 1. We’re not talking here about mea culpas from professors — though there was no shortage of those (for example, remember the Ohio State professor who apologized profusely for an essay he wrote in favor of playing football?). We’re talking instead about institutional expressions of regret, those carefully couched statements that attempt to tamp down a brewing controversy, explain away an egregious misstep, or own up to profound historical injustice.

A bunch of apologies were — unsurprisingly — related to Covid-19. The University of Iowa apologized after a student complained about her quarantine experience, saying that she “felt like a guinea pig.” Her description of the ordeal — which included ants in her bed, a dirty sink, and collapsing exhausted from crying — was vivid and alarming. Von Stange, Iowa’s assistant vice president for student life, said he was “deeply sorry” and pledged to “make this semester one that is memorable, educational, and engaging.” (In fairness, her experience did sound, if nothing else, memorable.)

Boston University apologized for announcing guidelines for awarding degrees to students who die before completing their degrees. Apparently the guidelines had been in the works for a while, but the announcement was issued as understandably anxious students were returning to campus in the midst of the pandemic. A spokesman said the university was sorry for the “insensitive timing of the announcement.”

Last month the president of the University of Nevada at Reno, Brian Sandoval, apologized for the fact that the university’s football coaches weren’t wearing masks during a game, and also that players in the locker room were filmed celebrating maskless. Sandoval said he had spoken with the team’s coaches “and stressed the importance of why we can and must do better.” In a statement he read at a press conference, Sandoval reiterated the importance of adhering to public-safety guidelines, though he also made sure everyone knew that the game was a “massive victory for our program over San Diego State.”

In recent years, the list of colleges that have apologized for their historical connections to slavery has grown, and this year was no different. In a video posted in August, Carol E. Quillen, the president of Davidson College, said that the college had “benefited from creativity, labor, and talent stolen from Black people. By participating in and profiting from slavery, by condoning it, and in some cases ardently defending it, members of the Davidson community helped to sustain and perpetuate this horrific institution.” In February, Wake Forest University’s president, Nathan O. Hatch, used similar language, acknowledging that Wake Forest had exploited enslaved people. “And I profoundly regret that subsequent generations of this university did not affirm the humanity of the enslaved individuals who made our existence possible,” Hatch said.

Easily the most cringe-inducing blunders this year were related to race. The president of Oklahoma Christian University, John deSteiguer apologized after a recruiter lined up high-school students by skin color and hair texture during what was ostensibly an “ice breaker” session. The recruiter was fired the same day, and deSteiguer called the incident “offensive, harmful, and inappropriate.” Michigan State University apologized in February — i.e., Black History Month — after a campus gift shop displayed dolls of famous African Americans hanging from a small decorative tree. The university said gift-shop employees would receive racial bias training.

Several universities apologized for crime alerts that were viewed as racially insensitive. The University of Louisville apologized after a late-night alert warned students to be on the lookout for a “black male wearing a red hoodie.” It was not an inaccurate description — a Black man with a red hoodie had reportedly fled from police — though, some argued, it was unhelpfully and perhaps dangerously vague. (“So what if I decided I wanted to wear a red hoodie?” Jaaylyn Mack, a sophomore, wondered.) In a statement, Louisville’s president, Neeli Bendapudi, wrote that the “work of anti-racism requires thoughtful reflection and intentional action” and that it “requires us to acknowledge when we have erred and to do better when we know better.”

Protests over racial injustice prompted many colleges to issue statements expressing solidarity with the movement toward greater equality. These weren’t apologies, exactly; they were more like acknowledgements or reaffirmations. Princeton admitted that it had “intentionally and systematically excluded people of color, women, Jews, and other minorities” over its long history and that “[r]acist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures” at the university. This led to a letter from the U.S. Education Department threatening to strip the university’s federal funding, a move that was interpreted as either coercive government overreach or a trollish jab.

As a rule, presidents apologize on behalf of their colleges, not the other way around. But at Liberty University, David Nasser, the campus pastor and senior vice president for spiritual development, apologized for the behavior of Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty’s disgraced former president. Falwell’s eventful year included posting a photo of himself with his pants partially unzipped, creating a mask that featured an infamous photo of Virginia’s governor in blackface, and suggesting that Covid-19 was being hyped to hurt President Trump. Nasser, though, apologized to students for Falwell’s sex scandal, the details of which let’s just discreetly skip over. “You and your family have worked hard to pay for a Christian education, and this wasn’t what you signed up for,” Nasser said, stating the obvious.

While he was specifically referring to what had gone wrong at Liberty, Nasser also managed to sum up what feels like an altogether regrettable year. “This moment that we’re in is a mess,” he said.

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