Organization Trends

Agnes Irwin and Her Legacy: Uninspiring Management


Agnes Irwin and Her Legacy (Full Series)
Educating Young Women | Diversity Policies in Action | Uninspiring Management | What Will the Future Hold?

“A very striking trait of my aunt’s, and one which required intelligence as well as character, was her uncompromising truthfulness,” Repplier’s biography quotes Irwin’s nephew as writing.

***

AIS compromised on its unwavering commitment. The junior transgender boy, in fact, graduated after senior year in Spring 2017. The school apparently construed the Hill “unwavering-commitment” letter’s compassionate, but very carefully written “case-by-case” and “over-time” language so loosely and broadly as to extend the case longer than a year.

The student did not leave. Between the student’s public identification as a male in January 2016 and graduation from AIS in Spring 2017, he wore a different uniform, used a separate bathroom, and wore a tuxedo to prom.

Many other students did leave; they were pulled by their parents from AIS. From the beginnings of the 2015-16 to the 2016-17 academic years, the school’s overall enrollment declined from 664 to 619, according to tallies from its directories. That’s a lot of tuition gone. A resulting decline in the school’s financial situation followed, of course, exacerbated by also-declining contributions above and beyond tuition.

Many AIS parents saw the episode as an unfortunately symbolic culmination of a larger permissive atmosphere fostered by the school’s faculty and administration. They were essentially seeing that which Irwin’s biographer Repplier might’ve described as, well, its “disintegration under the repeated onslaughts of unwarranted complacency and indiscriminate reform,” of “untested innovations” in which it placed too much trust.

***

“If there was one point on which [Irwin] was absolutely assured, it was that culture and refinement alone did not redeem this life from unworthiness,” according to Repplier’s biography. Irwin had a determined “insistence upon a moral tone.” One pupil told Repplier, “Capacity did not exist for Miss Irwin unless it were backed by character.”

“[S]he represented Victorian standards,” Repplier reports a friend as believing of Irwin, and Repplier herself notes that “a background of religion occasionally colored her letters and her speech.”

***

In January 2018, there was another dramatic, and traumatic, incident at AIS—again emblematic of things going quite awry with its purported preservation of Irwin’s legacy there. A sixth-grader recited in class an apparently racially charged poem that she had written. Students who heard the poem told their parents about it and its tone. The actual content of the poem itself has never been shared with parents, neither before nor after its reading.

In a February 2, 2018, email to parents of sixth-grade students, Hill and Director of Middle Schools Cintra Horn reported that “[i]n the poem, the student urged her fellow African-Americans to advocate for their rights, even in the face of hardship, violence, and oppression.” AIS says about 15% of its overall enrollment are students of color.

“The poem took on issues that are challenging, complicated, and sensitive even for adults,” according to Hill and Horn, and “We understand some parents and students were worried that the strong language in the student’s work raised issues of safety.”

In one of many emails written in response to the one from Hill and Horn by the parent of a sixth-grader who heard the poem, the parent quoted some violence-threatening language reportedly used by the student in it, including “We are ready to kill. Death is permanent. Are you ready to die?”

***

“Miss Irwin’s distaste for tumultuous speech was part and parcel of her habitual self-restraint,” Repplier’s biography notes at one point, and “Miss Irwin’s instinctive avoidance of excess was full of meaning to her pupils,” it notes at another.

***

Hill’s and Horn’s February 2 email said that AIS asked the student to undergo an “independent assessment in order to ensure the safety of the student and our student body,” even though “the student and her mother both felt this was not warranted.” To those students and parents who apparently were concerned about what they considered the threatening nature of the poem and its violation of any standards of decency: not to worry. Hill and Horn wrote that:

the assessor has concluded the student is perfectly healthy—just as the student and her mother assured us from the beginning—and has cleared the student to return to school. We feel confident after this assessment that the student’s work was not a threat, but rather, part of a tradition of bold and confronting political speech that leading civil rights activists have used.

Is AIS a canary in the coal mine for similar institutions? See if the signs are there in the conclusion of Agnes Irwin and her legacy.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Strategic Giving at the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C. He…
+ More by Michael E. Hartmann