On Thursday, I went to a little reunion for alumni of my middle & high school*, Roeper. I’ve blogged about Roeper a bit before, but as a brief summary, Roeper is a school for the gifted founded by Jewish humanists who had fled Europe during WWII. The school has a fairly traditional curriculum (I think every class I took but two or three would be offered at every high school), but a very relaxed and inclusive atmosphere – students call teachers by their first names, students have reps to the board, etc.
Right now, Roeper is undergoing a leadership transition. Legit orgs scholars probably have a lot more to say about this than I do, but in general, leadership transitions are tough, and can be especially tough for organizations that are trying to maintain a distinct identity in the face of normalizing pressures. For example, years ago, Roeper was entirely ungraded. Eventually, to make it easier for Roeper students to get admitted to universities, they switched to a system of grades plus written reports. The same thing happened to my undergrad, the Residential College within the University of Michigan, with the rationale being that students needed grades to apply to graduate programs. And so on. This year, Roeper is searching for a new head of school, and has an interim head of the entire school as well as an interim head of the middle school. The interim head, Phil Deely, was hired for just one year, and is a specialist in that position, serving as one part head, one part consultant, at a variety of schools over the past couple decades.
Phil came to the Ann Arbor reunion, and spoke a bit about his short time at Roeper, and about his own position. One of his tasks is to try to help clarify and concretize the Roeper philosophy, a battle that’s been waged ever since the school’s founders (George and Annemarie) stepped down from actively running the school in the 80s.** The iteration that happened in my years was a move to make a 1-page version of the philosophy required by an outside accrediting body*** into the “official” version, and then arguing about the language (for example, whether or not to include a phrase about all individuals having the capacity for both good and evil that came from a longer statement of the philosophy penned by George Roeper). These fights over the language in the philosophy statement are fights, in some sense, about the identity of the school, the “central, enduring and distinctive” aspects of the school (as a common definition of organizational identity would phrase it).
Phil turned this question over to the assembled alums – and it took the form of completing the mad lib “Roeper is…” For me, a variation on the title of Francesca Polletta’s influential book on the civil rights movement sprang to mind: Roeper is an endless meeting. Let me try to explain.
Briefly, Polletta’s Freedom is an Endless Meeting traces the history of participatory democracy in social movements, with a focus on the civil rights era. She argues that participatory democracy’s critics have overstated its failings. In particular, more top-down structures assume that everyone’s interests are already well-known, especially to themselves, and that the purpose of organizations and politics is to figure out who wins. Polletta argues that participatory democracy can be especially effective when that is not the case: when people want to understand themselves and their worlds better before taking action.**** Participatory democracy breaks down when well-established sub-groups with conflicting interests begin to fight over what an organization should do. Polletta further argues that we have relatively few models of relationships on which to base a participatory democratic institution, and thus we often fall back into familiar roles (student-teacher, friends, religious fellowship) that might end up conflicting with the participatory democratic process.
Ok, so what’s all this got to do with Roeper? Roeper was not, and never has been, a democracy, at least in an Athenian sense of everyone voting and participating equally. It’s pretty hard to imagine an organization including elementary and middle schoolers running as such. Given that, Roeper was filled with (at the time) seemingly interminable meetings. A few examples: the entire upper school (6-12) met routinely for town hall meetings. When major events happened, the school would gather, and classes would be canceled while we discussed what had happened, how we felt, what it meant for us as individuals and as a community. In the wake of the Columbine school shootings, we had a two day long assembly. We talked about our own trench-coat wearing cliques, and how much we valued and appreciated them. We talked about violence and non-violence (the school was avowedly pacifist, and anti-nationalist*****). And so on.
These meetings rarely spawned new policies. But they were essential, I think, to maintaing Roeper as an institution, and a part of its distinctive character. Our opinions, thoughts, feelings mattered. In some sense, they had to: we were the product the school was “selling.” But more than that, our opinions, worked out through endless meetings, constituted and re-constituted Roeper as a community. In other words, Roeper is the kind of place that is constantly – and consciously – trying to figure itself out. That figuring itself out involves everyone – teachers, staff, admin, students, parents, alums – even if decisions are made, in the end, through a traditional hierarchy.
I don’t think that’s a sufficient or entirely satisfying question to the answer of “what Roeper is.” But, perhaps, it’s a call to accept that such an answer may never exist, without invalidating the question. Finally, keying again of Polletta, Roeper faces difficulties in part because so few organizations function the way it wants to, and so we have few models to compare it to and to base our actions on. On the other hand, by producing Roeperians (as we sometimes fancy ourselves), Roeper sends out into the world a corp of thoughtful individuals who have experienced a different organizational structure (even if they often thought it silly, and skipped more than a few assemblies in their time), and thus have a model of interaction on which to base future organizing efforts, and an expectation that “another organization is possible.”
* Roeper runs pre-K through 12, but I only started in 7th grade. Those of us who started a bit later sometimes make jokes about “lifers” who went all the way through.
** Someone out there correct my timeline if I get something wrong, please!
**** I hadn’t planned thus, but there are connections here to my previous post about our problematic understanding of rationality as a requirement that individuals have stable and known preferences.
***** Indeed, another lengthy deliberative process involved the debate of whether or not to fly a flag following the attacks of 9/11/01. There was an intense debate of whether it would be a symbol condoning the ensuing violence, or if it could be repurposed for its loftier goals. Roeper was that kind of place.