Bowdoin College’s high-profile food fight with New Yorker commentator and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell boiled over Friday when Bowdoin alum and Black Lives Matter leader DeRay McKesson blasted Gladwell on Twitter, calling his criticism “a sham.”

Meanwhile, Bowdoin issued a strongly worded defense of its food program and invited Gladwell to Brunswick “to answer his questions over a good meal.”

The spat started when Gladwell posted his latest “Revisionist History” podcast on Thursday morning comparing the food services programs of Bowdoin and Vassar colleges, and arguing that Bowdoin spends money on food at the expense of financial aid. Bowdoin College has the best food service among American colleges, according to the Princeton Review. It also is one of a handful of colleges in the country that does not consider a student’s financial background when making decision about admissions.

Gladwell called Bowdoin’s food service “a moral problem,” and said foo-foo food programs are keeping poor kids out of college. At one point, Gladwell said, “If you’re looking at liberal arts colleges, don’t go to Bowdoin, don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin, don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin, don’t give money to Bowdoin, or to any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall,” he says. “Atrocious fresh fruit is a small price to pay for social justice.”

Bowdoin’s response was swift and sharp. The school provided a point-by-point takedown, as well as financial aid information dispelling Gladwell’s arguments. And on Friday, McKesson, a leading national spokesman for Black Lives Matter, chimed in with a series of tweets, vigorously defending his alma mater. In one, he wrote, “@Gladwell, there are many fair critiques of Bowdoin. But saying ‘the food is good therefore the college isn’t focused on equity’ is a sham.”


“Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast ‘Revisionist History’ (aptly named) takes a manipulative and disingenuous shot at Bowdoin College that is filled with false assumptions, anecdotal evidence, and incorrect conclusions,” the college said in a statement. “Bowdoin’s commitment to meeting the full financial need for all admitted students is longstanding, unwavering, and unassailable. And it has nothing to do with food.”

Bowdoin listed details of its financial aid programs, and noted it is one of only 15 colleges in the country that does not consider a student’s financial situation when deciding admission and that 15 percent of its incoming freshman class are first-generation college students.

In its statement, Bowdoin also included an email from Gladwell’s producer, sent in the winter, seeking an appointment on campus. The producer wrote, “I’m specifically investigating the food at Bowdoin, which tops lists of the best campus dining in the country, as an example of how good college food can get. I would love to get a quick recorded tour of one of your kitchens and dining hall for this episode,” the producer wrote. Bowdoin suggested the email misrepresented the reason for the visit.

Doug Cook, Bowdoin’s director of news and media relations, said the school would not comment further. “We stand behind our financial aid practices and our dining service,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bowdoin earned high marks for its response from Joe Kuffner, a former West Coast college PR professional who writes a blog, Social Media for Colleges. He called Bowdoin’s quick and decisive response “extremely smart” and praised the college for coming “out swinging against such a well-known figure. That takes guts, but it resonated much more strongly than any sort of mealy-mouthed PR pablum could have.”

In an interview, Kuffner said he was impressed with the speed of Bowdoin’s reply. “I know how at an institution, things are pretty slow-moving. There are layers of administration and approval. I was surprised they put together such a quick and fact-based and punchy response in what seems liked just a couple of hours,” he said.

The school’s current and former students and faculty chimed in.

“When I heard about it, to be honest, I thought that clearly, something must have been lost in translation,” said Cordelia Orbach, who will be a senior in the fall. “There has to be some kind of mistake, because I knew what he was saying was incorrect. I was stunned.”

Orbach said the attack felt personal and mean-spirited, given the school’s progressive admissions policies. “We are one of 15 schools in the country with a ‘need-blind admissions policy.’ It’s crazy that he went after us, and I am sort of wondering why,” she said in a phone interview, asking Gladwell rhetorically: “Do you have a vendetta against the school? What did Bowdoin ever do? It seems you are angry at us for no reason.”


Gladwell did not respond to a request for an interview on Twitter – though he did post on Twitter, “In retrospect this week’s episode of should have included a trigger warning for Bowdoin grads,” a possible reference to the negative response he received from the Bowdoin community.

Art professor Mark Wethli enjoys Gladwell’s podcasts – “heady, intellectually engaging, thought-provoking stuff, and as far as I can discern very fair and sympathetic to all parties concerned.” He found a piece that Gladwell did about the basketball player Wilt Chamberlain fascinating. But the Bowdoin one stung. He thought Gladwell took cheap shots that “verged on the kind of populist, anti-intellectual hysteria that (Donald) Trump and (Paul) LePage like to dish out, painting an image of college life as effete and privileged, while the rest of us are stuck eating soggy pizza. Manipulative, false, and misleading in the extreme,” Wethli said.

Justin J. Pearson, a senior from Tennessee, said he would not have attended Bowdoin if the school had not offered to pay nearly all of his education costs. “My parents had kids when they were teenagers. They had five sons, and I am the fourth one. When they learned how much Bowdoin was going to cover, the tears rolled down their cheeks. That’s reality,” he said. “(Gladwell) minimized our campus in an unfair and a manipulative way.”

Ella Driscoll, a senior from Massachusetts, said she simply didn’t understand what Gladwell was trying to say. “While we all recognize that paying for people’s education is important, comparing financial aid to the true cost of supporting local farmers and consuming quality food is like comparing Twinkies and kale,” Driscoll wrote in an email. “In the context of Bowdoin College spending money on sustainably sourced or locally produced, healthy food, Mr. Gladwell omits the weight of the fact that food justice and food security are social, environmental and economic issues inextricably tied to the importance of financial aid.”

Anne Ireland, a Bowdoin graduate from West Bath, said there’s no shame in serving good food. “Malcolm Gladwell needs to do his research,” she said. “He would have benefited from a Bowdoin education.”


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