David Kirp ’65
Major: American studies
“I think of my professional life as a license to be curious about stuff.” So says the prolific author and professor David Kirp ’65, whose license has been renewed for 17 books and scores of articles; his byline often crops up in a New York Times op-ed. Much of Kirp’s work probes educational policy—he teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley—and it’s decidedly free-range. That means coverage “from cradle to college to career,” as he likes to say, including preschool (The Sandbox Investment), grade school (Improbable Scholars) and higher ed: see his latest, 2019’s The College Dropout Scandal.
Kirp, an only child, grew up in Bay Shore, N.Y., where his father was the state distributor for Philadelphia Cream Cheese until he went bust. Kirp’s mother then helped support the family as a real estate agent, and her son and husband joined the field—David took the licensing exam on his 16th birthday and showed houses while in high school. Growing up, he felt like an underdog, Jewish in a mostly Catholic hometown, a kid buffeted by financial freefalls. “I’m also a first-gen college student,” he says, “and that has an impact on my story.”
He is fiercely drawn to issues of equity and, in his latest book, scrutinizes the ways in which colleges fail to graduate enough students. Of those who start at either public or private colleges and universities, the dropout rate is 40 percent; at just public, it rises to 50 percent; and at community colleges, it’s even worse. “Nobody’s accountable,” he says. “Nobody on staff ever gets fired because of a high dropout rate on their campus.”
Still, there are beacons, like California State University, Long Beach, which partners with the local school system from preschool on up. Kirp also valorizes Valencia College, in which students who graduate with an associate’s degree are automatically admitted to the nearby University of Central Florida. “The big deal is how closely their two faculties work together,” he says. “They make such a smooth glide path.”
The book’s penultimate chapter focuses on his alma mater. Not so much on dropouts (Amherst has a 93 percent graduation rate), but rather on how hard it is to show students “that they are rightfully there, at a school that values their presence.” To that end, Kirp discusses the 2015 Amherst Uprising and the steps taken since then to enhance diversity and inclusion. He quotes American studies and sociology professor Leah Schmalzbauer: “Amherst is doing work that isn’t even being imagined anyplace else. If we can’t have these conversations here, where else will they happen?”
I’m also a first-gen college student,” Kirp says, “and that has an impact on my story.”
Kirp jokes that at Amherst, “I really majored in Leo Marx,” who taught American literature: “It was like having an intellectual Huck Finn in your life, who took you down the rapids.” A member of Chi Phi, Kirp was editor of The Amherst Student and wrote its cover story on President Kennedy’s 1963 visit to campus. The New York Times report of the event “stole my lead, and used it word for word,” he says via Skype from Helsinki, with a rueful smile. He splits his time between Finland’s capital—where he lives with his husband, financial consultant Niko Laine—and San Francisco. (Their recent wedding graced the Times’ “Vows” column.)
Kirp was an Amherst trustee in the 1970s and, in 1989, established the David Kirp ’65 Stonewall Prize Fund for students who produce exceptional work on the LGBTQ+ experience; he reads the entries every year. As our Skype session wound down, ever the journalist, he asked about my word count and worried I might “pasteurize” his experience in a short piece like this. Be sure to tell them that, before coeducation, the social life here was like Lord of the Flies, he said, but that he gives Amherst an A for his education (he was Phi Beta Kappa). The writer on policy has his own policy of being a gadfly, should the need arise. Indeed, he hoped I could squeeze in this last quote: “I think of myself as a critical friend of the institution.”
Whittemore is Amherst magazine’s senior writer.
Photos by Jen Siska