By Noah Bergam (V), Justin Li (V), and Aneesh Karuppur (V)
June 18, 2020
On the evening of June 11, the Pingry community received an email from Head of School Matt Levinson and the Board of Trustees confirming that Mr. Jake Ross was fired from The Pingry School. A few hours earlier, an apology email which Mr. Ross had sent to the baseball team earlier in the week began to circulate around the student body, and gained more public visibility as a result of an email from Alexandra Weber ‘20 sent to juniors and seniors; in her email, Weber stated that Mr. Ross had been barred by “the administration” from sending his apology to the whole school. The next day, a group of students, backed by over 600 petition signatures, sent an email to the Board of Trustees asking them to reinstate Mr. Ross.
Here is how we interpret the situation, according to the content and rhetoric of the Board’s June 11 termination letter, Mr. Ross’ apology letter, and the students’ June 12 letter to the Board.
On the week of June 8, an Instagram account operated by Pingry parents known as “_bigbluebaseball_” posted a picture of Mr Ross and the seniors on the boys’ baseball team, holding a banner that read “Everything Matters.” Some Pingry students thought the timing of this banner was in bad taste, since it resembled the slogan “All Lives Matter,” which is used as a protest against the Black Lives Matter movement.
If the June 11 letter from the Board answered one thing directly, it was that Mr. Ross was not fired for the Instagram post itself. Rather, he was fired for disrespectful conduct towards “school administrators,” including Mr. Levinson, when they attempted to “engage the community in dialogue” about the post and its impact.
Why was Mr. Ross disrespectful? Rather than providing any direct insight into the context of his frustration, or affirming the confidentiality of such context, the June 11 letter expounds on the idea that the conduct was part of a longer pattern of bad behavior: “This is also not the first instance in which he has demonstrated poor judgment and disrespect. We have learned there have been other instances that have resulted in a demotion of leadership responsibilities.” These words attack Ross’ character in past, possibly unrelated incidents rather than shedding light on the moment that actually caused him to get fired.
Moreover, the vocabulary describing Mr. Ross in this email is much harsher than that used to describe Mr. Graig Peterson in the August 27, 2019 email which announced Peterson’s firing in the wake of his use of “extensive, non-school-related electronic communication with several Upper School students.” In the August 27 email, written by Mr. Levinson and Upper School Director Ms. Chatterji, the only directly negative word used to describe Peterson’s behavior was “inappropriate,” whereas the June 11 email condemns Ross’ behavior with phrases such “unprofessional and inappropriate,” “unacceptable and antithetical to our values,” and “poor judgment and disrespect.” The June 12 petition letter pointed out the “usually strong terms used to characterize this incident,” going so far as to say that “the Dean Ross you described is not the Dean Ross we all know and love.”
The June 11 letter props up the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, treating Ross’ termination as a stepping stone towards that goal. The letter begins by quoting Mr. Levinson (or, as the letter colloquially refers to him, “Matt”) about his determination to uphold Pingry’s “inclusivity, honor, respect, and civic engagement” and ends with actions the school will take towards making a more inclusive educational environment. The aforementioned, overtly negative depiction of Ross, bookended by positive descriptions of the inclusive mission of the Board and Mr. Levinson in particular, implies that Mr. Ross personally stood in the way of this mission, and moreover that his termination contributed to the school’s goals of diversity and inclusion: “This letter and the actions below are only the first step.”
In his apology letter, Ross takes on a very different style from the Board; while the June 11 letter is self-promoting and, with 29 authors, profoundly impersonal, Ross’ letter establishes a voice that acknowledges mistakes and commits to personal change: “I clearly missed this one, but I will learn. I will be better.” Ross’ language is perhaps not as professional and self-assured as the Board’s (“The emotional rage and hurt I feel each time I think about what it must be like to be a black person in America, is not something I can convey in an email”) yet it embodies his open, relatable style as a leader, which the June 12 petition letter from students defends as a quality that allowed him, as a dean, to contribute to diversity and inclusion at Pingry with “sensitivity, dignity, and swiftness.”
The June 12 petition letter takes a sharp stance against the rhetoric of the June 11 message, stating that the “vagueness of the statements in the letter we received has also done little to assuage our concerns about the handling of this incident.” It implies that the June 11 email increased the very “deepening polarity” it pointed out and may have broken the Honor Code principle of “confidentiality in disciplinary proceedings” considering how it “so readily and publicly humiliate[d] a colleague.” Ultimately, the letter makes a bold request to the Board: “rectify your mistake by reinstating him.”
As of June 19, The Board of Trustees and Mr. Levinson have yet to respond.
We do not know much about the situation surrounding Mr. Ross’ misconduct: neither its severity nor its source. What we do know is that, between the language that the Board and Mr. Levinson used to describe Ross, and the language used by students and Ross himself, we have two very different pictures of the former dean––one depicting a disrespectful figure who stood in the way of diversity and inclusion, and the other depicting a crucial part of the Pingry community who actively supported the endeavour.