Q&A With Lynn Boswell

LynnBoswellAs many of you know, we recently held a virtual screening of Admissions on Trial: Seven Decades of Race and Higher Education. Lynn Boswell (@villitamedia) is the writer, director, and producer of the documentary. She will be our guest on this week's #EMchat as we discuss the Supreme Court's recent decision and it's impact on higher education. A huge thanks to Lynn for all of her work on the documentary (check it out, if you haven't!), and for taking the time to answer some of our questions prior to this week's chat.

What is your professional background?

I have worked as a broadcast journalist for 20 years, focusing on breaking news, current events, legal stories and history.  During that time, I’ve worked in local news, as a producer for NBC News in New York, as a series producer for a weekly PBS interview program and as the director of independent projects like this one.  Storytelling is the thread that runs through all of my work, and I love the process of taking a complex or little-known topic and sharing it with viewers in the most accurate, clear and compelling way I can.

What is your experience in higher education or with affirmative action?

My experience in higher education is purely personal – as a student and now as the parent of a high school student who’s starting to think about college.  I studied journalism and Latin American studies as an undergraduate, then went on to earn a law degree from The University of Texas in 1993.

As as white woman, I never had direct personal experience with affirmative action.  But I did have close contact with the issue during my time in law school.  The Hopwood case was developing while I was there, so I had a deep familiarity with that case and a front-row seat as it happened.  Affirmative action was a hot topic of conversation for people who were at UT’s law school in the early 1990s, discussed in classes and among friends.  Since then, I’ve watched this issue develop in the news and the courts through that lens.

Higher education is also part of my family’s lore, going back more than a century.  My great grandfather was born in 1877, and worked as a ranch hand in Texas.  The owner of the ranch saw something in him, and offered to send him to Baylor University – an opportunity he never could have afforded on his own.  He graduated in 1908, became a Baptist minister and sent all six of his children to Baylor, too.  His opportunity for higher education ripples through our family still, more than 100 years later.  That one chance has paved the way for three more generations to earn college and graduate degrees, and to build lives far from the poverty that he was born into.  For every member of the generation my children belong to, college is seen as a baseline, not just an expectation, but a very real future, modeled by every adult they see at family gatherings.  I know, of course, that having family members who have been to college isn’t the only path to get there, nor is that a guarantee of success.  But my family’s experience also shows me, in a very real way, how much easier that road can be if you’re not the first in your family to earn a college degree.  I’ve heard that story from the time I was a child, and it’s given me a very real sense of standing on their shoulders, and of being given a head start on my journey as a student.  The story of Heman Sweatt echoes that – a family with a legacy of higher education, and an expectation of higher education, with generation after generation building on what’s come before.

I thought about my own family’s story a great deal as I worked on this project.  To me, it’s a great reminder of why education matters so deeply, of why there is so much passion surrounding this issue, and of why the question of who has access to education is such an important one for individuals, for universities and for society as a whole.

Where did your desire to create the Admissions Documentary stem from?

I have wanted to tell the story of Heman Sweatt for a very long time.  It’s a very important civil rights case, but it’s also largely a forgotten one – overshadowed after just a few years by Brown v. Board of Education, which in legal terms smashed the barriers the Sweatt case had begun to dismantle.  I’ve kept a file about Heman Sweatt and his story for many years, waiting for the right opportunity.  When Gary Lavergne’s book Before Brown was published, I considered pitching a story.  But I was too busy with other projects to be able to take it on at the time.  After the Fisher case became such big news nationwide, it felt like the perfect time to tell the story of Heman Sweatt and to tie that past to an issue that was very timely, giving context to both pieces of the story as well as to what came between.  I’m glad for the chance to trace this history over so many decades, and also thankful that I was able to tell Sweatt’s story while people with memories of that time are still alive.  KLRU was the perfect partner for this project – a PBS station deeply committed to public affairs, and ready to tell a big national story that was happening outside its back door.

There are many places to learn more about the Fisher case.  But if you’re interested in learning more about Heman Sweatt and his case, I can’t recommend Gary Lavergne’s book highly enough.  Lavergne works in the admissions office at The University of Texas, and writes books about history on the side, in his spare time.  Before Brown is a fantastic one -- award-winning, incredibly well-researched and a thorough, informative and interesting read.

Did your opinions on affirmative action change at all during the course of filming?

As a journalist, I don’t talk about my personal opinions.  It’s very important to me to separate what I feel personally from the stories I tell.  To ensure that I do that, I only choose stories that I feel I can step back from and look at from a distance.  Part of what I love about this topic is that there are so many ways to look at it, and so many perspectives to share with viewers.  I knew before I started this project that affirmative action was a complicated issue.  As a storyteller, that’s my favorite kind of challenge.  I work to seek out many points of view as I research, to truly understand and appreciate each of those perspectives, and to fairly share as many of those points of view as possible in my finished work.

One thing that definitely changed for me in the course of making this documentary was my knowledge of the college application process.  I’m very grateful to many people who helped me understand that better.  Andrew Cornblatt, Dean of Admissions at Georgetown University’s law school, was a fantastic guide.  He walked us through the process of holistic review and added a great deal to my understanding of the impact of this case nationwide.  That was a help for the project, certainly.  But it was also fascinating to me personally.  I have two children, and the older one will start high school in late August.  He and his friends are already beginning to talk about college, and this has been a fantastic crash course for me – a real window into the process.  One thing that has become very clear to me is that many (and perhaps most) colleges turn away students who are completely qualified to succeed.  And that, again, speaks to why the question of how people get access to education is such a passionate one for many people.

What was the best part about the process?

My favorite thing about this project is that it marries four of my biggest passions as a storyteller: hard news, the law, personal stories and history.  It’s very rare that a single project allows me to explore all of my favorite topics, and to do it in a way that feels natural and necessary.  The hard news is wonderful to me because I can tell an in-depth story that matters, and tell it at a time that will help give context and a deeper understanding to an important topic in the news.  I love the legal piece because I enjoy translating complicated legal issues into language that makes sense to viewers without a legal background.  The personal stories are fun because I get to meet interesting people with fascinating histories, then use those stories to show viewers why the dry facts matter.  And history is a joy and a challenge because it helps us understand the present, tells us where we come from, and turns into a treasure hunt for archival images and film that is too rarely seen by the public.

Where do you think affirmative action is heading? How do you foresee it changing in the future, if at all?

There are as many answers to this question as there are experts.  I think the only clear answer is that this issue will be with us for the foreseeable future, and that I won’t be looking for a clear and final answer any time soon.  I’ll be following this case as an interested citizen, as a parent and as a journalist.  We’ve been planning an update to the piece that will reflect this week’s Fisher decision.  And now, I suspect we’ll have more updates to follow as the case continues its journey through the courts.