Lynneah Cardine arrived at Middlesex School in 2016, nervous and expecting a culture shock. She had attended a public charter school in South Chicago before landing a full ride to the prestigious boarding academy 40 minutes northwest of Boston. “I may go from seeing a ton of people who look like me to seeing a couple,” Cardine, who is Black, recalled thinking.
Things went even worse than expected. Her first day on campus, she said, a group of passing students sneered at some of the new arrivals. “They basically told us that we were N-words and that we were only there for diversity,” said Cardine, who noted that the comments were more directly targeted at some of her nearby peers. “Being called the N-word with a hard ‘R’ was one of the first memories of my time at Middlesex.”
There was no indication the offending girls were seriously punished, according to Cardine and another student enrolled at the time—though the other student could not remember if the slur had been used.
Instead, the former head of school held a meeting and warned that disrespectful behavior would not be tolerated. She forbade all students, including those who were Black, from using the N-word, the two alumni said.
To Cardine, the decree was an unjust attempt to regulate Black students’ use of “their culture in a private setting.” It was also a double standard: “It's okay when the white students play music with the N-word in it or you hear them sing it in the locker room, and no one calls them out.”
Cardine’s experience at Middlesex was back on her mind last week, as the school found itself in the news over a self-inflicted controversy. The New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones had been invited to speak on campus during Black History Month about The 1619 Project, her Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the legacy of slavery in America. Then the head of school blocked her attendance, allegedly determining that it would create too much “noise.”
Just days earlier, in an open letter, Middlesex had publicly touted its commitment to the “open exchange of viewpoints,” particularly on matters of diversity and inclusion. The letter declared that “respectful debate and disagreement are not only healthy, but the very ground upon which a learning community thrives.”
Since Hannah-Jones’ ban, furious students have staged a walkout, while almost 100 faculty members reportedly wrote a statement of objection as well.
To some alumni of color, Cardine included, the flare-up did not come as a surprise.
Alexandra Jones, a Black alumna who graduated in 2019, felt the administration enabled racist conduct. “There’s a culture of suppression, and there’s a real culture of enabling white supremacist behaviors,” she said.
Another former student, who graduated in the past decade, echoed that sentiment. “Honestly, Middlesex was one of the hardest experiences of my life. It was just a constant battleground, especially for anyone who didn’t fit the mold of being a white privileged kid.”
Middlesex did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
Last week, head of school David Beare and Stephen Lari, president of the board of trustees, issued a joint apology for what they called a “profoundly wrong” decision to disinvite Hannah-Jones.
Evidently, those words weren’t enough. On Thursday, Beare announced that he would be taking a leave of absence.
Tucked into the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, Middlesex’s bucolic campus spans 350 acres. The school, founded in 1901, boasts of a mission to “find the promise that lies hidden” in every pupil. But like any Northeastern boarding academy, there is a secondary aim: shuttling as many students as possible into the Ivy League.
In the late 1990s, the school’s college counseling director was reportedly busted for overstating the number of students who enrolled at elite universities; he died by suicide soon after. Today, the 10 most popular destinations for Middlesex graduates include Harvard, Dartmouth, Georgetown, and the University of Chicago.
Middlesex, in turn, has produced some big-name alumni, from former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, to the actor Steve Carell, to the Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom.
And while the school is smaller than many of its peers—with just 406 students today, including several dozen students of color—its $240 million endowment could rival most colleges. So could tuition, which runs close to $70,000 per year for the majority of attendees that board.
On campus, the discipline still runs old school. Students are expected to hold their peers accountable, and honor code violations are publicly announced.
“It was just a very unforgiving environment, very much like cop, cop, cop,” one alumna said.
Another graduate, from the class of 2014, recalled a night when students were yanked from their beds for breathalyzer tests, over suspicions of underage drinking. At least a dozen members of the class were ultimately barred from walking at graduation that year due to various disciplinary violations, the person said. (Two other students confirmed that to The Daily Beast as well.)
Less regulated, some former students say, was a culture that could lean insular, and at times sexist, homophobic, and racist.
While the school hosted an annual diversity symposium—the same event that Hannah-Jones would have attended this winter—“It definitely wasn’t taken seriously by the white students,” a white Middlesex graduate said.
A queer alumna said she was too afraid to come out after witnessing rampant bullying that forced a gay classmate to move off campus about a decade ago. Nonetheless, she said, her classmates suspected that she wasn’t heterosexual, and the taunting commenced.
“People would scream ‘lesbian’ and just make fun of me,” she said. “It [was] just such an unsafe environment.”
The classroom was sometimes just as bad. While multiple alumni expressed warmth for their teachers, a number of Black alums said that their white peers would stoke unmoderated debates that they found offensive, including whether slavery had been a states’ rights issue or an engine for economic growth.
“Even in my regular history classes many students would try to justify it as a means of like, ‘Oh, that’s why America is so great now,’” said Cardine.
A Latina former student said that, during her freshman year, an instructor teaching a lesson on colonization in Latin America decided to assign each member of the class a historical role based on their race.
The teacher labeled one white student a colonizer—and said the Latina student would be “the indigenous person that the colonizer would rape,” she recalled. “And I was just like, ‘What the fuck?’”
Clarence Patton enrolled as a freshman at Middlesex in 1982, when, he said, there were no Black faculty or staff, and he was one of maybe 10 Black students out of roughly 300 total enrollees.
As his mother dropped him off, he said, she left him with a clear set of instructions: “You’re a token, and your job for the next four years is to be the best token you can be and learn how these folks run the world. Take what you need and leave the rest.”
Patton says he took her words seriously, and he enjoyed his time at the school. “I love Middlesex,” he said. “I’ve got primarily fond memories of it.”
Patton didn’t personally experience serious mistreatment based on his race, akin to the allegations made by more recent attendees. But that doesn’t surprise him.
“When there are few of us,” he said, referring to Black students, “it’s kind of cute and tolerable. But you get to a certain critical mass… that's going to actually put pressure on the community to change.”
The resulting tension has seemingly reached a boiling point in recent years. An Instagram account, Black at Middlesex, was launched in 2020 and has since drawn more than 100 anonymous grievances, calls to action, and stories.
One Black alumna, who graduated in the last several years, told The Daily Beast that she had sought to give a speech on campus about her Middlesex experience, delivered “as blunt and straightforward and honest as possible.” But faculty members edited her words to avoid alienating those outside the Black community.
“The Black voices on campus were pretty much suppressed. And any time that we were given a platform to speak, we had to make it more, like, palatable for the rest of the school,” she said.
According to multiple alumni who graduated in the last five years, the hockey team had a distinct reputation for racist conduct. Some members were allegedly known to use the N-word and would refer to black Gorilla tape using the slur.
Two former students said the team nicknamed one of its weekly practices “Monkey Mondays” to mock a Black athlete on the team. (The Daily Beast was not able to reach the athlete directly.)
Recourse appeared limited. “The hockey coach would basically say ‘Don’t do that anymore,’ and that would be kind of the end of the conversation,” a recent graduate said.
Lack of faculty support was a trend, students alleged. Cardine recalled an incident when a staff member accosted her for playing rap music—a popular genre among white students, as well.
“She then begins yelling and telling me that, ‘We don’t listen to this kind of music,’” Cardine said. In the process, “she called me every other Black girl’s name but my own.”
Cardine said the administration asked her to apologize to the teacher, but she refused.
Jones, from the class of 2019, recounted a similar event in which, she said, she was hauled into a meeting with the dean for calling New Hampshire “a trash state because it had Confederate flags,” even though “it was never a part of the Confederacy.”
Yet, Jones alleged, “it was widely known that a certain student was using racial slurs against her roommate, and that didn’t warrant a dean’s meeting.”
“I think that was really the worst part,” she added. “It’s one thing for an individual to be racist to you. I think it’s another thing for an institution to enable that racism and give it power enough to suppress you.”
Cardine says that each year, the school asked to interview or photograph her for promotional materials, in an effort to appear diverse and welcoming.
“It’s not a genuine representation of what this population looks like. It also provides a false sense of security for the people of color. They think that they have support, but they get there, and there’s nothing,” she said.
“At this point,” she said of the school’s track record, “it’s repulsive and it’s repetitive.”
Now, according to former students, Middlesex is confronting twin crises: a short-term debacle entirely of its own making, and another, long-simmering one.