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A Cruel Summer at Cornell

How the Telluride Association Summer Seminar designed to teach teenagers about free-thinking and communal self-determination turned into an ideological ‘Lord of the Flies’

Ani Wilcenski
July 25, 2023
Editor’s note: This piece is part of Tablet’s top 10 of 2023. Find the full list here. 

“Why do you look dirty?” asked my mom when I got in her car. In the rearview mirror, 20 other teenagers stood on the front stairs, solemnly waving goodbye. Most of them were wearing maroon sweatshirts with a white “T” on the pocket. Some of them were crying. One of them, my friend Mark, cried so hard he was doubled over, hunched in the lawn away from the group while a stern woman watched him from a distance.

I was crying too, slumped against the car window in tears for a full half hour as we drove away from Cornell. Amid my sobs, my mom reminded me that they’d barely heard from us all summer, and I never once wrote.

Eventually, I gathered myself enough to open an envelope stuffed with handwritten notes.

“I think you have a nice spirit. I worry, in your grouchiness, you won’t believe me. Oh well,” read one.

“You are an individual of exceptional talent and questionable character,” read another.

I started crying again, though it might have been from relief.

Eight years after this car ride, in a recent article titled “A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell,” an instructor named Vincent Lloyd detailed his summer teaching a seminar for high schoolers on “Anti-Oppressive Studies.” As he tells it, the first day was sunny and full of hope. The students were curious, playful, and excited, having made it through the gauntlet of a 3% acceptance rate into the Telluride Association Summer Seminar to receive an all-expenses-paid scholarship to spend six weeks taking a college-level seminar at Cornell.

By the fourth week, the students had stopped smiling. They learned to stay silent in discussions and cede their speaking time to the least privileged classmates. They voted two other classmates out of the program. And they put the professor himself on trial for a long list of offenses, from using harmful body language to misgendering Britney Griner. A month into the program, they’d learned that participation was conditional, intellectual freedom was overrated, and the world was so broken it could never change.

In 2015, as a combat boot-wearing, poetry-writing high schooler, I was one of those students. Back then, it was called the Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP). TASPers would live in an intense, self-governed community devoted to democracy and discussion. The promotional materials sung of values like intellectual vitality, interpersonal awareness, and communal responsibility. Most TASPers ended up at prestigious universities, especially Ivy League schools, before fanning out into politics, academia, the sciences, and the arts. Telluride alumni included neoconservative theorist Francis Fukuyama, Democratic politician Stacey Abrams, and Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman.

Back then, I didn’t know many people who went to Ivy League colleges. My parents cared a lot about education, but they both came from immigrant families in which fancy schools were not an aspirational priority. My father, a fierce believer in public education, enrolled my brother and me in our upstate New York public school, which had 800 kids per grade, semi-frequent heroin scandals, and hypersuccessful sports teams to which the district devoted most of its energy. I wanted to become a writer, so I joined the school newspaper, which was helmed by a 10th-grade English teacher known for refusing to assign reading and spending three-quarters of every editorial meeting displaying photos of her husband’s antique sailboat. I resigned after two meetings and proceeded to run into her each week when, as president of the Environmental Club, I’d take out the cafeteria recycling and find her smoking behind the dumpsters.

I considered myself an intellectual trapped in a provincial prison, from which only an elite educational institution could liberate me. I fantasized about attending either Columbia or Yale, where I would join a progressive political group, take gender studies classes, and do all the other liberal academic things my school simply didn’t offer. Reading through TASP’s website, I was seduced by its promises—a thoughtful community, where, for once, I’d be surrounded by free-thinking academics and learning from leaders whom I deeply admired.

Two months after I applied, I got an email that I was a semifinalist and needed to report for an interview with a program alumnus. My mom dropped me off at the local Panera, where the interviewer was already sitting in a booth reading a novel when I arrived. He was an older professor who still conducted interviews because he’d had such a transformative experience at TASP. He explained that he came to the seminar as a committed far-left radical, but he struck up an unlikely friendship with a staunch conservative and William F. Buckley devotee, with whom he disagreed about, and argued fervently over, everything. Proudly, he told me that the two men remained friends to this day.

“If I could give you one piece of advice,” he said, “make sure you befriend someone who is entirely different from you. As many people as you can. Talk to them about everything you disagree on—you’ll only be better for it.”

When I opened my acceptance letter a few weeks later, I felt like I was walking on air. To me, that letter wasn’t just an invitation to a fancy summer program—it was an invitation into an educational world that I thought would change my life.

The Telluride Association was founded in 1911 by Lucien Lucius (L.L.) Nunn, a diminutive electricity tycoon. A lifelong bachelor (likely because of the “homosexual problem,” as his followers described it—one contemporary joked that Nunn was “forever getting crushes on pink-cheeked bellboys”), Nunn made his fortune in mining and power plants before turning his energies toward education. Like many reformers of the early 20th century, Nunn saw a correlation between social progress and education, and believed that schools should be the foundation of democracy. Inspired by the autonomous small towns of the American West, Nunn also believed that self-governance could inspire virtuous communal behavior. He wished to combine and implement his philosophies in small academic communities, training future leaders through a rigorous program of liberal arts, self-governance, and manual labor.

Lucien Lucius kicked off the first stage of this project in 1904, creating an educational institute where workers at his plants would receive practical learning so they could become more than “mere automatons or commercial slaves.” His next step was the establishment of the Telluride House at Cornell, which would provide free housing to his workers undertaking secondary studies, and the creation of the self-governed Telluride Association to administer the branches of his program (the summer programs launched a few decades later, in 1954). The Nunnian capstone came in 1917, when he bought a working cattle ranch outside Death Valley and founded a small men’s school called Deep Springs College on its sun-baked soil. By design, the college is isolated from the world, ringed by mountains and shrouded by cottonwood trees. Enrollment was—and still is—limited to 25 students (all men until 2018, when enough alumni “got with the times” and the school went co-ed). Students are tasked with governing their own self-sustaining, technology-averse, and substance-free society, managing everything from the selection of each year’s incoming class to the adoption of academic policy to the committee that oversees “relations with the outside world.”

Notable Telluride alumni, from top: Francis Fukuyama, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Stacey Abrams, Richard Feynman, and Paul Wolfowitz
Notable Telluride alumni, from top: Francis Fukuyama, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Stacey Abrams, Richard Feynman, and Paul Wolfowitz

Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images; Wikipedia; Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images; Tamiko Thiel/Wikipedia; Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images

A Deep Springs education is free—you earn your keep by working on the ranch for several hours a day—and highbrow, offering a mixture of foundational classics like Plato and Kierkegaard and niche, student-determined subjects like “Activist Laywering” or “Bovine Paternity and DNA Analysis.” Nunn envisioned this school as a utopian laboratory for future leaders, living in inward-facing, democratic harmony.

So, on June 23, 2015, a week after Donald Trump announced his presidential bid, I packed two months’ worth of my customary black clothing into my father’s car and drove to L.L. Nunn’s democracy lab. We pulled up to the Telluride House, an imposing red-brick mansion atop a steep hill, and knocked on the heavy wooden door. A woman in Birkenstocks emerged to inform us that TASS (the equivalent program for rising juniors) would be using the house this year; TASPers would be living in a sorority house at the base of the hill. We followed her pointing finger downward to see a squat gray-and-green building adorned with rusty Greek letters.

“Well, this is a bit of a downgrade,” muttered my dad as we trudged back down the hill, eyeing the broken basketball hoop in front of the house. We entered the lobby of the sorority house, where a boy in a Duke Basketball shirt was chatting to a girl in a headscarf under a sign reading “Sisters Gather Here.” A woman with a silver nose ring and a completely bald head intercepted us at the door, pointing us toward a piece of notebook paper taped on the wall, where we could find my room assignment.

My father helped me move in (“Did you really need to bring multiple pairs of combat boots? It’s almost July!” he grumbled as he lugged my suitcase up the sorority stairs), and then we said our goodbyes in the parking lot. A black woman with dreadlocks and thick, plastic-framed glasses oversaw our farewell from the front door and then ushered me back inside.

Once we unpacked and met our roommates, everyone gathered in the house’s living room, where we were instructed to form a circle. Photos of smiling sorority girls beamed down at us from the yellow walls. The college students settled into thronelike teal armchairs at the front of the room and introduced themselves as this summer’s factota, a Latin word that roughly translates to “one who does everything.”

The woman with the nose ring was Kaitlyn, a rising senior at a liberal arts college who studied feminist anthropology and told us about her travels through Mexico researching abortion. Next to her was Taylor, the bespectacled woman, who introduced herself as a graduate student in African American and African diaspora studies. The two others were Carlos, a heavily bearded aspiring elementary school teacher starting at Yale next year after a two-year stint at Deep Springs, where he woke up at 4:30 a.m. every day to milk cows. He wore a simple plaid shirt and a pair of ratty sneakers, a sharp contrast from the man on his right, who was wearing hot pink shorts and a button-down covered in tropical birds. He introduced himself as Nick, an art history and ethnicity studies major writing a thesis about the intersection of queerness and underwater creatures.

The TASPer on my left, a boy wearing a nearly identical pair of fuchsia shorts, oohed in amazement at the thesis. If we wished to show agreement or approval, Nick informed him, we should snap our fingers in a show of support.

After the factota finished their introductions, the students went around the circle sharing fun facts. It was clear that the TASPers lived up to the program’s promises of diversity. Sitting on my right was Amira, a Saudi Arabian oil heiress who confided in a conspiratorial voice that she’d brought a suitcase full of brand-new crop tops to wear during her time in the States. A few places down from Amira was Safa, a hijab-wearing refugee from South Sudan whose family settled in Birmingham, Alabama, where she’d become a rabid Crimson Tide fan. The guy I’d seen in the lobby earlier, who turned out to be a sarcastic New Yorker named Ben, booed loudly at the Alabama mention, grinning down at his Duke T-shirt.

Ben sat on an ottoman with Mark, a boy in a polo shirt and weirdly crisp khaki shorts. He shared that he was an advocate for the academic importance of the classics, especially spoken Latin, which he was studying at school under the tutelage of a former monk. I marveled internally at the fact that some people went to high schools where you could do stuff like study spoken Latin with monks. Kaitlyn the factotum raised an eyebrow ever so slightly as he spoke.

After Mark, we heard from an ex-Mormon, a poet from Flint, Michigan, a Kansan with an amateur marijuana growing business, and two gay Brazilians. I was the last to go, and after I shared my fun fact (which was “I like getting piercings,” a statement I still sometimes cringe about while lying awake at night), the factota underscored the program rules.

TASPers were tasked with governing ourselves through nightly house meetings, bylaw votes, and a complex web of committees regulating everything from kitchen duty to leisure. Our community would be “semi-monastic,” meaning that we were “strongly, strongly encouraged” to limit our contact with the outside world in favor of “turning inward” and “engaging in communal reflection.” To ensure that we learned as much as possible from our peers, there was a ban on “exclusive relationships” of all platonic shades, which would be enforced through assigned seating, periodic roommate switches, minimum group-outing sizes, and good-old-fashioned cockblocking. In addition to our academic responsibilities, we would have shifts cleaning the various house kitchens, and all of us were charged with devising a 20-minute “pubspeak”—a speech on a topic of our choosing.

Some of these regulations seemed a little odd, especially the ban on exclusive relationships. But I already looked up to the factota, whose resumes and academics were like nothing I’d ever known, and, exhilarated by the newness and the diversity, I didn’t give it a second thought.

The final rule was relayed by Carlos. With a stern look on his face, he explained that while these rules might seem daunting, all the factota had done this before, and there was one mantra in particular that guided them through their time. The girl next to me opened a notebook and poised her pen eagerly over the page. “During your six weeks here, you should always remember … you don’t know what’s best for you.” He intoned this mantra with such gravitas that the room briefly fell into silence. I made eye contact with Mark, the Latin-speaking private-school guy. Then quiet gave way to the scratching of pens as everyone scribbled down this illuminating saying.

Our first official house meeting concerned the subject of BIRTs. Our community was to create policy in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order, in which one must make a motion to enact legislation. Usually, these motions begin with “Whereas …” and lead up to the line “Be it resolved that ...” (a sample BIRT from the outings committee reads: “Whereas Ithaca is full of thousands of magical lightning bugs, Whereas TASPers have not yet been fully immersed in the beautiful nature surrounding them, Whereas Nick the factotum personally attests to the gloriousness of these trails, Therefore Be It Resolved that on Saturday July 11th from 9:30-11 p.m. we will go on a Firefly walk through the Cornell Arboretum”). Our inaugural BIRT would address the subject of breakfast, the contents of which would be determined through democracy.

We assembled in the sorority living room. I sat next to Ben, the New Yorker who exclusively wore sports jerseys and flip-flops, and Juan, a Bay Area loyalist who also exclusively wore sports jerseys and flip-flops. They joked about basketball, failing to hear the factota’s attempts to silence the crowd until someone tapped them meekly on the shoulder. Taylor rolled her eyes.

We opened the meeting by sharing our favorite breakfast items, then moved to a discussion of the ethical implications of these foods and how their effects could be mitigated. A dancer wearing bright blue eyeliner confessed her guilt over her lifelong love of bacon. Amira, the Saudi Arabian, pulled up the PETA website (“Isn’t she wearing leather boots?” whispered Juan) and rattled off a list of disturbing figures about animal agriculture, her voice trembling. Moved, we drafted a BIRT resolving to ban all eggs from the house, and to hold a future community conversation about veganism.

Our days quickly began unfolding in accordance with a strict schedule. We rose early, consumed our cruelty free breakfasts, and gathered in the house lobby so we could all walk together to our morning seminars, as mandated by community rules. There were two different reading-heavy seminars—mine was about American history and literature, and the other was about the historical significance of Jerusalem. My seminar was taught by a no-nonsense Cornell professor and an eccentric Yale professor who performed theatrical reenactments of our readings (to the amusement of Ben, who often needed to dive behind a binder to hide his chuckling). Each seminar was also staffed by a pair of factota. Mine were Taylor and Carlos, who made a point of lurking on the room’s periphery, scribbling notes about the class dialogue and exchanging the occasional knowing glance.

Class ran until lunchtime, which was held at the Telluride House. The factota would patrol as we sat down to make sure that we sat with different people each time. Then, we’d amble downhill for an afternoon of meetings about the tenor of class discussion (whether we were all doing the readings, whether we were present in seminar, whether we felt safe and respected in the academic setting), or for pubspeaks.

We’d then get several hours of free time before dinner, which were theoretically for doing homework but in practice for trekking to the nearby 7-Eleven, in preapproved and inclusive groups, to buy enormous bags of chips. Kaitlyn, who was into CrossFit, encouraged us to participate in her daily workouts at a cracked basketball court across the street. Sometimes I’d join her, attempting to do push-ups as Ben and Juan, who had become fast friends, shot hoops on the other side.

After dinner, we had rotating shifts cleaning the industrial kitchen, which posed a unique horror to Amira the Saudi oil heiress, who had been so appalled by the squalid house conditions that she went to Walmart and bought a giant flatscreen TV to keep in her room for the six-week program. Then we’d meet in our intrahouse committees (which governed affairs like house cleanliness and memorabilia-making), before everyone finally began their readings.

On weekends, which were seminar-free, we had more time for leisure. I was on the outings committee, which planned several group activities, including a kayaking trip through a mosquito-infested state park and the BIRT-governed firefly walk, during which Franklin, a jazz saxophonist from Chicago, lost his balance in the dark and fell into a small pond.

Our only structured weekend responsibility was a Sunday night community meeting, in which we’d discuss the social and interpersonal dynamics of the house. In addition to the democratically determined BIRTs, our house operated under a series of predetermined community principles, which the factota passed down like ancient wisdom. We were instructed to check our privilege at every turn, including during informal social interactions. We were informed of our microaggressions (I was deemed guilty of microaggressiveness after I joked to Kaitlyn about the unfairness of TASP’s placement in the decrepit sorority house while the youths in the sophomore program resided in the hallowed Telluride halls. “You might want to unpack that. Don’t you think that’s a little ageist?” she responded, unamused). Men were told not to take up too much space, either physically or in conversation.

Beyond these formal excursions, all other weekend gatherings were to be independently organized by TASPers. During our first weekend, Ben and Juan mobilized a group of us to take the bus to the Ithaca Walmart and purchase an arsenal of Super Soakers and Nerf guns. We lugged our supplies back to the house, where Ben stood on a chair and announced a housewide water war in the patchy back lawn. Chaos ensued as muddy, drenched TASPers chased each other through the sorority halls, leaving wet grass and slippery tiles in their wake. The war concluded only when Kaitlyn skidded on a patch of wet floor, dropped a set of readings into a puddle, and angrily burst outside to declare an end to the antics. She forced everyone to surrender their weapons into garbage bags, ignoring Ben’s protests.

Halfway through the second week, the factota summoned us for an impromptu house meeting. Arranged in their usual formation at the front of the room, they informed us that they had quietly removed Felipe, one of the two gay Brazilians, from the program during lunch that day. He’d violated too many of our community norms—dominating group conversations, shirking his academic responsibilities, taking up too much space and monopolizing the house’s emotional energy—and they’d decided that his presence was harmful to the common good. None of us really liked Felipe—he interrupted people constantly, he fell asleep in class, and he would help himself to labeled personal snacks from the communal fridge—so we didn’t mind his departure, even if it came as a surprise.

Later, I headed to the library with Mark, the preppy classicist with whom I’d struck up a fast, innocent—yet by TASP standards, completely illicit—friendship. We agreed that Felipe seemed ungrateful to be at TASP and that stealing snacks should be a violation punishable by death, so we were glad he was gone. Then we walked in silence for a while.

“I don’t know, though, isn’t it kind of weird that they can just kick us out like that?” Mark burst.

It was definitely weird, given all the emphasis on democracy and community-building, and the fact that we held communal votes for things as small as allowing milk (but not eggs) at breakfast. We didn’t know what was best for us, according to TASP wisdom, but it might have been nice to at least discuss the matter of Felipe before he was disappeared without a trace.

A week and a half into the program, we gathered in the living room to hear the first pubspeak from Amira, the Saudi Arabian. As she fiddled with the prehistoric sorority projector, the factota strode around making sure none of us had brought our phones. That day, however, a small part of me had flared up in sudden defiance and I smuggled my phone inside.

Finally, Amira’s PowerPoint flashed onto the screen. “Hamas: A Misunderstood Organization,” proclaimed bold red letters over a green-and-white flag. The factota began snapping in encouragement from their seats at the front of the room, and soon everyone else joined in. Steeled by the support, Amira began reading from her creased script.

The widespread “narrative” in America and “other places” was that Hamas is a terrorist organization only devoted to violence, Amira said. In actuality, this narrative was wrong; she wanted to explain how Hamas was in fact not a group of terrorists, but an organization that is ultimately devoted to social good.

Amira moved through a series of slides about the necessity of Hamas’ presence in the area, the importance of the social services it provides, and the injustice of criticizing the group’s moral character. The factota sat in rapt attention at the front of the room, expressing periodic agreement by forcefully snapping their fingers.

I knew the usual stuff about Israel, but I didn’t know much about Hamas—God knows my high school didn’t offer any classes in foreign affairs. I didn’t read enough news yet to understand Palestinian politics, and her information about their food banks and medical clinics seemed compelling enough. Nonetheless, as Amira moved through slide after slide of impassioned Hamas defenses, I had a weird feeling in my chest. Covertly, so as not to attract the attention of Carlos, who had an uncanny ability to detect improper cellphone usage, I removed my phone from its hiding place and Googled the Hamas Charter. After scrolling through a stern wall of text, I found what I had suspected: “The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill them.”

Amira concluded her pubspeak to rousing applause, before we moved on to the mandatory question-and-answer period. Unsettled, I expected one of the factota to raise their hands and provide a counterargument in the spirit of Nunnian inquiry. None of them did. A TASPer asked where Amira got the inspiration for this talk. She responded that she’d learned much of this from her parents and in Saudi Arabia. I considered voicing a question about what I’d read, but I felt too uninformed and too timid. Instead, I waited in silence through a hail of supportive snaps before the factota congratulated Amira on her presentation and we all filed together out of the room.

Despite L.L. Nunn’s lofty aims for Deep Springs and its intellectual mission, when you isolate 25 college-aged men in the California high desert, stuff gets a little weird. Many Deep Springers still joke awkwardly about Nunn’s keen interest in “the students’ bodies” during its all-male days. In his final years, Nunn found religion and began showing up to campus in a limousine, exhorting students to follow his “Moral Order of the Universe,” a set of murky Christian values that nobody really understood. Students reportedly walk screaming and crying through the desert, naked except for a pair of cowboy boots, with some regularity. An alumnus once swore to me that he developed a crush on a barn cat during his second year.

Telluride House members, 1960. Among those pictured are Frances Perkins, the House's first female resident
Telluride House members, 1960. Among those pictured are Frances Perkins, the House’s first female resident


Nonetheless, most Deep Springers still cherish Nunn’s mission, and fiercely believe in his core ideals—the self-governance, the inward focus, the isolation. Many of them leave Deep Springs and pay their education forward, devoting their lives to public service or joining the Telluride Association and extolling the virtues of intentional communities as summer program factota. Nunn would be proud of his continued legacy: He once wrote to his brother about his hope for the Telluride Association: “that the institution, small though it is, should grow as necessity indicates, the same as the tree, or the man, or the empire—the same as the British Empire has grown.”

Discerning observers will note that doing what “necessity indicates” is a mandate dependent entirely on the values and whims of its executioners. In the case of TASP, necessity apparently indicated living in accordance with not only the Nunnian ideals but also the standards of our factota, most of whom couldn’t yet legally drink but had absolute moral authority over who could take up space, who could express their politics, and who deserved to be there at all. TASP was their world; we were just figuring out how to live in it.

A recurring topic of house conversation was the presence of exclusive relationships, which began forming within mere days. Many were platonic friendships. Others were less innocent—Louis, the Canadian hippie, and Sarah, a bubbly New Yorker who ran an independent theater collective, paired off within the first week of the program. They’d have secretive rendezvous whenever the factota were in their “facto lair,” a room in the house basement where they made important decisions and pretended not to be smoking weed.

I, too, was guilty of exclusivity. For one, Sarah and I became close friends (we still joke about the time I was standing guard for the happy couple when Taylor came stalking down the hall, forcing me to barge into Sarah’s room and catch them in a horribly compromising situation). I was also good friends with Mark, who was tight with Louis, and the four of us formed a fast, yet illicit, friendship.

The factota had various tactics to combat these relationships, from sober one-on-one interventions to interrupting group hangs to, notably, a roommate-switch halfway through the program because people were getting too close. This switch was aimed in no small part at Mark, who had been paired with a fellow sporty private-school guy in a cavernous room on the second floor. They bonded instantly, and their room would house all kinds of semi-exclusive hangs, from playlist-making to the occasional horny game of “Never Have I Ever.”

I found Mark’s preppy private-school antics comical and largely endearing. We made a good duo—he introduced me to long-form journalism (fascinating) and Kantian philosophy (insufferable), and I made fun of his navy J. Crew polos and roasted him when he spouted off too much about Latin grammar. As a white guy studying classics at a high school with a five-figure price tag, Mark regularly landed in the crosshairs of our Sunday night conversations, receiving frequent reminders to “check his privilege” when he cited too much rarefied literature in class conversations and to “cede his time” to minorities or women during house discussions.

Accordingly, the factota disapproved of our friendship. Kaitlyn felt strongest about limiting his presence in my life and often pulled me aside to warn me against Mark, deeming his influence to be restrictive. She’d accost me to relay a supposedly insufferable remark he’d made during seminar or shoot me pointed stares whenever someone mentioned male entitlement during a house meeting, ignoring my protests that I found it difficult to distance myself from a naturally occurring friendship, and in fact enjoyed chatting with someone so different from myself. Wasn’t that supposed to be the point of TASP, anyway? Instead, she made it a personal project to interrupt our conversations, wedge herself in between us at dinner, and skew our committee assignments so we couldn’t so much as wash dishes at the same time.

The most communally objectionable exclusive relationship, however, was between Ben and Juan, the two jersey-wearing bros. I liked them a lot—they brought a fun, laid-back energy that was often absent from the intense house dynamic. They were much more than their Warriors jerseys and Super Soakers, having bonded over shared interests in social justice, navigating their mixed-race identities, and the ethics of rap culture. Juan introduced us to the hyphy movement and its father, Bay Area rapper Mac Dre. Ben gave a pubspeak about the intersection of Kanye West’s lyrics and Michelle Alexander’s theories on mass incarceration. Once, I confided in Ben that I had eye problems and struggled to see in the dark, and after that he began helping me around the house at night, dutifully lighting the way with his iPhone flashlight.

He was still a 17-year-old boy, though, prone to such obnoxious behaviors as bombarding our TASP groupchat (otherwise mostly used to confirm paper deadlines or vote on movie selections) with the lyrics of the SpongeBob theme song, or ramming into people’s boats during our group kayaking trip, causing chaos when he inadvertently flipped the kayak manned by a pair of studious lesbians, who were unamused. Ben was also in an “exclusive relationship,” with the Greek girl from Kansas, and unlike the rest of the furtive flings, the pair made only a limited effort to conceal it. They’d canoodle on the couch before disappearing until dinner, when they’d emerge looking smug, their necks studded with hickeys the size of silver dollars.

Four weeks into the program, proclaiming that he was on the verge of dying of boredom, Ben went around the house rousing people from their homework and begging them to join him for a dodgeball tournament on the lawn. Dying for a distraction, I readily agreed, but most other TASPers demurred, citing reasons ranging from workload to, as one girl put it, “hating sports with every fiber of my soul.”

Faced with a dodgeball team of three, Ben threw himself on the couch, groaning half-jokingly about how everyone was lame and everything was so serious all the time. Behind him, Kaitlyn and Taylor exchanged weary glances.

“Why do you feel the need to pressure everyone into doing things they don’t want to do?” asked Taylor.

Ben protested that he was just trying to do something fun. Who knows, people might have ended up having a good time, he insisted. “We don’t know what’s best for us, remember?” said Ben pointedly, jabbing air quotes with his fingers.

The next day, the factota arranged an impromptu afternoon meeting on the ways maleness and male entitlement manifested itself in our house dynamics. Kaitlyn reminded us how male sports culture is often hostile to female agency. Men were encouraged to remain silent during the conversation as a reminder of the power of inclusive spaces.

Courtesy the author

Later that night, I ran into Mark sitting on top of the washer, reading a book as he waited for his laundry. We couldn’t have been chatting for more than five minutes before Kaitlyn appeared in the doorway and peered disapprovingly inside.

“What’d you think of that meeting, Mark?” she asked.

Sensing immediate danger, I tried to jump in, but Kaitlyn dismissed me.

“I asked Mark, actually—”

“It was fine.”

“That’s it? Fine? I was hoping you’d have something a little more construct—”

Mark cut her off, fed up at last. Why did Telluride choose a bunch of dudes for the program in the first place if the factota were just going to make them be quiet during every conversation, he asked. Why not allow them to contribute to the community? Wouldn’t it make for more productive discussions if people really engaged with each other?

I watched with bated breath. Not only was Mark raising a legitimate point, but he was also genuinely committed to the Nunnian project. I’d developed a reputation as a sort of likable TASP grouch—I liked all my fellow TASPers, but I refused to shake up my exclusive friendships, participated only begrudgingly in our “discussions of group dynamics,” and groused in private about all the rules. Mark, on the other hand, felt a true sense of duty to our community, and encouraged me to do the same. He talked a lot in discussions because he cared. He asked questions because he thought they could be productive. He challenged ideas because he thought it could make our community better. Surely this was not a grave sin.

Kaitlyn stood silently for a minute, her head cocked in dangerous inertia. Finally, she pushed away from the door frame and narrowed her green eyes at Mark.

“I think that you are a fundamentally bad person,” she said. “Maybe one day you’ll do something about it.” She turned on her bare foot and marched away.

Two days later, the factota canceled our scheduled house meeting and disappeared into their lair for the evening. There was only a week remaining in the program, so initially, I was thrilled by the reprieve from the endless dialogues. I lounged in the kitchen with a group of TASPers, eating spoonfuls of chocolate sprinkles out of the jar as Mark passionately argued with Franklin the saxophonist that Trump would never win the 2016 election, and declared that in the impossible likelihood that Trump did, he would “actually get down on his knees and suck Franklin’s dick.”

The factota emerged hours later as we were filing out of the kitchen. All of them looked grim. Jokingly, we tried to pry into the contents of their discussion, but they shooed us to bed without offering a single detail. Their seriousness left me with a tight feeling in my chest, which had come to feel familiar.

In the afternoon, Carlos announced that we needed to have a meeting. As always, we gathered in a circle, and the factota sat sternly in front of us. We sat in silence as Kaitlyn called off names. Everyone was there, except for one person.

‘I think that you are a fundamentally bad person,’ she said. ‘Maybe one day you’ll do something about it.’

“We have to announce something important,” said Taylor at last. She sighed laboriously. For the umpteenth time that summer, the living room went dead quiet. I suddenly realized who hadn’t been at lunch.

“We have asked Ben to leave the program.” The room erupted into rustling. Next to me, Mark let out a sharp breath.

The factota offered a variety of justifications—freeing up essential space in the house, building a more intentional environment, making everyone feel safer. Apparently a few TASPers, annoyed by his antics and remembering what happened to the gay Brazilian, had complained. They’d given him a lot of patience and time, but Ben had failed to grasp the ideas of the TASP community. The factota were happy to talk in the circle about their decision. It would be hard for some of us, and it might not seem like it now, but they believed it was the best choice for our community.

Ben’s girlfriend started crying. Juan bowed his head toward the carpet. I felt like I should offer a defense, but I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to defend.

Ben was waiting on the sorority lawn to say his goodbyes. He wrapped me in a bone-crushing bear hug and, five weeks into the program, I finally burst into tears.

Carlos marched him up the hill toward the Telluride House. We watched from the steps until they disappeared. Then we went back inside, where we continued the meeting without one mention of Ben and held a vote on an outing to a hibachi restaurant in a strip mall. When the factota left the room, someone started strumming “Another One Bites the Dust” on the guitar.

TASP professes to be a place where you can figure stuff out. Engaged in thoughtful academic study and surrounded by brilliant young minds from all walks of life, you are constantly reminded how little you know—and how much you have left to learn.

Mark, the stoic prep, spent hours playing the guitar and talking quietly with Louis, the perpetually barefoot hippie. Laid-back, socks-and-sandals-wearing Juan developed an “exclusive relationship” with Amira, the princess who didn’t know how to turn on a vacuum. Still rattled after the Hamas pubspeak, I wandered into the kitchen for a late-night snack and ended up in a long conversation about Israel with Safa the South Sudanese Alabaman, who informed me that I was the first Jew she’d ever met.

The prospect of living so closely with such a variety of people seemed daunting, but we TASPers pulled it off and grew fond of everyone, and for that I’d point to the fact that we were stuck with each other—the way L.L. Nunn intended all those years ago. Yet it wasn’t the differences between us that posed the biggest challenge to our unity; it was the constant reminders from above of those differences, all the ways we were hierarchically organized or comparatively privileged or fundamentally limited in our views. We were challenged to transcend those limitations and build the foundations of a community, but for that you need good faith, which was in short supply.

The other problem was that TASP lacked all the mechanisms of a functioning democracy. We had been cherry-picked to represent diversity, but actually the point was for all of us to arrive at the same conclusions—men talked too much, the world was fraught with microaggressions, dodgeball was bad, and eggs were worse. There was no framework for disagreement, no space for ideological detours, no home for structural challenges to the so-called intentional community we lived in. The only plan for dealing with 17-year-old dissidents like Ben or Mark, people who dared question the fundamentals of our community, was to silence or insult them, and finally to banish them. Nobody wanted to deal with the key annoyance of democracy—learning to tolerate our differences.

Like Carlos told us on the very first day, we didn’t know what was best for us. Not because we were working to decide for ourselves, but because someone else already knew. TASP was no longer a democratic experiment—it had morphed into a factory for totalitarian instincts, and it operated like an oligarchy.

Perhaps the evaluations that my elders made of my character were right. After TASP, I got into Columbia, where I did not end up joining a progressive student group or taking a gender studies class. Instead I did Zionist activism and joined the satirical newspaper. Seven other TASPers also came to Columbia, including Ben, who ended up studying Black Atlantic history and incarceration. We ran into each other on campus now and then, but I wasn’t woke enough for his new college self; having seemingly learned his lesson, we didn’t hang out once. Sarah, Mark, and I are still very good friends, however. Apparently, exclusive relationships work.

As for TASP, the year after I left, necessity indicated a change to the summer program: Telluride altered its application materials to say that admissions would now prioritize students from underrepresented minority backgrounds. In 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, the alumni received an email from the new Telluride Association president—my former factota Taylor. The letter stated that, in an “obligation to combat anti-Black racism and white supremacy within our summer programs,” they would be canceling the program for 2021 and launching a redesigned version the following year.

In 2022, the Telluride Association announced that they were discontinuing TASP and expanding TASS, the equivalent program for sophomores, into a program with two focus areas—“Critical Black Studies” and “Anti-Oppressive Studies.” Students would no longer live all together, like we did, according to Nunn’s vision. Instead, the “Critical Black Studies” community would live and study separately, creating an entirely Black space. Afternoons and evenings were no longer reserved for things like Nerf wars or eating entire jars of sprinkles, which were the activities that allowed our diverse group to come together, and which I remember much more vividly than all my seminar readings combined. Instead, the students would participate in anti-racism workshops created by the factota. It was this new program that became the “anti-racist Hell” that Vincent Lloyd lamented in his article.

It was easy for me to sympathize with Lloyd, who spent his summer battling with one factota, Keisha, who found him “triggering” and his readings “insufficiently radical,” was frustrated by his insistence on unspooling complex racial ideas in the slow seminar format rather than holding straightforward lectures, and frequently intervened when his discussions caused TASPers “harm.” By the end of his tenure, he was summoned into an empty classroom by the students, who read their allegations about his behavior—and demands that he change his teaching—from sheets of paper. Every word coming out of their mouths was clearly pulled from conversations with Keisha. A white girl referred to her factota in her remarks: “Keisha speaks for me. She says everything I think better than I ever could.”

While I have little doubt that Lloyd was on the right side of reason, I also have a pretty good idea of how that girl must have felt. I remember being an eager-to-please high schooler on the first day of TASP, sitting in a circle with big aspirations but very little knowledge of the world, wanting so badly to be accepted in an elite space I assumed would give me all the answers, if I could only absorb the guiding principle: You don’t know what’s best for you. It’s only now that I recognize that the truth of this statement—after all, what 17-year-old knows what’s best for them—served to justify the anti-democratic reality of a space contemptuous of every experience except for those of “oppressed groups,” as determined by the factota. It is equally alarming to see that the so-called leaders of my teenage years are now actively remaking a space once devoted to self-exploration and communal understanding in their own intellectual self-image, as a place where questioning and self-determination are being eliminated in favor of received truth. What consoles me is the thought that, if my own example is anything to go by, the effort is unlikely to always end the way they wish.

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Ani Wilcenski is Tablet’s audience editor.