An Open Letter to President Kington

President Kington,


My name is Tim Burnette, and I’m a second year Biology and Sociology major at Grinnell. I’m a low-income and first-generation student, and you have recently offended me on a HIGHLY personal level.

It all started with the Town Hall on Policy Changes on August, 30th. It was a fairly calm discussion—until the end. A student brought up the rumor that these policy changes were to attract more rich students, as the student claimed that rich parents care more about health. You responded by a denial of this accusation, and that ALL families care about health. You claimed to act on the behalf of all students.

I have to wonder if you have ever actually talked with a low-income student or family. I’m going to break it down for you very simply: you are wrong. Low-income students do not often have families where health is a major concern; they lack the luxury to do so. It’s a matter of privilege. When you are poor, you think about other issues first: did I pay my rent? Do I have money for food? How am I going to pay the electric bill? Health goes on the backburner. It is not a priority. From a low-income perspective, health is something to worry about another time.

A prime example was that of my mother. This summer, my mother experienced a devastating car accident. The cause of the accident is still unknown; all I know is that my mother crossed into the other lane. What I do know is this: my mother was eternally tired. My mother had recently been promoted to a full-time maintenance job. She accepted this position because she wanted to make a better life for herself and our family. However, once she began making more money, there was an immediate reduction in SNAP benefits, and her goal of building a cash savings would not be met due to the extra cash being spent on food. To achieve her goal, she accepted overtime hours to build cash savings. And then more SNAP benefits were cut.

Think about that last chunk of information. Each time my mom got closer to her goal, she was set back. She worked herself to an eternal exhaustion, and yet she kept on chugging. She slept less and less, worried more and more, and her condition only worsened. She put her health on the backburner.

My mom passed this summer. She passed because she had a terrible car accident that was likely caused by her utter exhaustion. She passed because she was not able to heal. She passed because she put her health on the backburner. She passed because her health was not a priority.

So for you to claim that ALL families care about health is not only vexing but also triggering. The next time you have a talk with students, do NOT make a claim that you cannot support. Do NOT claim to understand a group of students without first consulting them. You crossed a line.

To make this offense worse, you and the administration failed low-income students this week on a different occasion. On Thursday, September 1st, Valentine (a student who wishes to remain anonymous) went to a pharmacy to purchase their medication. A low-income student, Valentine purchased insurance through the college as it was the cheaper option. When they began checkout, they were promptly told that their insurance card had expired; of course, this was the insurance card from the past year. Valentine then spoke with the Office of Financial Aid to find out that the names of students purchasing insurance were only recently sent out. This then prompted a 30-minute phone call with the health insurance company, which ended in Valentine purchasing the medicine out of pocket: an unexpected expense of $23.

This is NOT acceptable. No information of any sort was supplied from ANYONE at Grinnell College about a gap in coverage. I was under the impression that insurance purchased through the college began when classes did, as was Valentine, and no information otherwise was communicated. What if I was hospitalized in this period? What would happen? Would I be forced to use my meager savings to cover health costs that insurance I purchased through the college would have covered? I do not know, but I should not need to wonder.

Grinnell as an institution claims to support diversity, and you claim that Grinnell cares about all students’ health. Yet in this case, low-income students who purchase insurance through the college were left with a gap in coverage. A low-income student faced additional stress as they were forced to pay out of pocket due to a failure on YOUR part, and this will cause financial strain for the next few weeks. You failed them AND their health, that you claimed to care so much about at the Town Hall. As Valentine already stressed over financial matters, this expense means Valentine will have less money for food, hygiene items, etc.

You and the administration created this situation when you marginalize low-income students on campus. You often claim us when discussing statistics in Admissions, but are we really supported, or are we falling through the cracks?

Therefore, consider the following: if you continue to ignore the insurance gap, do not claim to support low-income students; if you continue to speak unknowledgeably like at the Town Hall, do not claim to support us; if you cannot make us feel supported, do not claim to support us.

I challenge you and Grinnell Administration to talk with low-income students. Be open-minded to our perspectives. Understand where we come from. Work with us to foster support. But until then, do not claim to support us.


With Change in Mind,

Tim Burnette


Editor’s Note: This letter was sent to President Kington on Friday, September 2nd. Since this time, the insurance gap has ended.


  1. That was a wonderful letter. I am nurse and yes Tim is my nephew and sometimes I am in awe of this child. No child should be treated like this and yes some of do care about our health and yes Mr President of this college this our future.

  2. Concerned Student

    September 8, 2016 at 3:43 PM

    Kington does his best. He does not deserve this.

  3. Health is not a matter of privilege.

  4. Grinnell Alum '12

    September 8, 2016 at 9:10 PM

    To the author of this article,

    I want to say, first and foremost, thank you for speaking about something which is so personal, so openly. As a Grinnell Alum who is also first-generation student and from a white working class / low-income background, I often felt isolated navigating life for those 4 years. I think it is brave to be so vulnerable about something which many peers at Grinnell may not or cannot understand. I also want to say that I’m so, so sorry for the loss of your mother. I can’t imagine. My deepest source of fear and fury lies is in regards to my family’s health–their access to healthcare, information, time, priority. The hospital visits, the heart attacks, that period of waiting before the bill comes in. It’s fucking real… Thank you for being angry out loud. I don’t think I could have done it when I was a student.

    This being said, I am hoping your can clarify something for me — or perhaps add some nuance. To me, a fellow first-generation student and someone from a low-income background, hearing a College President and former Director at the NIH affirm that “all families care about health” feels deeply, deeply affirming. Some may not have the access, the information, the time, the prioritization, but I haven’t met anyone in a similar situation as mine who scorns health, who actively doesn’t care. When they do scorn it, I see it in reaction to the way some establish cultural elitism using “good” “health” practices as markers of class. The narrative goes: “poor people are stupid, they don’t know how to eat right, they smoke cigarettes and drink heavily, they eat fast food, how dumb, how negligent, when was the last time their kid went to a doctor, do they not care about exercise, their poor children, they must not care.” This is where my anxiety and confusion surfaces when reading your article. I’m confused because, again, *to me*, I am relieved to hear someone assert that my family, who has not always prioritized health, still cares and are still worth caring for by the rest of us. If they care and health disparity exists than there must be a larger structural issue at hand — such as those you’re highlighting

    Maybe there’s something I’m missing! I was hoping you could clarify why Kington’s comment is wrong or what context made it wrong. Perhaps I have some rethinking to do?

    Grinnell Alum ’12

    PS. Happy to respond more personally in email, if preferred!
    PPS. The insurance piece is messed up — I hope your attention to it will bring some resolution!

    • Tim Burnette

      September 8, 2016 at 10:56 PM


      So the reason RayK offended me so deeply was both his words and tone of the statement. When he said that “all families care about health,” there was a certain amount of an elitist tone to it. He acted like he knew that every single family cared, and that health was priority.

      I agree with the fact that he saying this is in someways good. However, in the context of the situation, and with respect to his tone, it came off as him acting like there was no sort of differentiation among the classes with respect to health.


      • As former director of NIH perhaps his vision is one of a world where everyone cares profoundly and there are no class divisions as far as health is concerned. It’s not elitist have a vision. If that were so, then MLK was elitist for saying that race shouldn’t matter. Anyway, if we’re hedging everything on tone here, yours is that of a juvenile illiberal sasquatch. But I really don’t think that matters as far as arguments and ideas are concerned. If an “elitist tone” can trigger someone… my god. What’s even next?

      • Tim Burnette

        September 9, 2016 at 7:31 AM

        I honestly cannot believe you did not just say most of that. Let’s break it down.

        1) Having a vision is very different from being classist. RayK has refused to listen to low-income students on many occasions recently–this is NOT the only one. RayK cut Posse, which diversified the campus, and openly attacked students at the Graduation Ceremony in his speech for some of the backlash.

        2) My tone is that of a student who felt he was being marginalized. And my mental health experience cannot be spoken of by anyone but me, so do not attack my experience. If you would like to make the decisions for your mother’s last days of your life, and then perceive someone to be marginalizing her experience, then we can talk about my experience. But do not EVER say that it was solely his “elitist” tone. His elitist tone and the words spoken were hurtful, and they were triggering.

    • Psst, he was the Deputy Director of NIH. To get above that and become the Director of NIH required a political appointment and so Kington looked toward higher education to continue his career.

  5. As a Grinnell graduate and current graduate student studying health promotion for low income latinas, I can assure you that many low income families care about their health. Is the system working against them? Yes. Is it difficult to access primary care services? Yes. Is it easy to engage in health promoting behaviors? No. Perishable fruits and vegetables are expensive per calorie, neighborhoods aren’t always safe for walking, repetitive use injuries are rampant due to manual labor jobs, and obtaining prescriptions may be neglected when individuals have to decide which bill to pay.

    But do people care about their health? Do they worry about the health of their children? Yes and yes. I think it is asinine to state that “Low-income students do not often have families where health is a major concern”. Health is always a major concern. Heart attacks, strokes, pulmonary embolisms, and amputations from diabetes complications, are all major health concerns despite an individual’s SES.

    That being said, you raise real concerns. Work to make your voice heard. Join committees such as SHACS, Residence Life, and Curriculum committee to ensure that Grinnell is listening to all student perspectives.


    Grinnell Alum

    • Tim Burnette

      September 8, 2016 at 10:49 PM


      So I think we have different takes on my argument. I wasn’t arguing that people don’t care about their health, but rather that it is not a primary concern. In my experiences, and in those I’ve heard from others, many low-income people simply don’t have the time to provide for healthcare. They may work all day, or work all night, and sleep the majority of the rest, or they have to care for another family member, etc. But I have seen very few low-income families where health is as prioritized as in a middle or upper class family.


      • So why don’t you listen to the experiences of others outside your immediate bubble and learn to care about health just like the other low-income (and in general all) people have been doing all this time? Spread the word! It’s absurd that you are chastising Kington for making a statement that is absolutely true unless someone is depressed or something… hey, I know a lot of rich people who don’t “care” about health either. Caring about health doesn’t require tons of time (unless you’re mental.. maybe then). If you think it does you’ve been duped.

        Your anecdote about Valentine is frustrating but I fail to see how it is a) Kington’s fault or b) relevant to this opinion piece in any way. Sorry. And your theatrics at the end are not appreciated. You just sound like a whinny brat spoiled by a nice school. I can tell you’re frustrated, but pieces written like this only serve to widen the disparity, not resolve it.

      • Tim Burnette

        September 9, 2016 at 7:35 AM

        I’m sorry, but I never said I didn’t care about my health. My family never has had the ability to care, and neither have many low-income students’ families I have spoken with. There is a structural problem in our society that prevents low-income people from caring the same amount as those with more resources.

        When Kington said Grinnell cared about ALL students’ health, and the college failed to provide insurance that predominantly goes to low-income students, I felt that Valentine’s experience was the complete opposite of what Kington was arguing for.

      • It seems to me that the biggest problem in communicating is this word “care”. I believe some people are using it as I initially understood it to be used by RayK-that they think about it sometimes. That poor people mind if they are sick, just like rich people do. That, even though they may not be able to afford fresh fruits or doctor visits or medication or trips to the country for fresh air (I don’t know what people do for their health right now……………..) they still know that there is something they could do that would make their family’s lives better. Other people seem to understand RayK to be meaning “care” as in “take care of”, being able to see an issue AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT RIGHT AWAY. I don’t believe that Kington meant to use it in the second sense. I believe he meant it as “you can’t tell me that poor people don’t care about their children’s health”.

        As a low income student, I also felt marginalized by the school, especially when it came to health. When they’d tell me I could visit a psychologist at the local hospital (not covered) instead of getting a free walk-in appointment at school (two totally different things, by the way…). When they stopped stocking free feminine hygiene products in bathrooms. When they wouldn’t allow you to take fruit out of the dining hall, but you could take a slice of cake. Let’s make sure we’re all using the same language so that we understand what it is we are discussing. I agree-all people, at some point, think about the health of their family. I agree-there are many families that don’t have the luxury of going to the doctor-but they still know that they would love to if that was something they could afford.

  6. another low-income student

    September 8, 2016 at 10:33 PM

    Both myself and a friend have been in positions where Grinnell Security has called ambulances for us without alerting us to the fact that we’d get slammed for costs weeks later. My ambulance bill was upwards of $2,000. I’m on Medicaid, and it took (more) weeks of phone calls and a whole lot of stress–a whole, whole lot of stress–before Medicaid ensured that the bill could be paid through an Iowa provider. During this time, and since, I heard nothing from the school. As soon as I was out of the building and in the ambulance, I was on my own. Thank you for writing this.

  7. To those addressing the “do all families REALLY care about health”, I think you’re missing the point. RayK’s statement was made out of privilege, pure and simple. This attitude leaks into the admin and even trickles down to many profs and RLCs on this campus.
    From my own personal experience, I suffered a loss last year and had to switch my plane ticket from winter break to make it back to my family in time. The next flight I could afford to book for winter break was past the check-out date. I brought this up to my RLC, and instead of being understanding, she accused me of being irresponsible and threatened to fine me… Because of not being able to afford an earlier flight due to circumstances outside of my control.

  8. Tim,

    I am so sorry for your loss, and really appreciate your courage to voice your opinions and talk so openly about your experiences. I am an alum (who knew you from the track team, but perhaps not as well as I should have), and I want you to know that your pain and concerns about how the administration treats low-income students are shared by many. However, as I work in a service position in a low-income clinic, one of my jobs is surveying low-income patients about their access to food. In many cases, I am finding that in some sense, Pres. Kington is correct that low-income people do want to care for their (and especially their families and childrens’) health. It is very much a huge concern for many of them, especially when illnesses like diabetes are involved that directly affect their ability to work. I get your point that people in poverty are not able to care about their health, but I think it is fair here to quibble over some of the word choice in this article because so many forces are trying to cut SNAP and WIC benefits that low income families need to survive by stigmatizing poverty and painting a false narrative of low income people as lazy and/or uninformed.

    However, with low-income families suffering the brunt of preventable diseases due to a completely unfair insurance system, healthcare is in reality something that low-income people HAVE to be more concerned about than their more affluent counterparts. Lung cancer, HIV, heart disease, etc. for a number of reasons do affect low-income people disproportionately for a variety of reasons related to their economic situation. In addition, chronic stress causes a whole host of other problems and I would argue, is indeed a health problem that low-income people deal with daily. So, while I earlier stated I agree with Dr. Kington in some sense, I am surprised given his health care background that he wouldn’t look at the implications of what he is saying. Back to the alcohol concerns that the Town Hall was likely trying to address, if a rich kid was hospitalized but their adequate insurance led to a “moral” lesson because their insurance covered everything, but a lower income student on the college plan had to pay out of pocket for a similar expense (because the college insurance for some reason views alcohol intoxication as a moral failing), then we know who will have to care more about their health. In other words, I like that you are thinking deeply about these hard issues that people don’t address in Grinnell, but I wonder if you would consider that perhaps Pres. Kington is more correct than even he knows when he made that statement. Keep expressing yourself, and best of luck this year!

    -Sketchy Alum ’16

  9. That same thing that happened to Valentine happened to me, actually. In mid-August, I tried to fill a prescription after last year’s insurance had expired and this year’s had taken effect, but hadn’t sent out cards or created accounts. I was rejected, and after a few days of phone calls to the new insurance company, I found out that Grinnell was sending files over on a weekly basis and they were being slowly processed. I also found out that even though I’d paid for insurance and that payment had gone through, Grinnell had deliberately not sent my file over because I had a different hold on my account for a negative balance. Once I paid that balance and pestered a few people, I was able to get my file processed and obtain a member ID, but all in all it took hours of calls and about a week to actually get the prescription I’d needed without paying out of pocket.

    I didn’t end up complaining about it because there were elements of it that were my fault (not having fully paid my tuition yet), but I’m sorry to hear that I’m not the only one who was in that situation. To Valentine: You can call the cashier’s office at Grinnell to have them send your file over or find out why they haven’t, and if you keep pestering insurance they can get you your ID number within a day or so. You can also submit a claim to the insurance company to make up the cost difference, as long as you do so within two weeks (this is something I’m frankly incapable of doing, so I don’t blame you if you can’t). The college put you in an unfair and unjust situation. Best of luck finding your way out of it.

  10. To the author and those saying Kington is classist/elitist/doesn’t know what he’s talking about, take a look at this:
    “Dr. Kington’s research has focused on the role of social factors, especially socioeconomic status, as determinants of health. In his talk, he will discuss those disparities and the struggle to address the changing health patterns of our society.”
    He doesn’t deserve to be vilified and slandered, and this video is further proof that he does, in fact, know what he’s talking about.

    You’re conflating “caring about one’s health” with “ability to manage one’s health,” and in the process perpetuating the conservative myth that low-income people are lazy/stupid/unaware/etc. To expect Kington to claim–in a public forum focused on harm-reductive changes to an alcohol policy–that 1. low-income people don’t care about or prioritize their health, and 2., that changes to the alcohol policy were made only because the College cares about rich students’ well-being…and then to be personally offended and rant about it when he says the exact opposite (the truth), affirming that people care about their health and their students’ health regardless of their socioeconomic status, is, frankly, ridiculous.

    Re-wording your argument in the comments to state that health is “not a primary concern” or claiming “I have seen very few low-income families where health is as prioritized as in a middle or upper class family” is still saying the same thing — low-income people don’t care, don’t make health a priority, don’t put it first. That’s very different than the reality, which is that low-income people surely have their health (and their family’s health) high on their list of priorities but lack the money and time to make substantive changes to their personal or familial wellness.

    As far as the insurance issue goes, yeah, that really sucks, but it’s not directly Kington’s fault. Surely he knows that students need to be insured full-time and wants that to be the reality; it sounds like some low-level bureaucratic processes failed or were unclear and need to be changed. It would be great if you could focus on identifying and fixing issues like that (maybe talk to the FinAid and Cashier’s offices to find out what went wrong/what can be changed so that it doesn’t happen again?), which are actually important and damaging to low-income students’ well-being. As it stands now, your attack on Kington is distracting and reads more like a petty hit piece than anything else.

    Honestly, if having your college’s president affirm that people in your often-chastised and misunderstood demographic do care about their health, while also asserting that the alcohol policy was not changed because of rich families’ perceived extraordinary amount of care for their children but out of concern for all students’ safety (regardless of income), is “marginalizing,” “hurtful,” and “triggering,” you really need to re-evaluate his words and your knee-jerk interpretation of them and his supposed “elitist tone” (what does that even entail in this context!?). His response is as good and reasonable as one could hope for from any administrator or public health expert, and the vast majority of students, low-income families, and public health officials would prefer his given answer over the alternative that you are implicitly hoping for.

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