Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize

Current Recipient

Tressie McMillan Cottom

Celebrated cultural critic, sociologist, and author Tressie McMillan Cottom has been selected as the 2023 winner of the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize by Brandeis University.

Tressie McMillan CottomTressie McMillan Cottom is known for rearranging your brain in the span of a carefully turned phrase. Her breadth is phenomenal — it moves from the racial hierarchy of beauty standards and the class codes of dressing for work to the predation of for-profit colleges and the stain of racial capitalism on our plural democracy — all while reimagining the essay form for the 21st century as she goes.

Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom's first book, "Lower Ed," captures the zeitgeist on how profit, and debt, moved from the margins of higher education to bankrupt the very heart of American meritocracy. Influential change-makers like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and activists like The Debt Strike Collective cites her book as important for changing the conversation about higher education. Her sharp insights do not let anyone off the hook — she argues that bad federal policy, state disinvestment, amoral narratives about meritocracy, and prestige-driven cultures of traditional higher education all share responsibility for Lower Ed.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a professor with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill, a New York Times columnist, and 2020 MacArthur Fellow.

McMillan Cottom's far-ranging intellectual interests include books, articles, magazine profiles and opinion-editorials but it is her essays that routinely shape the discourse. Her version of the essay — or Tressays, as her devout fans refer to them — is part revolutionary pamphlet, part poetic chapbook, part sociological analysis, and part call-to-arms. Her 2019 collection of essays, "Thick," was a National Book Award finalist that re-imagines the modern essay form. Tressays are powerful storytelling that make problems for power. Careful and poetic, McMillan Cottom explores the everyday culture of big ideas like racism, sexism, inequality and oppression by giving us the language to live better lives.

Tressie McMillan Cottom was in residence at Brandeis from Oct. 25–27, 2023. Her residency included an award ceremony and public lecture on Oct. 26.


Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom speaking at a podium

"Public Knowledge in Critical Times," Oct. 25, 2023

Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom and Professor Sarah Mayorga sitting in chairs and talking

Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom in conversation with Professor Sarah Mayorga, Associate Professor of Sociology, Oct. 26, 2023