Campus News

Informal Discussion on Admissions' Role Touches on Diversity at Common Hour

Story posted March 07, 2001

"Inroads, Crossroads, or Both?", an informal panel discussion on the role of the Admissions office in shaping the academic environment at Bowdoin, took a little bit of a detour at last Friday's Common Hour, as much of the talk focused on the topic of diversity on campus. Facilitator Wil Smith '00, coordinator of multicultural student programs, pointed out at the conclusion of the hour that the fact that diversity dominated the discussion on admissions shows the importance of the issue.

[The panel discussion did not endeavor to make official statements about admissions policy, or offer solutions. Rather, it served as a platform for informal discussion among members of the campus community. For more information about Bowdoin College Admissions, please visit the admissions office (in the recently opened Burton-Little House) or check out the Bowdoin website.]

Panelists for the discussion were Eliot Pope '01, Jennifer Dodd '01, Todd Buell '03, Alexander Ellis '01, and Catherine Williams '01. They were asked to comment on Bowdoin Admissions, taking into account the definitions of "Inroads" and "Crossroads." For the purpose of the discussion, "Inroads" was defined as a place where each student can obtain intellectual skills and access to social networks that will enable them to secure a meaningful place in society; and "Crossroads" as a place where representatives from many different parts of society can come to participate in the exchange of ideas, ideals and experiences.

Ellis was asked what he believed the role of the Admissions Office is in shaping the academic environment at Bowdoin, and to relate it to his own application and admission experience. He described his great appreciation for the tough job the Admissions Office has in wading through over 4,000 applications per year, and identifying the perfect Bowdoin student who will fit into the "mold of the academic model." Observing that it is impossible to measure a person through "numbers" (SATs, for example), he points out the value of the personal interview and essay during the application process, which help Admissions truly measure the person. As an athlete, Ellis felt it important that Admissions considered what a student athlete would have to offer Bowdoin, and by considering all these elements, acquire a strong sense of the whole person.

Pope was asked what he saw as Bowdoin's priorities upon review of the admissions materials. He said he saw Bowdoin as a school that encouraged the free exchange of ideas among the campus community, and that members of the community would help each other and grow together. He also emphasized that the opportunity for students to create a strong bond with professors was clear.

Williams was asked to describe the academic environment at Bowdoin, and any components that strengthened or weakened the student experience. She called academics a "personal experience," one that changes over the four-year period. The experience is strengthened by a faculty with a genuine interest in what they are teaching, as well as a genuine interest in the students; the students themselves are interested in the classes and are encouraged and given a critical analysis of their work and pursuits. Ellis concurred with Williams' assessment, pointing out that the "rare" student/faculty ratio makes for a "healthy academic environment," and is something students should "appreciate and cherish."

Later, when audience members were invited to respond, one student commented that many students don’t take advantage of the student/faculty ratio. She described an English class she had taken where “no one [said] a word,” a situation leading to an “unhealthy” academic environment. Williams responded that in such a situation it is the faculty responsibility to make students comfortable and passionate about the subject they teach.

Smith then introduced the topic of diversity, pointing out that a commitment to diversity is at the root of the College’s mission. He asked Todd Buell to personally define diversity in Bowdoin’s academic environment. Buell aimed some criticism at the College for viewing diversity primarily through skin color. While this is a well-meaning effort on the part of the College to attract these students, he says, it is not “the most healthy view.” Buell sees “diversity of thought” as more important (echoing George Will, a prior Common Hour speaker). He suggested aiming to bring in people who see the world through different perspectives, including those with differing political viewpoints (more conservatives would bring a fresh perspective to this traditionally liberal campus, for example). This would allow for a more overall diverse campus, and would improve the academic integrity of the College. In response, Pope disputed Buell’s insistence that perspective could be so simply separated from culture or race. He argued all these elements are part of the whole package.

Offering that one of the goals of the College is to select men and women of different gifts and diverse social and geographic backgrounds, Smith called upon Dodd—a woman in the predominantly male department of physics—to comment. Dodd comes from a farming community in rural New Jersey. While the construction of many new developments in her area allowed her to meet different kinds of people in high school, she conceded that her environment was almost exclusively a white population. Upon her introduction to Bowdoin, she says, she found diversity “off the charts,” as she met many different kinds of people from across the country and around the world. However, she does feel outnumbered, as a woman, in the physics department, and admits the situation made it difficult to choose it as her major. “A 50/50 environment would have made it much easier.”

When Smith asked if Admissions could do anything to increase the number of women in the physics department, Dodd suggested that this was more a mission for high schools, junior high schools, and even grade schools. Physics is traditionally introduced to students late in their high school careers. If it were introduced much earlier, female students would become more comfortable with the subject.

Smith then turned the floor over to members of the audience to ask what diversity meant to them, and how Bowdoin could improve diversity on campus. One student pointed out, “You can’t bring [diversity] in; you can only attract it.” He suggested that the intrinsic belief that Bowdoin is a “white culture across campus” needs to be rectified. “To make perspectives diverse, you have to have diversity in culture.” Buell agreed, saying Bowdoin must demonstrate that it is an open environment. Dodd suggested that Bowdoin should foster a more international environment, while an audience member criticized Admissions’ definition of diversity for lacking focus on sexual orientation.

Kevin Wesley, director of alumni relations, pointed out a very low participation of students of color in alumni events (of 1,500 participants at Reunion last year, there were approximately just three black and two Asian alums). He asked the group what it was about the Bowdoin experience that affects these alumni’s lives in such a way to result in such low alumni participation? While Pope could not offer Wesley an answer (“Check with me in five years”), Williams suggested that because diversity has become such a key issue, and will continue to be so, perhaps Alumni Relations will begin to see improvement in that area.

One audience member who has worked in the Admissions office wanted to stress that critics of the Admissions team are underestimating them. She points out that everyone in Admissions is concerned with getting to know the applicants and make their selections to foster the best student population. She advised that every student can help by taking more recruitment responsibilities upon themselves. Those students from “away” should go back home and tell people about Bowdoin, and encourage students to apply.

A final student commended the Posse program, and encouraged the Admissions office to continue to take such risks. Bowdoin, he pointed out, has a history of admitting students of color, and a real responsibility to uphold that reputation.

Smith concluded the hour by encouraging everyone to continue their discussions on these important issues.

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