Happy 100th Birthday, Doremus Gym
Doremus Memorial Gymnasium was dedicated 100 years ago today (June 13, 1916) with what the Ring-tum Phi described as a “flow of oratory enthusiastically received by a large gathering of alumni which occupied the main floor of the gymnasium and many spectators who filled the galleries.”
New York attorney Charles J. McDermott, a personal friend of the late Robert P. Doremus — for whom the building is named — gave the dedicatory address, “The Need for Recreation in American Life.” The Phi described his remarks as “a convincing appeal for physical education among Americans.”
In fact, the construction of Doremus came just as Washington and Lee had begun to emphasize what it called “a universal, systematic, and compulsory program of bodily care and training.” President Henry Louis Smith was the architect of this new feature of the curriculum. In his 1913 inaugural address, “The College of To-morrow,” Smith previewed his intentions with a section on “College Athletics.” He argued that “the college which aims to train the whole man will realize the vast importance of the body, and will place its care and training on a par with those of the mind.” Although Smith criticized the “present one-sided and narrow development of college athletics,” he believed instruction in physical education for all students was necessary in order to “build for every graduate a physique which will stand the long-continued pressure of modern life.”
It was, of course, serendipitous that the university had just received the unexpected and generous Doremus gift — a gift that is the basis for the oft-told story about the New York stockbroker who was so impressed by the warm reception he received from a unidentified student during a visit to the Washington and Lee campus that he decided to give his estate to the university. Mr. Doremus died in 1913, just as President Smith was assuming office, and Mrs. Doremus made a gift to build the gymnasium that same year. The entire Doremus estate, amounting to $1.5 million, came to the university in 1936 following Mrs. Doremus’s death.
Although the dedication of Doremus was held in early June 1916, the gymnasium had actually opened in November of the previous year. The Sophomore Cotillion was the first event to be held there, and the new building was a welcome relief since, as the Phi reported, the “dancers by no means crowded the huge floor, as has often been the case in the old gymnasium.”
The construction of Doremus had not been easy. There were numerous unexpected delays due to what the Alumni Bulletin described as a combination of “difficult excavation” and “adverse weather conditions” — something that will ring familiar to those involved in current-day construction projects around the campus.
Once completed, the building was said to be especially noteworthy by virtue of “its imposing front of 218 feet,” which became “the first object to catch the sight of the traveler on his approach to Lexington by train.”
Doremus featured 1,000 lockers; two large rooms in the basement, where the Albert Sidney and Harry Lee crews trained; a “sterilizing room” where the gymnasium “suits,” mat coverings, athletic team uniforms, and towels were “properly sterilized by direct exposure to live steam”; a separate laundry; a wrestling room; and a fencing room. The pool was 70 by 25 feet in length and went from a depth of 4½ feet in the shallow end to 8 feet at the other end. The main gymnasium floor, or the “main exercise room” as it was called, was said to be large enough that it permitted two “regulation-size” basketball courts, while “its length is so great that, by taking advantage of the corridors at either end, a full 50-yard dash can be run upon it.” The running track that hung from the ceiling and circled the floor was the gallery for viewers of basketball games, other athletic contests, and many other public functions. Capacity was 750.
From its dedication in 1916, Doremus served for 56 years as the exclusive home to the university’s indoor athletic and physical education program, until Warner Center opened. Doremus’ “main exercise room” continues to serve as an auxiliary gymnasium, while the building now features a 10,000-square-foot fitness center, which was the result of a refurbishing project in 2002.
The university is conducting a $50 million fundraising campaign to upgrade the indoor athletics and recreation facilities with a renovation of Doremus, a reconstruction of the Warner Center, and construction of a new natatorium, scheduled to open in December 2016 at a site near Lewis Hall.
Strong: Examining the Political Commentary on the Presidential Race
The following opinion piece by Robert Strong, William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee, appeared in the May 1, 2016, edition of the Roanoke Times and is reprinted here by permission.
A Catalog of Commentary on the 2016 Presidential Race
by Robert A. Strong
Remember when commentators thought the 2016 presidential election cycle would be dull? It was supposed to be dominated by the fund raising prowess of a Bush and a Clinton in a 1992 rematch of two famous political families.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, we have witnessed one of the most peculiar presidential races in modern memory. What is going on? There are at least three repeated themes in the political commentary on 2016. Here they are:
Angry Voters Rise Again
Perhaps 2016 is like 1992 when millions of Americans were frustrated with traditional politics and chose to support Ross Perot, the Texas businessman who promised simple solutions to national problems. The Perot voters, angry and unpredictable, were drawn to the ultimate outsider. Maybe part of the American electorate is angry again and rather than looking to a third-party is voting for unusual candidates in the regular party primaries.
Working class families have suffered decades of stagnant wages, global competition and technological change that have shaken economic expectations and middle class aspirations—fertile ground for Donald Trump. Young progressives, enthusiastic about Barack Obama in 2008, may be disappointed by his modest accomplishments, still burdened by college debt and languishing in a sluggish recovery from the great recession—an opening for Bernie Sanders.
The angry voter analysis assumes that the presidential selection process is actually working well. If unlikely candidates are getting unexpected support, it must be evidence that voters are restless and responding to voices that express their views.
There is a second possibility.
A Media Circus Gets A Clown
The complicated process by which we winnow presidential hopefuls has a long history of problems and predictions of disaster. The voters who show up at caucuses and primaries are more liberal on the Democratic side, more conservative in Republican contests, and don’t represent the nation as a whole.
Sometimes a protest candidate, like Bernie Sanders, can show surprising strength without ever having broad national support. Sometimes an odd candidate, like Donald Trump, can be a “winner” because, in a large field of contenders, a fraction of the vote (in an already unrepresentative process) constitutes a victory.
Moreover, modern presidential races get saturation coverage from the 24-hour news channels. This creates a magnet for those who may want a book contract, speaking fees, ego gratification, an audience for idiosyncratic ideas or invitations for more television appearances. Publicity-seeking candidates are nothing new. But this year the Republicans have an unusually skillful celebrity who has monopolized the media and managed to become the unlikely likely nominee.
This media circus analysis assumes that the presidential selection system is broken because it fails to faithfully reflect the sentiments of most citizens and invites the shenanigans of charlatans. There may well be angry voters, but in this analysis their views and candidate preferences get too much weight in a flawed nomination process.
There is a third line of analysis.
Rupture in the Republican Ranks
Some commentators speculate that something momentous is taking place in one of our national political parties. The Democrats are having an ordinary, if sometimes ornery, argument between progressives and pragmatists, but the Republicans are in real trouble. Their party is an awkward coalition of prosperous fiscal conservatives, evangelical critics of social change and tea party rebels without longstanding political connections to country club or church. Maybe that coalition is coming apart.
There were warning signs that this might happen. In recent senate races, some traditional Republican candidates lost primaries to tea party or evangelical challengers who subsequently suffered defeat in the general election. One Delaware senate contender felt compelled to announce that she was not a witch; others in Indiana and Missouri made comments about rape, conception and abortion that were stunningly strange. Those kinds of unconventional candidates, once problematic only in state party races, may now be standing in the spotlight on the national stage.
This analysis does not conclude that the presidential selection system is broken. Instead, it observes that storms within one of the political parties are so strong that the groups currently under the Republican umbrella may no longer be able to stand together.
Many establishment Republicans don’t want Ted Cruz or Donald Trump to be the party’s nominee, but at this late date they may not have the power to steer the nomination to a more mainstream candidate, and could not do so without generating enormous controversy.
It may end up that the most quoted Republican from 2016 will be Bobby Jindal. He entered and left the pool of presidential candidates with hardly a ripple, but back in 2013 he gave a prescient speech in which he urged fellow Republicans to “stop being the stupid party.” They didn’t listen. A major political party on its way to nominating Donald Trump for the presidency, or on its way to blocking his nomination in a floor fight at the national convention, provides a nearly perfect definition of a stupid party.
W&L's Williams Examines Gravitational Waves Discovery in Roanoke Times
The following oped by H. Thomas Williams, Edwin A. Morris Professor of Physics Emeritus at Washington and Lee, was published in the Sunday, March 13, 2016, edition of the Roanoke Times and is reprinted here by permission.
A Perfect Pass
by H. Thomas Williams
Whenever I see an NFL quarterback throw a pass to a receiver running with his back to the quarterback but who makes his cut at precisely the right place and time for the pass to be completed, I marvel at the planning and precision of such a play.
That is the image — a perfectly executed forward pass — that came to mind in February as I watched a live-stream status report from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO).
If you are not aware of the news from LIGO, you should be. Although this report might have been lost among other major media events and breaking news during February, it is far more consequential than the presidential debates, the Grammy Awards or even one presidential candidate’s dustup with the Pope.
In fact, that report is the most significant scientific news of my half-century-plus career as a scientist — by far. And there have been many stunning breakthroughs during this period: practical advances such as lasers and superconductors, revealing new views of our solar system, and the 2013 discovery of the Higgs boson, explaining the notion of mass of fundamental particles.
The LIGO announcement featured three compelling narrative threads: confirmation of Albert Einstein’s century-old theory, the remarkable achievement represented by the wave detectors themselves, and the staggering cosmic coincidence that delivered a significant piece of data to those detectors just as they were turned on.
First, Einstein: In 1915, he developed a generalized version of his iconic special theory of relativity. It explained the behavior of accelerating objects and its intimate relationship to gravitation. With the general theory, Einstein provided an answer without a question, exercising his deep intuition to develop arcane notions such as black holes and gravitational waves well in advance of any experimental evidence for their existence.
The intrinsic weakness of the gravitational force suggested that for gravitational waves to be detectable, they would have to originate in events involving huge masses experiencing extreme accelerations. The merger of two black holes, each about the mass of 30 suns, resulting from a violent gravity-driven collision would seem to be just what was needed. A century following Einstein’s insights, we have now used gravitational waves to detect for the first time a binary black hole system —one that met its cataclysmic demise 1.3 billion years ago.
Beyond the discovery itself, the LIGO detection mechanism itself is a modern wonder. It consists of two identical instruments called laser interferometers — one in Hanford, Washington, the other over 1800 miles away in Livingston, Louisiana. In each device, a laser beam is split and its pieces are sent down and reflected back along two perpendicular arms, each of which is four kilometers long. The light beams, recombined, are capable of detecting miniscule differences in the length of the arms. To separate infinitesimal gravity wave effects from more common and less interesting vibrations from a passing vehicle or a chair sliding on the laboratory break room floor, unprecedented levels of vibration isolation were developed. Despite this, local vibrational noise remains problematic.
To distinguish gravitational signals from vibrational noise, the two widely separated interferometers are monitored simultaneously. The notion is that the hiss and burble of random local vibrations will be recorded in each location, with no correlation between the two: truck traffic in Louisiana will affect the signals there, but not those at the Washington site. If, however, these two signals become correlated, even briefly, the cause must be not local, but cosmic — i.e., gravitational waves.
The side-by-side traces of signals from the Hanford and Livingston interferometers at 5:51 a.m. EDT on a September day last year show separate random wiggles evolving into a breathtaking synchrony lasting roughly two-tenths of a second before returning again into unrelated noise. The signal was unmistakable, and stunning. The modern-day watchmakers who crafted this instrument array for the sole purpose of seeing such a signal were rewarded richly, and immediately.
This takes me back to that NFL pass play, and the precision necessary to achieve a completion. Just consider: the initial gravitational wave event recorded by LIGO was triggered by the merger of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. The resulting wave spread like a ripple caused by a stone dropped into an otherwise smooth pond, the size of the ripple diminishing with its distance from its source. Moving at the speed of light, this gravitation ripple passed through the LIGO detectors in 0.2 seconds, and then was gone. Its fleeting arrival — a pass thrown 1.3 billion years ago — appeared on LIGO’s receivers during the first week in the history of mankind when we had an instrument capable of detecting it!
Even more surprising — this tiny “chirp” was detected on September 15 of last year, a week before the instruments were scheduled to go live, in fact during its final “dress rehearsal.” To consider this mere coincidence goes beyond reason. It might be read as near-definitive proof of the existence of a benevolent God — one, in fact, who has particular interest in the success of this scientific project.
Another explanation is that this violent cosmic event is far from unique, and the advanced LIGO observatory has opened a window on the universe that will flood us with such data and new discoveries. This notion is supported by the fact that during the four months of active observation with LIGO since that initial celebrated event, scientists have recorded and are now analyzing at least four more potential gravitational wave events.
So now what? It is hard to say, but chances are that in opening this new channel of communication with the universe we will be treated to a constant stream of unexpected revelations about our cosmic home. This is a channel to which we should all stay tuned.
Thomas Williams is the Edwin A. Morris Professor of Physics Emeritus at Washington and Lee University where he taught for 37 years prior to his retirement in 2011. His research has been focused on theoretical nuclear and particle physics.
Ruscio Publishes Journal Article on Presidential Leadership
Washington and Lee University President Kenneth P. Ruscio is the author of an article in the March/April 2016 edition of Public Administration Review, the preeminent professional journal in the field of public administration research, theory and practice.
Titled “Leadership in Organized Anarchy,” the article is part of a lead feature in the journal called Perspectives, which showcases viewpoints from thought leaders about a variety of issues. Ruscio is one of four university presidents who were invited to reflect upon experiences or principles that have helped guide their careers in higher education for Perspectives in this edition of the journal.
The other authors are Mark Emmert, currently president of the NCAA and former president of the University of Washington and chancellor at LSU; Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin; and Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.
Ruscio’s article is available on the the President’s website at http://myw.lu/ruscio_par.
W&L's Strong on Jimmy Carter in the Roanoke Times
The following opinion piece by Robert Strong, William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee, appeared in the Oct. 1, 2015, edition of the Roanoke Times and is reprinted here by permission.
Jimmy Carter at 91
Today is Jimmy Carter’s 91st birthday, a day made more poignant by the news that he struggles with the disease that claimed the lives of his father, his mother and his three siblings. After the public announcement of Carter’s cancer diagnosis, commentators were quick to praise the former president for his remarkably active post-presidency and for personal acts of charity, faith and promotion of democracy.
This is as it should be.
But I belong to a small group of scholars who also believe that Carter should be praised for success in the White House. He was not a great president, but his record in office was better than most people acknowledge.
In the only major candidate debate in the 1980 election cycle, Ronald Reagan famously asked if Americans were “better off” than they had been four years earlier. This was a time of intense public anxiety about the economy. Interest rates, inflation and unemployment were all historically high. Energy prices had endured two sudden spikes in the 1970s (one producing temporary gasoline shortages and long lines at gas stations) and every sector of the economy dependent on the cost of oil faced an uncertain future.
Though the American people concluded that they were not better off in 1980, some were. Unemployment fell in every year of the Carter administration except the last one. In 1980, inflation was finally being addressed by Paul Volker, Carter’s appointee to head the Federal Reserve. Volker’s tight money policies produced temporary hardships that would later lead to long-term stability.
In Carter’s four years in the White House, real growth of GDP averaged a respectable 3.1 percent a year — a better record than Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, or Reagan and much better than the experience of twenty-first-century presidents.
High interest rates and inflation wreaked havoc for first-time homebuyers in the late 1970s, but established families with fixed-rate mortgages from an earlier era saw their debts decline while property prices rose. They were actually better off.
In foreign policy, Carter made more progress in the vexing Middle East peace process than any of his predecessors or successors. The Camp David Accords did not lead to a final settlement of the disputes between Israel and her Arab neighbors, but they ended Israeli hostilities with Egypt and took a major step in the direction of peace that has held for decades.
Carter pushed for the highly unpopular Panama Canal treaties that foreign policy experts — Republican and Democrat — uniformly favored, and lobbied 68 senators to cast controversial treaty ratification votes that cost many of them their political career.
In Iran, he failed in a risk-ridden rescue mission, but succeeded in negotiating a final release of the American diplomats held hostage. With the Soviet Union, he gradually accepted the decline of détente and delivered a return to higher military budgets, more cautious arms control negotiations and stern warnings against Soviet mischief-making in the Persian Gulf.
On the world stage, Carter made human rights a core concern in American foreign policy, not just a slogan.
Not a bad record for four years in office. And a longer list of accomplishments would include a forward-looking energy policy, the Alaska land bill, deregulation of phone and airline services, the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with China, amnesty for Vietnam-era draft dodgers and the first federal bailout of the Chrysler corporation.
Of course, this record did not win reelection. A better politician might have postponed the Panama decision or the appointment of an inflation-fighting central banker. Carter received good political advice, from his wife among others, to put off controversial actions until after 1980. He never took that advice. He sincerely believed that the American people would see the sense and necessity of what he was doing.
I once introduced former President Carter to students at Washington and Lee University by comparing him to the university’s namesake president, George Washington. Both were southerners, farmers, and military men known for their integrity. Both were fiscal conservatives and reluctant partisans who had problems with Islamic hostage takers.
Carter politely chided me for an inappropriate introduction and said that none of today’s politicians should be compared to our Founding Father. “Besides,” he said, “Washington got reelected.”
Strong is the William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University and the author of Working in the World: Jimmy Carter and the Making of American Foreign Policy. This summer he did research on the Carter presidency with assistance from Lauren Howard ’16.
W&L's Strong Comments on Republican Debate in Richmond Times-Dispatch
The following opinion piece by Robert Strong, William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee, appeared in the Sept. 25, 2015, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted here by permission.
Donald and the Dictionary
It began with twaddle.
I was watching the CNN Republican presidential debate last week and simultaneously doing research about a 19th-century argument over issues in higher education. While the candidates were busily responding to all the insults that had accumulated since their previous debate, I was reading one college administrator criticizing another for proposed curriculum reforms that were “twaddle from beginning to end.”
It was clear that twaddle was a pejorative term, but it wasn’t one I knew. With one eye on the proceedings in Simi Valley, I did a quick check on my iPad for the definition of twaddle. It turns out that it means “trivial or foolish speech or writing,” a kind of nonsense.
By coincidence, my dictionary search had given me the perfect word to describe what I was watching on the television screen. Much of what passes for political speech in a presidential election season is, in fact, twaddle.
Then I searched for synonyms of twaddle and was delighted to find a long list of words that can be used to describe silly speech. There were drivel, claptrap and blather; piffle, bunk and balderdash; gibberish, hogwash, hooey, poppycock and more. There are subtle differences in meaning among those synonyms, and I actually began to enjoy the presidential debate as I tried to categorize each candidate’s comment with the best version of nonsense available from the array of words before me. Was I hearing claptrap or balderdash; drivel or piffle?
Rand Paul called much of what Donald Trump says about the appearance of others sophomoric, just before Trump made a sophomoric comment about Paul’s appearance. The word sophomoric was, unfortunately, an insult to 25 percent of the high school and college students across the country who generally behave better than Trump. But Paul went further. He said that the kind of observations and insults Trump routinely dispenses really sound like the things you hear in middle school. He might have called those insults drivel, the childish version of nonsense.
Then there was Trump’s speculation about the connection between vaccinations and autism, a serious subject that should have prompted a careful response with accurate information and sensitivity to the families with autistic children. Instead, what we got was balderdash, the form of nonsense that involves both stupidity and exaggeration.
It didn’t help when Ben Carson only gently corrected Trump about the inaccurate statements he had just made regarding the safety of vaccinations. I heard balderdash; Carson thought Trump was “a pretty good doctor.” That was piffle, which as a noun means nonsense, and as a verb means “to talk or behave feebly.”
Carly Fiorina had a very effective moment when she said that women across the country understood exactly what Trump’s comments about her face meant. But she also gave a vivid description of video footage showing Planned Parenthood doctors hovering over a squirming fetus while discussing the harvesting of brain tissue. No one has proved that such video footage exists. Asserting that it does is claptrap, which one dictionary calls an “expedient for winning applause” and another calls “mendacious cant.”
My classification game was amusing for a while, but it couldn’t last for the entire three hours of the debate. I was getting ready to abandon the television when I found one more synonym for twaddle: “trumpery.”
Yes, trumpery is in the dictionary. It is an old word. Shakespeare, with a slightly different spelling, used it in the “Winter’s Tale.” It appears in sentences written by Swift, Trollope, Arnold and Scott. And what does trumpery mean? It means “showy but worthless.”
My evening was now complete. I knew exactly what I was watching on television: trumpery and twaddle, and the decline of American political discourse.
Robert A. Strong is the William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University.
A Students-Eye View of Higher Education Issues
Robert Strong, Hal Higginbotham and W&L’s Politics 294 Class
The pages of higher education journals and newsletters are filled with commentary by faculty and administrators, higher education experts and the journalists who cover the college beat. Given the opportunity, what would students — the people who matter most in discussions of higher education — have to say about the educational issues of the day?
During the recently completed spring term at Washington and Lee University, 15 undergraduates took a course titled College Conundrums: Issues in American Higher Education, taught by a former W&L provost and a recently retired senior vice president of the College Board. The students read about the history of higher education in American culture. They encountered the budget and equity dilemmas in admissions and financial aid. They examined the complicated factors that explain the rising costs of college and the questions about who should bear the burdens of those costs. And they developed critiques of both the Education Department’s pending system for rating institutions and the ranking formula used by U.S. News and World Report. Their end-of-term assignment was to write an op-ed essay on their choice of a major issue facing higher education today.
The following quotations are drawn from their essays, and the essays in their entirety are available by clicking on each student’s name.
“Read about higher education in the news today,” one student observed, “and it is almost guaranteed that the word ‘crisis’ will be utilized. Tuition is too high, access is too low, the admissions process is in shambles and a college education just might not be worth it.” (Shelbi Hendricks) What is to be done?
The Three-Year Degree
Several students explored the three-year degree. Although one cautioned against rushing, saying “you’re only in college once,” others saw virtue in the shorter path. One junior had decided in the fall term to accelerate his progress and complete all remaining degree requirements in one year. Though his plan involved heavy overloads and a rush to complete the college’s physical education requirement (decisions that others might characterize as insanity), he emerged confident that finishing in three years “would be a challenging but very manageable goal for motivated students who plan correctly.” (Christian von Hassell) One first-year student outlined with precision how someone could combine modest Advanced Placement credit with online courses in the summer and an occasional term-time overload to meet W&L’s existing degree requirements in three years. “It is no secret that college is expensive,” and a three-year degree could save families real money. Won’t parents put pressure on students to take this option? Maybe, she observed, but that “would just be ignoring the fact that students already receive pressure from their parents.” (Monica Musgrave)
On the negative side, one student observed that there might be no real savings for institutions because undergraduates who take “the required amount of credits at their school in three years instead of four” would be paying for three years while “still using the resources it would take to do it in four.” (Kendra Nedell) Another student wrote that a tight three-year schedule would make it harder to change majors and might not provide enough time for the growing up that usually occurs in college. “Attempting to speed up the college experience could be very harmful to students as they do not have the opportunity to fully mature and learn from their mistakes.” (Elizabeth Case) A classmate offered a different view, however, saying “it is incredibly difficult to tell a junior and senior apart on a campus based on how they comport themselves, while it is easy to tell a freshman apart from an upperclassman.” She contended that three-year-program students might mature more rapidly since “they would be forced to balance more responsibilities in a faster-paced educational system.” (Caroline Bearden)
The Minerva Project
Two students evaluated the Minerva Project’s reimagined version of liberal arts education without a campus. They liked the courses taught online to seminar-sized groups with high levels of interactivity, and they were enthusiastic about the idea of living in four different cities during the course of a college education. “Living in another country is very different from visiting one. Students have to put themselves out there and figure out their daily routines and possibly a new language.” (Ravenel Harrigan) But they questioned whether the approach would really provide significant cost savings, citing the travel and living costs associated with famous foreign cities and the projected level of personal mentoring and online instruction using a low student-to-faculty ratio.
Money and MOOCs
Money was a theme in many of the papers. For these students, the attraction of MOOCs was not the quality of education they provided, but the potential for cost savings. They recognized, however, that a key consideration was the willingness of colleges to grant MOOC participation some legitimacy. One student questioned institutions that offer MOOCs but frequently do not permit regular students to take them for credit. “Why are Harvard online courses good enough for other students but not for actual Harvard students?” (Riley Garcia)
They applauded the flexibility that MOOCs might provide to students holding full-time jobs, but doubted that online courses could fully replace the four-year residential college. “The college experience can be anything from conversations in the dining hall … to playing in your conference championship game, to going on a weekend camping trip through your school’s outing club.” (Matt Parker) For the moment, as these students see it, MOOCs can’t compete, but “when online courses can offer high-quality learning, personalized interaction and effective assessment, they will become a well-recognized form of higher education.” (Annie Boyd)
Admissions and Access
Other areas where money played a role in our students’ assessments of higher education involve admissions and loan repayment. Some highlighted the importance of better recruiting of talented low-income students who may be unaware that they would qualify for admission and financial aid at high-quality institutions. “Students from low-income families are significantly less likely to earn a four-year degree by age 24 than students from well-off families; even poor students who score between 1200 and 1600 on the SAT are 40 percent less likely to earn a degree than students from wealthy families.” (Hannah Hoskin). “If low-income students had the information and assistance, they would apply and attend schools that fit their academic and economic needs. … Politicians should focus efforts and money on creating the services to change” the match between students and institutions. (Hayley Price)
In response to the stronger competitive situation that might flow from this outreach, one student proposed the elimination of alumni preferences in admissions to open more seats to talented students from every background. “Preferential treatment creates a dynastic system where it is easier for the rich to get richer as their family name earns more power over generations.” (Jonathan Granirer)
Another student looked at the other end of the college experience and recommended expanded income-based debt repayment to reduce the burdens of loans and maintain the freedom of all students to choose majors and careers that may not generate large salaries. “There is an argument today that students going into college are too career-driven and aren’t enjoying higher education for the experience and love of learning that used to convince students to attend college.” (Maggie Sands) She saw income-based repayment as one way to help restore the balance between career and creativity.
We leave the final word with a first-year student who summarized her views on what higher education ought to be by describing the best course she had taken at Washington and Lee. It wasn’t online and it wasn’t in a classroom. It was a “conversational Spanish class with a service-learning component. A few times a week, I would go to an elementary school in a low-income area to teach Spanish. This experience benefited me and enhanced my learning in more ways than I could have imagined. …Doing work in the world is an experience I personally want more of as a student and one I think needs to be more standard in colleges.” (Mary Elizabeth Silliman)
Silliman: Project-Based Learning
by Mary Elizabeth Silliman
“College is no longer about acquiring knowledge, but rather about knowing when, why, and how to use it,” said the provost of Washington and Lee University in his lecture about the ever changing system of higher education. Daniel A. Wubah makes a great point; back when finding information was labor intensive and time consuming, the primary function of college was for students to come to listen to professors share their wisdom and knowledge. Today, however, technology makes information easily accessible, and essentially anyone who knows how to work a computer or cell phone can have whatever information he needs with the click of a button from the comfort of his home. As a result, students rely less on college to give them information and more on the schools to help them apply what they have learned as they prepare to enter the real world. As a student today, I still desire and value the wisdom and knowledge my professors have to share with me, but I am eager for more, and what I want is real-world and project based learning.
An article on edutopia.org called, “Why is Project-Based Learning Important?” explains the many merits of using project-based learning in the classroom. For one, it “helps students develop skills for living in a knowledge-based, highly technological society” (edutopia.org). College is generally a point in a student’s educational career where he has figured out how to read and write effectively, and he thrives in the comfortable classroom setting. What they need is to work on developing the 21st century skills, which include planning, reasoning, critical thinking, creativity, and decision making that are essential to possess in order to thrive and survive in this day in age. Project-based learning forces students to develop these skills, as they are pushed to solve real problems and work with different people.
Another benefit of project-based l earning is the “new relevance it brings to the learning at hand” (edutopia.org). By implementing real-life context into learning, students can see how they can apply what they have acquired in the classroom. It is very powerful for a student to feel like what they are studying will help them in the real world, and they feel encouraged and inspired to find and pursue something they are passionate about.
Project-based learning “lends itself to authentic assessment,” as teachers and students can evaluate each other and track the progression of the research or project (edutopia.com). Students develop independence and demonstrate responsibility while also working in groups and improve essential teamwork skills. Additionally, this kind of experience “promotes a lifetime of learning” as students l earn to love the engagement and sense of purpose that comes with working with others to complete a project.
I am only a freshman, but my favorite class I have taken here at W&L was a conversational Spanish class with a service-learning component. A few times a week, I would go to an elementary school in a low-income area to teach Spanish. This experience benefited me and enhanced my learning in more ways than I could have imagined. I saw first hand how it helped every person in my class. It provided an awesome topic for class discussion because every student was working with different organizations, and we could share experiences and work together to solve any problems that arose. The class engagement and participation levels were so high, which provided awesome opportunities for lateral learning, and our speaking skills improved drastically.Although my focus was Spanish, I learned a lot about poverty while I was volunteering at the school. Through talking to the students, teachers, and program directors as well as being in the classroom, I learned so much about problems facing education today with regards to children in low-income areas. This type of interdisciplinary learning is also a huge benefit of project-based classes.
My experience is one small example of how getting outside the classroom and acquiring hands on experience can be so impactful. I can only imagine how beneficial it would be for me to have the opportunity to work with an entrepreneur or someone in business, as this is the field I hope to enter one day. Being in a classroom is great in some aspects, and there is a lot to be learned from reading textbooks and participating in class discussions. However, actually going out and doing work in the world is an experience I personally want more of as a student and one I think needs to be more standard in colleges.
Mary Elizabeth Silliman, of the Class of 2018, is from Orlando, Fla.
“Why Is Project-Based Learning Important?” Edutopia. http:/ jwww.edutopia.orgjproject-based-learning-guideimportance
Von Hassell: How Not to Graduate College in Three Years
by Christian von Hassell
I am someone who gets anxious in the classroom. So, last summer, just before I started my junior year at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, I decided that this year would be my last. After a very, very busy year, I have slowly come to realize how incredibly ill-suited I was to graduate in three years.
When told myself I was going to finish up in three years, I was plainly on track to finish in four. I had been taking a regular course load at W&L. I did not have a bunch of extra credits from summer school or AP courses. I had procrastinated on graduation requirements like a lab science and PE courses.
Now, it is late May, and I am finishing up my last week of college. Thankfully, I was arrogant enough to embark on this plan without first doing the math and stubborn enough to continue moving forward when I truly had no idea how it all would work out. I have benefited tremendously from supportive administrators and professors – and would have long since flopped without their help. However, in the beginning I knew that my plan would look like insanity, so I remained shrewdly mute on my intentions until I had already made substantial progress.
As I comprehend how poorly positioned I was to finish up in three years, I increasingly believe that it would be a challenging but very manageable goal for motivated students who plan correctly. I think many students do not fully comprehend that – with AP credits, summer courses, and just little bit of extra work during the school year – they could finish up in three years as well.
For many, a three-year degree is wholly desirable. It saves money and – more importantly – time. Even at schools like W&L that offer considerable financial aid, the opportunity cost of spending an extra year in college often materially outshines the fees themselves.
Moreover, W&L charges by the semester, rather than the credit. Students who take double the typical course load are responsible for the same tuition as everyone else. This makes graduating in three years much cheaper for the student – though ultimately unsustainable for the university. Schools that charge by the credit could more easily manage swaths of three-year degree students. Students would not receive the same financial windfall from accelerating their studies, yet they still would benefit tremendously from shaving off one year of forgone wages.
I do wonder what students lose by shaving off the fourth year. Through the Venture Club at W&L, I ended up spending a considerable amount of my time working with entrepreneurs – helping them write their first business plan, build their company’s first financial model, or just talk through a new idea. I bring this up because this sort of experiential, out-of-the-classroom learning probably would be hurt if students are rushing to pursue their degree. And, in many ways, that sort of learning can prove more essential to a complete education than more traditional courses. If students need to take 7 classes, they will have less time to devote to research, study-abroad, clubs, internships, and other extra-curricular projects.
I have been talking about squeezing a four-year degree into to three years. I am confident that most students could achieve this, especially if they planned on doing so from the very beginning. However, if we are just trying to get students through college in three years, universities also could reduce their requirements, maybe following curricula more similar to English universities. Such a shift would undoubtedly provoke chaos with accreditation boards, and probably could only successfully arise from a widespread national movement to speed up college.
In the meantime, colleges and universities have a tremendous opportunity for differentiation. Without abbreviating its curriculum, a school could propose a clear track toward fulfilling four years of requirements in just three. This could include more lenient acceptance of AP credit, increased availability of summer courses, and general institutional endorsement of a three-year track. Dartmouth – whose D-Plan divides the entire calendar year into four equal academic terms – would be particularly well equipped to launch such a plan. That would surely bring a welcome headline for their communications’ office.
Christian von Hassell, of the Class of 2016, is from Orange, Va.
Granirer: Diversifying Admissions
by Jonathan Granirer
The collegiate admissions process has been receiving much attention in recent years, and despite many attempted reforms, one of the most glaring issues has remained largely untouched -the fact that socioeconomic diversity remains unchanged at many top institutions. The rich greatly outnumber the poor at highly-selective universities, and this is antithesis to the American dream. Top colleges have a shockingly low number of Pell recipients, especially when compared with lower level ones; and if education is to truly become an equal opportunity for all, this needs to change. Not only colleges, but high schools too need to create a new system for bringing low income competitive students into the education system.
One of the biggest reasons that top schools have such a disproportionate number of wealthy students is due to the way they weight admissions. ..Jt seems that having legacy status gives some priority in admissions, as revealed in a 2003 report that discovered that 40% of legacy applicants were admitted to Harvard, whereas the admissions rate for non-legacy students was 11% (Bruenig). This sort of preferential treatment creates a dynastic system, where it is easier for the rich to get richer as their family name earns more power over generations. Across all Ivy Leagues as well, it is estimated that around 30% of all students are legacies. Poorer students are at an incredible disadvantage already due to their lesser level of preparation, and systems like these that automatically favor the wealthy make it even tougher. The rich children have always been tutored and prepared and have the financial backing from their families, so it is completely unfair to also give them an advantage by birth. A major reason that schools give preference to legacies is because their parents are often rich alumnus who give generous donations to the school, and these donations help to support many programs, including financial aid for poorer students. Unfortunately, this creates an enormous problem for schools, as they need the donation money from alumnus but then feel obligated to accept the legacy students despite the unfair advantage. This problem does not have a total solution, but small steps can be made.
Another huge problem is the failure of many schools to provide proper information about higher education. Starting in high school, many of the lower tier and poorer schools have an inadequate system of counseling that completely fails to inform potentially competitive students of possible outcomes. Now, only 50% of potentially competitive Hispanic students even apply to college, and this is unacceptable. Poorer schools and students need to be taught earlier that they can have the option to attend a top school. Colleges, too, need to make more of an effort to seek out and make contact with poorer students who could potentially thrive at their school. A barrier to many poorer students is that the cost of college is so high, and many think that they would never even be able to afford college, so they don’t bother applying in the first place. If top tier colleges developed an effective outreach program, they could certainly reach out to many students and bring in a whole new group of people who normally would not have even dreamed of entering a highly ranked institution. While schools could not pay for all of the needs of poorer students, they could at least be more transparent about the cost and maybe even offer loans with lower interest rates for those in a lower socioeconomic bracket. I was lucky enough to attend an excellent public high school where all of the counselors were extremely helpful and encouraging in everything college related, and it felt like the purpose of this school was to prepare for moving on to college. There was even a point in my senior English class where we dedicated a week to learning how to write college admissions essays. This is not the same at many schools, however. Many schools in poor areas lack these resources, and students are unprepared to move on to higher education, so they finish after high school and enter the work force as low level grunts. Maybe a lucky few will move on to trade or vocational school and have better lives, but the ones who tried the hardest and got the best grades may simply _got lost in the crowd and lose their chance to expand their horizons.
One of the reforms that has to be implemented here is for colleges to set a cap on legacy students. While this may not be a perfect solution, it will at least give more opportunities for less lucky students. One student should not have an advantage over another for something they had absolutely no control over. Rich alumnus should not be able to pave the road for their children at a prestigious institution as if it was some sort of birthright. All students should be considered completely new to the college, and as such the decision of who will be accepted will become much fairer. Furthermore, all high schools need to send information about all of their students above a certain GPA to colleges, and a standardized system of high school counseling needs to be implemented. This will help all competitive students look at more options, and a specific set of college help mandated by counselors could help unlikely candidates move on to higher education. If a poor student with fantastic grades can be noticed through this system, it could be absolutely life changing. A whole new generation of low-income students could be exposed to higher education, and as such a more diverse workforce could be created. America would move closer to the dream of being a nation where anyone can go to college and create an amazing life, regardless of race, sex, or socioeconomic status.
Jonathan Granirer, of the Class of 2018, is from Oak Park, Calif.
Bruenig, Elizabeth Stoker. “The 1 Percent’s Ivy League Loophole.” Saloncom RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2015.