COLUMNS

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April 27, 2012

A question of character

Holding open dialogue can reconcile the College’s changing recruiting approach with its core values.

Last week, the University was swarming with prospective students. They were bright and eager to explore campus, but, at the same time, they experienced a hint of apprehension. As high school students, they had little idea how they might fit into the greater University community. Prospective student weekend was more than just a chance to tour the quad and party in Alpha Delt’s basement—it was the main opportunity for prospies to decide if the U of C is the right place for them to spend their next four years.

It is therefore logical to conclude that it was a critical moment for the University. Administrators seemed to think so; campus security was beefed up and the dining halls noticeably increased the quality of their offerings. However, I would argue that the impact that any Prospective Student Weekend will have on the character of our student body will turn out to be fairly small in comparison to that of another event: the hiring of Dean of Admissions James Nondorf.

The hiring of Nondorf is part of a trend, one of a number of like-minded reforms orchestrated by Administrators. These changes are being spearheaded by President Robert Zimmer, Chairman of the Board Andrew Alper, and Dean of the College John Boyer, and constitute a veritable renaissance for the entire University. These administrators have been involved in major efforts to make the University more enticing for prospective students and as attractive an option as its peers. Efforts to improve social and retail offerings around Hyde Park and to increase neighborhood security have been most prominent, but the movement has been broader in scope. Even within the College, adjustments have been drastic. Changes like the reformation of Core requirements and the launch of “Chicago Careers In…” programs have improved the student experience markedly. Some applaud this shift, but others see it as the University moving in the wrong direction. I believe the issue is far too complex to easily distill.

But the most important change for the College was undoubtedly Nondorf’s ascension to the top admissions post, because his office ultimately has the greatest say in determining the character of the student body. Admissions officers are not simply selecting the candidates with the highest GPAs and SAT scores; they are choosing students they think are “right” for the University. As the top admissions official, Nondorf is the one who ultimately defines what is “right”.

For the record, I think his office has done an exceptional job. The Classes of 2014 and 2015 contain some of the brightest, most motivated people I have ever met. But I also believe that these students are fundamentally “different” than others that have attended this University.

Though these differences are hard to describe empirically, I would say that Nondorf has shifted recruiting to favor students who are, above all, pragmatic. Though they still partake in the intellectual character of this university, these students have interests that lie primarily outside the classroom. I think this assertion is supported by the proliferation of community service organizations, investment clubs, student-run consulting firms, mentoring associations, and advocacy groups on campus. Rapidly increasing participation in the Metcalf Internship program and the genesis of very hands-on classes like campusCatalyst send a similar message. Of course, the University has always had these types of co-curricular activities, but interest in them has ballooned since Nondorf’s first class was admitted.

On the other hand, the rest of the University maintains its intellectualism. The Core is still almost entirely an exercise in abstraction. By and large, professors view grades as a necessary annoyance standing in the way of greater understanding. Social contract theory continues to be discussed and students still collectively effervesce over the works of Durkheim. The ‘life of the mind’ is alive and well. But the implications that the arrival of “new” U of C students may have for this philosophy are massive. As the student body becomes more grounded, so to speak, it will become increasingly frustrated with these very abstract concepts. The once beloved Core will slowly be transformed in the eyes of the student body into an outmoded relic. The quest for greater understanding, which for so long was the integral focus of this institution, will slip into the background.

It is certainly not the case that the University is recruiting less intelligent students. In fact, I believe the opposite to be true. Instead, Nondorf’s policies are attracting more students who are fundamentally not interested in purely academic challenges, something which is unprecedented for this university.

There are certainly members of the University community that bemoan this process. They fear that the University is losing touch with its heritage and treat the word “pre-professional” like a vulgarity. There are others that don’t think the process is working fast enough. Thus far, I have chosen my wording very carefully in order avoid favoring one side or the other. For me, assigning value to this shift is as fruitless as cursing the waves coming in from Lake Michigan.

Instead, the University should focus on how it will approach this shift. Something that would help immensely is a more open dialogue between the Admissions Office, the Administration, and faculty about what kind of student the University truly wants to attract. With a better idea of recruiting goals, all members of the community can get a grasp on the future of this institution. A clearer explanation would help faculty and staff connect with students more effectively. I believe that the real question is not whether the University should undergo this shift, but instead how the University can make this transition in the smoothest possible fashion.

Taylor Schwimmer is a second-year in the College majoring in public policy studies.

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