With more students than ever before seeking a Denison education (almost 5,200 applications for 585 places in the Class of 2011) and with a historic commitment to treat students as individuals rather than as numbers, Denison is in a position to offer students some application options. This year and in the years just ahead, most students, we expect, will continue to submit an SAT or ACT score as part of their application for admission. Others, however, will choose to submit alternate materials that prove they’re of Denison quality. Our standards for admission are high and trending higher, but we are among a select group of top national colleges saying that one size does not fit all in admissions. Denison was the first liberal arts college in Ohio to adopt this approach, and some of our peer institutions have endorsed our decision by following the same course.
As we reconsider how we evaluate aspiring Denisonians, the college also has taken a fresh approach to how it and other institutions are represented to prospective students and the general public. I refer, of course, to those rankings that were devised to sell magazines and that now face a growing chorus of public challenges by higher education leaders. I’m proud to share that on Denison’s behalf, I was one of the earliest signers of a public declaration by a non-profit reform group called the Education Conservancy pledging that Denison would not participate in misleading “reputational” surveys nor advertise our institution by touting our “ranking.” Why do it? Because the most well known ranking schemes are wrong—wrong in methodology and wrong-headed in conveying the notion that young people can make the best college match by drawing from a list.
Which colleges are in the best position to challenge these simplistic ranking schemes? Why, those—like Denison—that have no axe to grind because their “rank,” according to these publications, is consistently high. Accordingly, I will be among several dozen higher education leaders meeting at Yale University this fall to talk frankly about how we might better convey information of value to students and their families so that they can make good college choices. As president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, I’ll have the opportunity to share some of the ideas that Denison and several of its regional sister institutions already have developed. We know that students and families want transparency from colleges, and so Denison is also a charter participant in the National Association of Independent Colleges’ new system to provide comparable information about several hundred colleges and universities, accessible at members.ucan-network.org.
Although American higher education receives its share of public criticism, as a “system” we remain the envy of the world. I was reminded of that last winter when I joined a handful of other American liberal arts college presidents at Oxford University to meet with a comparable group of presidents, rectors, and vice-chancellors of the growing number of American-style liberal arts institutions in Europe and the Middle East. Some of these institutions are venerable and well-known, like the American University of Cairo. Others are comparatively new but exhibiting strength, like John Cabot College in Italy, Franklin College in Switzerland, or the American University of Bulgaria. Each represents a departure from the traditions of British and Continental-style higher education that feature more narrowly-tailored preprofessional undergraduate education and a movement toward the liberal arts education familiar to all Denisonians and so well suited to preparing young people for a dynamic world and evolving careers.
Out of the meeting at Oxford grew a memorandum of agreement that, over time, may allow for the sharing of students, faculty, and staff across national and continental boundaries. It’s happening already. The American University of Cairo has just asked Denison Director of Athletics Larry Scheiderer to come and share advice on the creation of programs in physical education, athletics, and recreation. During my current term as GLCA president, I hope to advance the participation of all of our GLCA membership in this international initiative.
Denison is a proud member of NCAA Division III, the “nonscholarship” division of the nation’s largest inter-collegiate athletic association. In fact, we’re a founding member of the division, just as we were one of the three dozen founding members of the NCAA itself in 1906. Today, Denison is at the heart of conversations about the values of the division and of its future. A value dear to us at Denison is that student athletes are first and foremost students who owe their primary attention to academic achievement and who are owed by the college respect for their efforts to get the most out of all aspects of their education. But Division III today is by far the largest division of the NCAA, with members that have as few as a couple hundred students to as many as 30,000 and with a wide range of outlooks on the role of athletics in college life, and this has made the division difficult to manage.
In recent years, as president of the North Coast Athletic Conference, as a member of the Presidents’ Council which guides NCAA Division III, and as a participant in NCAA’s strategic planning and divisional structure task forces, I’ve had the opportunity to bring Denison’s perspective to bear upon the conversations taking place at the national level about how best to structure the NCAA to meet the needs of colleges like Denison and Kenyon, Dickinson and Gettysburg, Grinnell and Beloit (just to pick a few that share our outlook and concerns). The greatest temptation is to follow Division I universities into longer and longer playing seasons, year-round practices, and special treatment for athletes that separates them from other students. Denison is playing a visible and respected role in working for the preservation of some of the most important values in the Division III tradition.
Speaking of values and leadership, both have played central roles in the college’s involvement with the national “Posse” program. In fact, among the 28 colleges and universities participating in Posse, Denison is one of just six institutions working with two different Posse Centers (in our case, Chicago and Boston) and enrolling 70 Posse Scholars (80 next year when the fourth Boston Posse arrives). Posse is an extraordinary program that works with high school teachers and counselors from urban areas to identify young men and women who show promise as scholars and leaders, but would be unlikely to make a match with a leading college or university on their own. Once a posse of ten students is formed in the senior year of high school and admitted to a partner college, participants work together with skilled counselors through graduation to build teamwork skills, develop group esprit de corps, and grow in understanding of how to navigate the environment of a residential liberal arts college. After they arrive at Denison, Posse students melt into the student body but they know who one another are and they can count on each other to provide friendly support in the face of college challenges. I’m happy to report that at Denison Posse participants are faring very well, routinely graduating 90 to 100 percent of their members. Recruited to be leaders, students who come to the college through Posse can be found heading up student organizations, serving as residence hall staff, and participating in student governance. They take up the challenge of off-campus study, independent research, and career-formative internships. Several have been selected in national competitions to be named McNair Scholars and offered the opportunity to join summer research teams at major research universities. Posse is a big commitment for Denison. Typically, participants qualify for full tuition financial aid, and the college helps support the Posse centers in Boston and Chicago. And in return, Posse has broadened Denison’s reach and impact and brought to us remarkable women and men.
Denison’s leadership in Posse has not gone unnoticed. This fall, I’ll attend a gathering of college and university presidents in New York sponsored by the investment firm of Goldman Sachs to discuss how we can build upon Posse’s strengths. Employers in all sectors have taken an interest in this program and its graduates because they, too, want to identify new pools of educated, talented young people.
In mid-October, Denison will host a symposium in honor of Bill Bowen ’55, former president of Princeton University and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and in gratitude for the exceptional gift to Denison made by the Mellon Foundation to recognize Bill and Mary Ellen Bowen ’55. Fittingly, the topic of the symposium is “Equity and Excellence in Liberal Arts Education,” a key theme in Dr. Bowen’s own scholarship, and will feature presentations by Dr. Michael McPherson, an economist and president of the Spencer Foundation, Dr. Debra Bial, founder of the Posse Foundation, and Dr. Sylvia Hurtado, executive director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to moderate such an important conversation by these important figures in contemporary higher education leadership.
Several years ago, we asked an accomplished Mid-western folk artist to carve a unique academic mace for Denison. Academic maces are an ancient tradition in higher education and originally represented the stature of the faculty as a self-governing corporation. Over time, they came to represent the autonomy of colleges and universities themselves. Denison’s mace, carried in academic processions by the chairperson of the faculty, portrays in walnut and silver the theme “rooted at Denison, branches to the world,” representing Denison’s sons and daughters, who have made a difference in the world as students and graduates. But it also captures the essence of our historic college, operating for 176 years in the arena of national and international higher education—and truly making a difference.