Letting Go and Keeping Weird

I’ve had my finger hovering over the send button of an irritated email addressed to the Alumni Office at my alma mater, Wesleyan University, for about two weeks now. The main reason I don’t send it is that I would be equally annoyed to be the recipient of a similar email from an alumnus of my own institution, Swarthmore College.

It’s really hard to accept change in an institution that you cherished as it was. (Yet more declension narratives!) If alumni have a useful role, in fact, it’s as guardians of the essential traditions and values of their own institution.

“Essential” is the tricky thing here. No college or university in the United States is anything like what it was seventy-five years ago. In the early 20th Century, most private universities and colleges were far more strongly tied to a religious denomination. They were shabbily genteel places that educated a small fraction of a social elite. They were nothing like the multimillion dollar institutions that inspire dread and frenzy among high school juniors and their parents every spring.

The stereotypical personalities that most individual colleges and universities are known for today came together fairly recently, partly invented or distilled by the first generation of consultants, guides and counselors who appeared as a byproduct of the growing selectivity and centrality of higher education after 1960.

I think most selective colleges and universities today feel some ambivalence about their reputational brand. Swarthmore is sometimes uneasy about its reputation for seriousness, over-intellectualism and masochism, for example. The stronger your perceived niche or character, the more it limits the pool of potential applicants and matriculants. Moreover, the institution’s personality can become more and more exaggerated as it attracts more and more of the same kind of prospective student.

When I was looking as a prospective college student in the early 1980s, I was sure of a few things. I wanted to be in a small college rather than a large university. I wanted to be on the East Coast, largely because of my Californian-derived romantic (and mostly inaccurate) conception of the East Coast. Other than that, I was fairly open to the possibilities. Like many teenagers on their college tour, I let my impressionistic reaction to each place guide my later decisions. I liked the look and feel of Wesleyan, and I liked my interviewer. (I hated my interviewer at Swarthmore: he was a supercilious jerk.) What I also liked at Wesleyan was a vague, funky sense of weirdness and eccentricity.

Hence my not-sent email. A short item about Wesleyan in the New York Times talked about the college in relationship to Obama’s commencement speech there. (He managed to refer to Wesleyan as Wellesley, which happens a lot.) Along with Obama’s speech, Wesleyan has been in the news lately for a near-riot that laid bare some long-standing town-gown tensions around the university. But what caught my eye was the discussion of the administration’s attempts to “mainstream” Wesleyan’s institutional culture, in part by insisting that some long-standing student traditions be renamed.

I lived for two years in West College, the epicenter of this pressure for change. We had two big dorm parties called Zonker Harris Day and Uncle Duke Day, both of which involved 80s college students re-enacting their impressionistic understanding of 60s counterculture, the drugs and rock-and-roll parts. It wasn’t just these two days: the whole dorm had a cheerfully weird feeling to it most of the time. I liked it, though once I got there, I realized I was personally pretty square in a lot of ways.

It seems entirely possible to me that this schtick has gone well past its expiration date. But when administrators and faculty get involved in trying to rebrand the institution, including scuffing over names and associations that interfere with the image they’re trying to communicate, that’s usually a problem.

It’s okay to try and remind your applicants and public that there’s more to your institution than its most exaggerated reputation. Not all or even many Swarthmore students are overintellectualized masochists who play misery poker and complain that anywhere else it would have been an A. Even in the 1980s, relatively few Wesleyan students were the kind who wished they’d been in Chicago in 1968.

If something is really past its expiration date, though, then the current participants will rename it themselves, or give it up, even despite pressure from alumni attached to the good old days. If some day Swarthmore students decided that the annual event Screw Your Roomate was stupid or irrelevant, they’d stop doing it. Current Swarthmore students did decide to rename a long-running student interest group dedicated to games, science fiction, geek culture.

Here I’m not speaking as an alumnus or a professor. This is my general position on cultural change within long-lived institutions. When the change comes from the top as a dictate, that’s usually a counterproductive mistake that can have perverse and unintended consequences. (Among them in this case is that Wesleyan might become a bland safety school, that the students attracted by a weirder Wesleyan are a highly desirable fraction of its student body.)

But I don’t think I’ll press the send button on that email, because I equally think that the cultural life of a college or university isn’t something for alumni to try and micromanage.

After all, we’ll always have West College.

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9 Responses to Letting Go and Keeping Weird

  1. hwc says:

    From a marketing standpoint, the biggest risk to a liberal arts college is to NOT have a firmly established brand or personality. Wesleyan should be thankful it has one.

    One minor quibble: You may be right about Wesleyan, but Swarthmore’s brand was established before the 1960s. I think you have to go back to the 1920’s when Frank Aydelotte started the Honors program. Winning the College Bowl geek game show series on national TV in the 1950s probably helped a bit. By the 1960’s Swarthmore was already well established as an academic powerhouse.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, that’s right. But I think there’s a more specific version of that reputation that’s developed since 1960 that’s more than “academic powerhouse”.

  3. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    As a mid -eighties Wesleyan grad (one who was in sympathy with Chicago ’68 even if my own politics were less mechanically Marxist than Weatherman and my style a bit more SF punk), I am struck by that fact that me and my friends were always convinced that the administration was engaged in a conspiracy to change the reputation of the school in order to diffuse political activism on campus. In an odd way, that they are still trying my be a sign of continuity as much as change!

    However, I urge you to send that email: after all, annoying the administration has always been part of the goal of campus politics. Were you at Wesleyan when someone (maybe it was two people?) decided that the way to get the administration to pay attention to issues of date rape was to leaflet campus tours of prospective students and their parents with an estimate of how many rapes occurred on campus every year (taking into account that 90% of them were likely unreported)?

  4. Western Dave says:

    The switch from SWIL to Psi Phi is brilliant, just brilliant.

  5. Seth says:

    At least Wesleyan is still going strong! As a huge shock to community members past and present, Antioch College (my alma mater and another famously “post hippie” institution) is closing down this year partly because of their ability to “rebrand” themselves and secure enough funding through enrollment, alumni, and the larger University that it is tied to.

    Sometimes I think Swarthmore does a better job promoting it’s identity to alumni and peer institutions than it does to prospective students. I, too, was turned off by the stuffy and overly competitive atmosphere I detected during my visit and interviews, but after working at the college for the past nine years I have come to realize I would have had the same education and freedom at Swarthmore as I did at Antioch.

  6. hwc says:

    The only fundamental change in Swarthmore’s brand since the 1960s that I can detect is the massive commitment to diversity. While that fits with Swarthmore’s brand, it’s also a function of the times. Most elite northeast colleges and universities have undertaken the same kind of diversity efforts over the same time frame, some more successfully than others. Swarthmore has the money to do it

    Otherwise, I can’t find anything about the Swarthmore culture that really differs from other points in its history.

    As for “marketing”, I think Swarthmore does an excellent – and, more importantly, honest – job in selling itself to prospective students. What you see is what you get. For the most part, the students who choose Swarthmore buy into the Swarthmore ethos, which is, ultimately, the mark of an admissions office doing a good job.

  7. Doug says:

    As a Sewanee alum, I can sympathize with this post, though probably not in any really coherent fashion. “Essential traditions” indeed: The canonical answer to how many Sewanee students it takes to change a light bulb is “Change?!?!” Students apparently voted against abolishing Saturday classes in 1974 (!). On the other hand, it is reliably reported (at least as reliably as anything else regarding undergrad legends) that a key reason for wanting to keep Saturday classes was that they gave rise to “study days” (no classes) on various weekdays during the semester, and the pre-study day parties were usually the best. The echo of Saturday classes persisted into the 1990s, when standard classes were either MWFTT or TTMWF. That is, they met three times one week followed by two the next, or vice versa. That had been the university’s solution to changing classes out of the MWF/TTS pairing.

    Prodigious fundraising since an existential scare (late 1970s, early 1980s, I think) has meant that Sewanee has shed its “shabby genteel” while retaining its denominational ties and its narrow section of a social elite. (I got in on scholarship and was definitely one of the weirder ones.) And there is a certain sense of humor about the overwhelmingly conservative nature of the place; while no one could really fight the T word, it was also commonly said that doing something twice meant that you could proclaim it a Tradition.

    Even at the time, I cherished its distinctive culture. You’d never mistake it for anywhere else. But these challenges — “The stronger your perceived niche or character, the more it limits the pool of potential applicants and matriculants. Moreover, the institution’s personality can become more and more exaggerated as it attracts more and more of the same kind of prospective student.” — Sewanee has in spades. No silver lining without its attendant cloud, I suppose.

    As for top-mandated change, I’m reminded of a letter to Ann Landers many moons ago. A parent of a prospective Princeton (I think) student had heard about a tradition of running around outside naked after the first snowfall. The parent was predictably appalled, and Ann wrote a dean at the school to inquire. He said (I paraphrase) that yes, the stories were true; no, the administration didn’t think it was particularly scholarly; and if she knew a way to keep sophomores from acting sophomorically, he was all ears.

  8. nord says:

    Well US News has been a blessing and a curse to the elite colleges. Great publicity, increase in applications, admission statistics of all sorts, but in also smoothing out a lot of the lumps/differences among the elite institutions. The avg. applicant seems to put Amherst, Williams and Swarthmore in the same category, “top 3”, whereas an older generation might view them as having more differences. Among institutions in a certain athletic league, the changes are even more extreme. Good for ithaca, providence and west philly, but at the margin a negative for Williamsburg, Charlottesville, and Evanston.

  9. hwc says:

    “But I think there’s a more specific version of that reputation that’s developed since 1960 that’s more than “academic powerhouse”.”


    You left us hanging! I’m really curious to hear what someone as intimately involved in Swarthmore and keenly observant as you meant by this. I think I could guess where you are probably going, but could be always be surprised. I’m a bit stumped to come up with something that doesn’t echo some prior Swarthmore history from Lucretia Mott’s radicalism to Alice Paul’s activism to Carl Levin’s “ethical intelligence” in delivering anti-McCarthy petitions.

    I’ll throw my own surprise on the table. I would argue that Swarthmore has a fundamentally conservative culture, not in political leanings, but in a decidedly “old-school” approach to community, values, and learning.

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