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.