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How higher ed has changed. And how it hasn’t.

On his 50th reunion, Richard Brodhead—past Yale student, professor, and dean—looks back.

Here’s a funny story. I attended Yale College in the Class of 1968. After I graduated, I continued on at Yale in the PhD program in English, and to supplement my meager income, I took a bartending course that made me eligible to work university functions. My first gig took me to the backyard of the president’s house to tend bar for the Class of 1919’s 50th reunion.

What is vivid to me now is the utter lack of curiosity I felt about those aged fellows. It never occurred to me to ask what it had been like to have gone to college during World War I, then to have lived through the roaring ’20s and the Great Depression, the rise of European fascism, a second world war, the emergence of the United States as the dominant world economy and guarantor of global order, then the fraying of American moral authority that was well begun by 1969. When I looked at those people, who all seemed identical in my eyes, I saw only that they were very, very old—far older than I had any intention of becoming—and almost unthinkably old-school, relics of a Yale from before the flood.

This May it will be my turn to celebrate my 50th reunion, and the tables will be turned. Born at the high-water mark of American preeminence and reared in the golden age of rock music, members of my class are endowed with a self-esteem that history has done little to diminish—not least, the certainty that we are still quite cool and young. This may not be obvious, however, to student bartenders from the Yale Class of 2018, to whom we will seem the “old school” personified. Some years back I stopped mentioning to students that I had gone to Yale when it was all male, since this fact is almost literally inconceivable to modern minds. I never told anyone that I went to a college where men wore coats and ties. I might as well have confessed that I had been in the Yale Class of 1919.

But the real distinction of my class is that we attended an old school in the throes of transformation into a new one.

A reader of Jerome Karabel’s (’72) history of elite college admissions, The Chosen, will learn things I was oblivious to at the time. Karabel documents that in the early 1960s, Yale was thought to be the most backward looking and inbred of the top universities, late to lift informal admissions quotas and seek out candidates at superacademic public high schools. Yale still had a preponderance of students from private schools, after the private-public ratio had flipped at Harvard and even Princeton. Yale also had more students from families who could pay their way.

Yale’s perceived academic slippage led a faculty committee on admissions policy to propose greater emphasis on academic aptitude. Its report, endorsed by the Yale Corporation in 1962, was somewhat half-heartedly implemented by President A. Whitney Griswold and his admissions director Arthur Howe. But when Griswold died in April 1963, the matter fell into the hands of an enthusiast for changed standards: then-provost Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41, who became president in the fall. Brewster understood that to make the school accessible to the most talented, Yale also needed a new approach to financial aid.

During Brewster’s first year as president, the undergraduate admissions office began enacting the new policies in greater earnest, such that new guidelines were being installed just when our applications were being read. Through this confluence of events, the class that entered Yale in September 1964 was the first in history to include more students from public than from private schools. While 35 percent of those entering in 1963 received financial aid, in 1964 the number grew to 41 percent.

Once these changes had begun, the door was open to others. While we were sophomores, Yale became the first university to implement truly need-blind admissions. Entering students with need-based aid crossed the 50 percent line in 1966. As these internal changes interacted with the ascendancy of the civil rights movement—it’s worth remembering that Brewster helped secure an honorary degree for Martin Luther King the year before we arrived, and that a race riot burned much of New Haven in the summer of 1967—Yale would go from a laggard to a leader in the recruitment of black students. And though women were still not admitted in our day, during our four years Yale changed from a place that was self-evidently for men only to one where the exclusion of women seemed increasingly indefensible. Five months after we graduated, Yale announced that it would admit women undergraduates.

Clearly, my Yale education put deep marks on me. Thanks to my college experience, I only ever wanted to be a professor. Having had my eyes opened to American literature by R. W. B. Lewis in English 56, I became a professor of American literature. But the deepest thing these years did was to take a young mind for whom a certain given world seemed right and good and subject it to the amazing discovery that totally different things could be believed, valued, and even brought to pass. Learning how to live one’s way deep inside one constructed world (whether literary or cultural) while maintaining some capacity to distance oneself from it, to question it, and to test it against alternatives—this has been my “deep” career from 1968 to the present.

No one in 1968 could have imagined what the upper echelons of American higher education would become in the next 50 years: the expansion of funded research; the massive campus building programs; the increasingly international scope; the desperate premium parents and students now place on admission to elite schools; not least, the role played by endowments and philanthropic giving, developments still in their infancy in 1968.

These are new facts of life, and like all university leaders I have learned them backward and forward. But many of the hardest issues that confront people in my line of work date back to my own college years. We lived through a fresh asking of the questions, who are elite colleges designed to serve, and how can their opportunities be made accessible to that range of talent? Top universities still struggle with these questions even as the social context continues to evolve.

I have spent a fair bit of my recent life raising endowment funds for financial aid. Need-blind admissions is a very expensive proposition, especially if one is not at an old school with a long-accrued endowment. But nowadays, affordability is not the only issue. By the time the Class of 1968 applied to college, this country had lived through two or three decades of decreasing disparities of family income and educational attainment. Brewster’s admissions reforms had as their deepest context the postwar rise of the American middle class.

Since the 1980s, these once-converging lines have been moving in the opposite direction, which changes the shape of the problem. Because high-income families hyper-invest in educational opportunities for their children practically from birth, wealth now tends to correlate not with gentlemanly indifference to academic striving but with massive pre-collegiate preparation. The link of income to college preparation is one reason why select universities still take a large share of their students from upper-income families. 

As an unintended result, universities that are need-blind by policy are still perceived by much of the population as places where the rich are at home and others would not be. A challenge for college admissions in 2018 is convincing talented men and women from lower economic strata that a Duke or a Yale is actually for them.

 

With a more heterogeneous campus community and with all the pressures our fragmented and contentious society puts on social differences, it’s no wonder that universities are sites of controversy. I started brooding on this essay while visiting Middlebury, a beautifully pastoral college that recently landed in the headlines for a free speech fracas. While I was there, national attention was riveted on the white supremacy rally and its aftermath at the University of Virginia. Yale has had its day as the ground zero of social controversy. Duke has as well.

My experience has taught me that campus turmoil is not some malign recent development. Controversy in its modern forms came to college campuses when they opened their doors to the fuller representation of American society. The year after I bartended for the Class of 1919, during my first outing as a college teacher (as a teaching assistant), Yale was closed down by protests over the Black Panther trial. During my assistant professor days, the campus was repeatedly rocked by provocative invitations to General Westmoreland to speak at Yale, with crowds gathered to assure that he could not. I remember when President Bart Giamatti ’60, ’64PhD, was pushed to the ground during a protest over South African apartheid. I do not take these occasions lightly. But it helps to remember that controversy is not an aberration in the history of higher education, and can be a means to education.

Which leads to one last thought. From a distance, it is possible to have high confidence that one knows exactly what is going on at universities, and the news is seldom good. But anyone who has lived both sides of the story will recognize the partiality of media reports. Many years ago, I asked a New York Times education correspondent why journalists never reported on good things happening at universities. She looked at me as if I were an idiot. She replied with no trace of irony: “If it doesn’t have a plotline of scandal or civil war, it isn’t a story.”

Disputes at contemporary universities may be news, but they almost never tell the central story. Having lived on university campuses for 50 years and more, whatever distractions or discouragements I have experienced, I have had daily access to the mystery that makes universities inspiring places. This is the endlessly repeated process by which young people encounter a teacher, or a classmate, or a campus speaker, or a book that helps them see something they never saw before, opening their minds to new knowledge and the chance to reassess what they took for true.

The who, the what, the where, and the how have changed, but the why of higher education is not so different after 50 years. Awakening young people to their world and their powers is what universities exist to do.

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