A People's History of Middlebury College

a history of Middlebury College centered on marginalized voices, social/political mobilizations, and periods of struggle

A People's History of Middlebury College

Stanley Wright Begins Recruiting Underperforming, Wealthy Students

In what David Stameshkin considers “the start of the making Middlebury College an elite institution,” Dean of Admissions Stanley Wright begins recruiting under-performing, wealthy male students in 1947. President Samuel Stratton chose Wright for this mission, which had institutional precedent, and had strong economic and ideological motivations. President Thomas first tried to attract wealthy students in 1908 with the construction of the luxurious Hepburn Hall. After World War II, costs at Middlebury were rising, and insufficient rise in revenues led to a lack of funds for scholarships. There was also a dearth of strong male candidates for admission, but too many strong female candidates. In fact, the school’s policy of rejecting “so many women” caused complaints from schools and parents. However, the school avoided admitting more women, as the administration and the public feared that the closer the school came to a 50/50 men/women ratio, the more likely it was that Middlebury would become a college strictly for women. To increase revenue, Stratton pursued a two-fold strategy. 11 years prior, perhaps to prepare for admitting students from preparatory schools, with less-than-satisfactory academic records, one of Wright’s predecessors, E.J. Wiley, changed Middlebury’s admission requirements to take extracurricular activities and a more holistic report from high school principals, rather than a strict record of academic attainment. This choice may have privileged students whose schools could afford a wide variety of extracurricular students and whose principals could afford the time to give more detailed reports. Stratton wanted Wright to recruit more wealthy male students, so Wright visited 164 different high schools in the 1950-51 academic year, almost tripling the 67 he visited in 1949-50. These schools were not located only in the Northeast, but included some in the Midwest and West, to reflect the shift of the geographic center of America’s economic power. At first the numbers of academically inferior male students increased, with some appearing at Middlebury “only briefly” before failing out, and the dropout rate more than doubled from 1948-49 to 1949-50, from 3.9% to 8.8%, and Stratton admits that this caused faculty to “seriously question our admission standards,” widening the difference in opinion between faculty and Stratton, which originated in Stratton’s refusal to negotiate with the newly-formed Middlebury chapter of the AAUP in 1947. Furthermore, freshman grade averages declined from around 77 to 72 from 1947 to 1953. However, Stratton admits in 1951 in his Presidential Report that this is a “problem,” in stark contrast to his confrontational stance in his report to the trustees in 1947, in which he labels concerned faculty as “militant.”

Stratton and Wright had an objective beyond merely trading academic average for money with this move. They hoped to open avenues between Middlebury and many prep schools, with “better men enrolled in later years.” And, the second part of Stratton’s strategy was to raise tuition, which went from $650 in 1953-54 to $1,400 in 1962-63. The influx of money would fund scholarships for poor but academically strong male applicants. As tuition rose, the amount of money awarded in scholarships and financial aid rose from $80,000 to $210,000 between 1953 and 1963. The distribution of this aid was subject to strong gender bias: in the 1957-58 academic year, men received $29,500 in financial aid while women received a little over $10,000. As mentioned above, this was due to patriarchal concerns about the viability of Middlebury College for men, as the administration valued male enrollment over female. To speak briefly of ideological influence, Stratton’s take on Middlebury’s student body underwent a slight shift in tone between 1947 and 1951. In his report to the trustees in 1947, he asserted that the student body “has been improving in quality over the last four years…On my arrival there existed a strong and fairly numerous group of students of various degrees of Left of Center opinions,” who were active in the Student Action Assembly and the Cultural Conference.” They were “critical of the ‘undemocratic’ organization of the college and of the lack of ‘economic democracy’ in our capitalistic system. This group is now fewer in number and less bitter than it was four years ago, and not many are what would be considered leaders of the student body.” This group supported Professor Robert Rafuse, the president of Middlebury’s chapter of the AAUP, who was ousted in 1947.  Here, Stratton equates quality of the student body with conservative politics, which would have been expressed in greater number among these wealthy preparatory schools. He is forced to recant somewhat in 1951 after these recruits fail to cope with Middlebury’s academic standards, just as, starting in 1972, only when more prestigious institutions such as Dartmouth begin admitting women, Middlebury reversed its position on female enrollment, gradually reaching a 50/50 female/male ratio around 1990.

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