Wake Forest’s Nathan O. Hatch Does the Right Thing

Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., doesn’t like to conspicuously make waves. It is not in the desired nature of this region in the heart of the South. But several weeks ago this venerable old Southern institution got big headlines when it announced that it intended to drop SATs as mandatory for incoming freshmen in an effort to ease stress on student test takers.

First commentary was that it was a big mistake. But Wake Forest President Nathan O. Hatch was right to drop mandatory SATs. Others will soon follow.

Wake Forest usually comes to mind up here in New England when either Maya Angelou, who teaches there, is mentioned, or Arnold Palmer, who, like a bunch of other great golfers, went to school there.

A few schools in recent years have dropped mandatory SATs — Bowdoin, Bates, Hamilton, Sarah Lawrence, Middlebury — and on first impression Wake Forest appeared to be changing company. It appeared to be comparing itself with a tradition of elite New England schools. Way good schools, but of a persuasion that the traditional Baptist preacher or the North Carolina Piedmont or Yadkin County tobacco farmer might consider kind of uppity.

Wake Forest’s “traditional constituency” — as those folks are so-called by admissions officers — would be more likely to consider going to UNC at Chapel Hill, Duke or the University of Richmond. These are the schools with which Wake Forest has traditionally competed for students. But in recent years it has risen to top national rankings and today students from all over the world seek attendance. Some from India with very high SATs. Some from Hong Kong with high SATs and a whole lot of cash.

Another passing thought was that Wake Forest, ranked 30th among national universities by U.S. News and World Report, isn’t supposed to initiate big-deal changes like this. Harvard is supposed to do that, or possibly Yale or Stanford, then everybody else is supposed to follow after that and do what they do. Wake Forest has only been in with this heady crowd the last 15 years or so.

Hatch recently published an op-ed in The Washington Post to explain his reasoning.

“For several years, a growing body of research has made clear that America’s top colleges and universities are doing a poor job of helping some young people realize a critical part of the American dream: That anyone, no matter where he or she begins in life, has the chance to rise to the top,” he wrote.

Students from the top quarter of the socioeconomic hierarchy are 25 times more likely to attend a “top-tier” college than are students from the bottom quarter, he says. And a study of 78,000 students in California found that SAT scores correlated with family income but not with college grades. In fact, SAT was the poorest predictor of college performance when compared with high school grades and performance on subject tests. Other studies have found that such factors as high school class ranking and strength of the high school course load are better predictors.

I happen to have worked as a press person for a university alumni office in a previous millennium, and it happens to have been Wake Forest’s. College administrators read books to help them understand changing cultural trends and patterns, particularly generational patterns, as generations are their business. Hatch is the first university president to fully understand that we have come to the end of one era and the beginning of another and to initiate an important public policy initiative based on that understanding.

Every major college and university faced a dilemma between the 1960s and the 1990s. The economy was booming and so was social awareness. The civil rights movement brought about a responsible attempt by most schools, including Wake Forest, to bring in those who had been ignored — that is, to bring in those who had been systematically excluded from the economy and the culture at large by institutionalized segregation. In North Carolina and the South in particular, that meant black folk who were poor folk, some very poor. Many rural and barely educated.

It was not an easy task, as the poor do not share the same values, attitudes and cultural leanings and yearnings as the better-off. And they would not have the same SAT scores. So bringing them into the best universities would drop the general SAT scores for the school. And SAT scores were vitally important then to colleges and universities because it was a time of rising economy and there was a high demand and public need for highest-quality education for a growing middle class. A drop in SAT scores would critically lower a school’s profile.

Black students from middle-class and wealthy backgrounds became highly sought-after. They integrated nicely with the white kids of the same economic backgrounds. Increasingly, the original mandate began to drift and the poor became increasingly ignored.

Enter the age of diversity and globalization. When the word diversity became universally ingrained in the lexicon in the early 1990s, the original paradigm permanently shifted. The poverty part of the equation — the economic element and the core issue of integration — was almost universally abandoned. Suddenly, you could not talk to a college president, whether from Harvard or a minor junior college in Florida, without hearing the word diversity within the first phrases. But as I was told by one black sociologist at the time: They’d begun substituting Mexicans for black people. They were substituting Chinese people for black people. They weren’t. But what they were doing was substituting wealthy people from around the world and some of the wealthiest people on the face of the earth for poor people in the South and from the blighted cities up North.

The age of diversity and globalization can be seen from a marketing perspective as bringing a full shift in paradigm. It came fast on the heels of the age of leadership and excellence. Now we are entering a new age. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it began Jan. 4, 2008, the day after Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus with 39 percent of the vote and Hillary Clinton came in third with 29 percent.

President Hatch is now a gatekeeper to this age. He has proposed a new formula in which great colleges like Wake Forest and Middlebury and Harvard and Stanford can keep their SAT numbers and other data vital to marketing high, as they must do to bring in the best students they can get worldwide and properly educate them, and also bring in and fully include those deserving from economic backgrounds that had been previously excluded.

Hatch has brought us back to our first principles and to our full range of responsibilities. He has provided colleges with a new model and possibly a standard maxim for the new century, and he has done the right thing.


Visit Mr. Quigley's website at http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com.