Admissions Anxiety Addressed by Harvard Initiative

In this country, almost every teenager thinking of going to college faces the application  process with excitement…but also with dread. Applications, after all, are impossibly complicated and criteria for acceptance impossibly daunting, especially for the more selective colleges and universities. To say that the competition is fierce—and probably unfair—hardly does it justice, and at bottom, you have to wonder what kind of a message this process is sending to young people about the mission of education. As the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni noted recently, “…(it) warps the values of students drawn into a competitive frenzy. It jeopardizes their mental health. And it fails to include—and identify the potential—in enough kids from less privileged backgrounds.”

That’s why I was so pleased to see a report out of Harvard last month calling for a dramatic shift in the application process—a shift that emphasizes the values of good citizenship rather than personal achievement. The report, called “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” was designed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has been endorsed by 85 stakeholders in higher education, presidents, admissions officers, deans, professors and high school counselors. The author of the report was motivated, at least in part, by research he had conducted in which he asked 10,000 middle and high school students what mattered most: high individual achievement, happiness, or caring for others. Only 22 percent said caring for others.

The new report examines how the current application process contributes to that outcome, with its overemphasis on SAT scores, excessive AP classes and long lists of extracurricular and volunteer activities—what the author calls “brag sheets.” According to the report, the admissions process also needs to redefine achievement in ways that create “greater equity and access for economically diverse students.” Among its recommendations is that colleges should prioritize quality—rather than quantity—of extracurricular and volunteer activities, and that those activities demonstrate authentic and sustained engagement. I was especially pleased to see the report’s strong emphasis on the high value that should be placed on students’ contributions to their households: caring for siblings or sick relatives, for instance, or working to help support the family.

This not only helps to level the playing field for students from less affluent families but it also speaks well and loudly to a student’s character. The report recommends that colleges discourage students from “overloading” on AP courses and warns students, parents, and high school counselors that colleges are more and more alert to “coached” applications that do not reflect the student’s authentic voice. SAT and ACT scores are also targeted with recommendations that they become optional and that colleges describe clearly how they are related to academic performance at their institutions. In effect, the recommendations are designed to make the admissions process “more humane, less super-human,” to quote The Washington Post.

Now, as you know, reports on education are issued by the dozens every year. What encourages me about this one is that it was spearheaded, conducted, and enthusiastically endorsed by Harvard, which is one of the country’s most elite, most selective colleges with over 37,000 applicants for fewer than 2000 seats in its freshman class. It has been equally enthusiastically endorsed by many other elite institutions, such as MIT, Yale, the University of Michigan, and a growing list of others, some of which have already instituted some of the recommendations.

So what does it mean for FIT? FIT is selective in its own way. But this is not a traditional liberal arts college and although we have very high standards, our approach to admissions is very different. Since students are admitted into a major, they are evaluated on the basis of qualities such as focus and drive and, indeed, character—qualities that are reflected in a student’s essay, for instance, just as design talent can be demonstrated in a portfolio. A student’s academic record is important, of course, but we are generally unimpressed by a long list of AP courses. Moreover, SAT and ACT tests are not required of the general student population, and if students provide them, they are used for English and math placement purposes only. I don’t mean to say that prospective students don’t feel pressure when they apply—of course they do. And to some degree they should because it only reflects how much they care. But our bottom line is the question we always ask regarding every applicant: can this student succeed here? And I think that helps keep our process “more humane.”

My hope is that the excitement this report has generated among admissions officers and other higher education officials keeps building, that its influence spreads. and that its recommendations are widely adopted. What a difference that could make in the lives of students starting their college preparations. And perhaps, if the author of the report is right, our future college applicants will find “caring for others” more important than “high individual achievement.”

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Documenting a Disappearing Way of Life

praveen-chaudhry-03I am always glad to have an opportunity to share the amazing variety of work our faculty produce at FIT. We have such an opportunity in the campus showing of Praveen Chaudhry’s moving photography exhibit, Invisible Nomads of the Himalayas: A Life Caught in Turmoil. At a faculty convocation last year, I asked Chaudhry to share photographs of his travels with the nomadic tribespeople in the mountainous areas of China and India, where political and military forces have nearly eradicated the nomadic way of life that has for centuries been the center of production of cashmere and pashmina. The stories he told were as chilling as they were enlightening.

“All indigenous cultures are under enormous pressure and many are disappearing,” said Professor Chaudhry, a political scientist who is a member of our Social Sciences department. “The nomadic cultures I travelled with will all be gone in 10 years. But these are remarkable people. They are culturally significant, especially for anyone interested in the study of diversity and cooperation. These Buddhist shepherds and Muslim weavers have been cooperating in peace in the harshest of environments to make pashmina for hundreds of years.”

Professor Chaudhry describes his work as “visual anthropology,” and his success in taking meaningful images is, he says, a result of living and travelling with his subjects for months at a time, often through arduous conditions. None of the photos are staged because he lived among these communities long enough so that people were comfortable with him and allowed him inside their personal worlds.

Professor Chaudhry took a photography course on campus and credits the photography department for helping him develop his considerable skill. He hopes to publish the photographs as a book—and I certainly hope he will.

The exhibit, which has been shown at galleries here in the U.S. as well as in India and Mexico, is on view in the lobby of the Marvin Feldman building through February 26. Professor Chaudhry will give a talk and slide presentation of his work on Wednesday, February 24, at 6:00 pm in the Katie Murphy Amphitheater. The talk is sponsored jointly by the Presidential Scholars program and the dean of the School of Liberal Arts.

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Black History Month

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February is Black History Month and every year when it rolls around, so many of us experience a complex mixture of emotions: pride, of course, in the long history of courage and accomplishment and pleasure in the opportunity to celebrate that—but also frustration and distress at the slow path of progress and the recurring and remaining inequities. Some believe there ought not be a separate month devoted to Black history because, as they say, “Black history is American history.” And so it is.

In that context, the history of Black History Month is quite ironic because its creator—a pioneering Harvard-trained historian named Carter Woodson—neither expected nor wanted it to last. A man born of slaves, Carter Woodson saw that the books he studied either ignored or distorted black history in the United States. His goal was to correct the racist bias implicit in the work of most white scholars at the time and to objectively write the black American experience into the history books. And so he created what he called “Negro History Week,” which he situated between the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. He was convinced that soon enough, black Americans and their history would enter the nation’s mainstream so that a special day, week or month would not be necessary.

And so here we are, 153 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, 53 years since Dr. King offered his great dream, 90 years since the establishment of Black History Month. In the era of “Black Lives Matter,” I cannot help but wonder what Carter Woodson would think today. His “week” was expanded into a month by President Ford in 1976—the year of the country’s bicentennial—and indeed, we do use the occasion to pay tribute to the generations who sacrificed so much in the name of freedom, and to celebrate the vast range and scope of black accomplishment in our history. But clearly it has been a far longer journey than Carter Woodson envisioned all those years ago. As President Obama reminded us not that long ago, “…this dream of equality and fairness has never come easily.” Indeed, in this era of “Black Lives Matter,” of continuing injustices and disparities, it seems to me that it is important to know our history so that we have a context for reflecting on today’s events. And if marking a time on our calendar acts as a prompt to do so, then perhaps, even 90 years later, Black History Month is still doing its job—it matters.

» Read more about Black History Month at the Library of Congress

Images from the Library of Congress

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Chalk! It Up

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At commencement last year, I spoke about the thousands of rush hour commuters on a Washington DC subway platform who never noticed, much less stopped, while world-famous violinist Joshua Bell played Bach. Yet here, on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk outside FIT—at almost any time of day or night—busy passersby are stopping, or at least slowing down, as they notice our walls. What captures their attention is our Chalk! project—the large-scale exuberant images that run in a single, head-high band along the exterior wall of Pomerantz—all produced by our senior illustration majors and alumni in brilliantly colored chalk. I must say, it is pretty hard to miss, even if you have your nose pressed to your Smartphone.

Chalk!, which is overseen by illustration Professors Dan Shefelman and Richard Elmer, is now in its third year. From the start it was a great success and so it has become something of an end-of-semester FIT tradition. As FIT’s proud president, one of my favorite aspects of Chalk! is that it demonstrates to passersby the serious, rigorous work that goes on inside our walls—and allows them a glimpse, as well, into the sometimes vivid, colorful and surprising nature of that work. I occasionally linger nearby and watch people enjoy the mix of work the project puts on display. The colors are intense, almost leaping off the stone. The range of styles is wide, including everything from the abstract, to the comic, to representational portraiture.

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According to Professor Shefelman, the entire senior illustration class (about 45 students) submits images, and he puts out an open invitation to alumni as well. Once the images have been approved, the artists reproduce their work on the Pomerantz walls using a grid system or simply by eye. And people love it, he says.

I can see that, and I’m not surprised. Chalk! is arresting and powerful, and while I am puzzled as to why busy people did not stop and listen to Joshua Bell in Washington, I am delighted that busy New Yorkers stop to examine and enjoy the talents of our students. Perhaps there are social scientists somewhere who will want to explore the elements that lead to such disparate behaviors.

In the meanwhile, I hope that anyone reading this who has not yet seen the project will wander by. Chalk! is just made from chalk, after all. And eventually—unfortunately—chalk fades.

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