The controversy surrounding the termination of Wesleyan’s need-blind admissions policy is not unique to this year; similar concerns about the University’s finances and the status of need-blind admissions were discussed campus-wide 20 years ago. In 1991, in the face of rising tuition rates and endowment issues (sound familiar?), then-President William M. Chace proposed ending the decades-old need-blind policy for applicants on the waitlist. Students protested through sit-ins, chants, committee meetings, and proposed alternative financial solutions, all of which led Chace to alter his decision.
Persistent Financial Woes
The unsteady state of the endowment was publicized in an Oct. 9, 1990, article in The Argus titled “Endowment Falls 10 Percent Since July.” According to the article, the University’s endowment fell $27 million from July to October, a decline that the then-Executive Assistant to the President William D. “Bro” Adams attributed to the downturn in financial markets.
To combat the issues associated with a smaller endowment and to mitigate the projection that student tuition and fees would rise by eight percent for the 1991-1992 school year, the University enacted an administrative hiring freeze. An article published on the front page of the Dec. 7, 1990 issue of The Argus reported Chace’s confirmation that no new non-academic personnel would be hired for the remainder of the 1990-1991 academic year and also that a “no-growth budget” was under consideration for the 1991-1992 year. According to the article, financial aid was a department under consideration for reductions.
In December of 1990, Chace met with the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) to seek advice about how to incorporate student input into the University’s plans to reduce budget deficits.
On Mar. 3, 1991, an article was published in The Argus titled “Scramble to Remain Need-Blind in Face of Grave Budget Cuts.” “Chace said need-blind admissions has been ‘one of the most effective tools’ in creating a diverse student body at the university. However, Chace said he is ‘less wed to need-blind admissions than to the aim it is meant to achieve.,” the article reads. The same article announced that the classes of 1995 and 1996 would be admitted on a need-blind basis, but Director of Financial Aid Edwin Below said that the future of the University’s need-blind policy was unclear beyond the immediate future.
“[Need-blind admissions] is not something that is in imminent danger,” Below said to The Argus in 1991. “I couldn’t say whether we’re going to have need-blind admissions in the year 2000—that’s something that’s too far to tell, but in the next two or three years, I don’t see that changing.”
While need-blind admissions at the University had been practiced since the 1960s or 70s, it was not an official policy.
A Sep. 10, 1991, article in The Argus revealed information about the financial aid budget that suggested that changes would indeed need to be made. Aid for the class of 1995 ended up costing $800,000 more than projected.
“Our [need-blind] policies are such that we are facing the possibility that similar shocks which wreak havoc to our budget can be suffered again,” Chace said in the September article.
One month later, Chace was quoted in The Argus as saying, “[While] it will be a priority to preserve the integrity of need-blind admissions, we can’t allow financial aid to be unwatched, ungoverned, unsupervised.”
In response to the threat to need-blind, members of the group Students for Financially Accessible Education (SFAE) called for students to write letters to trustees expressing concern with the possibility of ending need-blind admissions. The group also advertised its weekly meetings. Three hundred students wrote letters to the board in favor of maintaining need-blind and urging the administration to make it a formal policy.
In a statement published in The Argus on Nov. 22, 1991, Chace announced a five-year plan that, among other measures designed to strengthen the University’s finances, proposed to take financial need into account for students on the waitlist.
“I am proposing that the University continue to admit the freshman classes ‘aid-blind’ in the regular admissions process through April 1 of each year (and continue to fund their full, established need for four years),” Chace wrote, “and the offers of admission from the waiting list take into account all institutional priorities, including increasing selectivity, yield and quality, and, if necessary, financial circumstances.”
Responses to the Proposal
According to a Nov. 23, 1991 article in The Middletown Press, 75 students met at a forum to protest Chace’s proposal after it became public.
Philip Buchanan ’92, a member of the Student Institutional Priorities Advisory Committee, was quoted in The Middletown Press article as saying, “it becomes dangerous once you play with aid-blind admissions at all.”
Reflecting back on the protests of the early nineties, Leslie Gerhart ’95 echoed this concern about the permanence of a shift to a need-aware policy.
“What we felt in ’91 is if you slide on [need-blind admissions] now, there’s no coming back,” Gerhart said. “There’s no ‘Oh we’ll do it for a couple of years and then we’ll come back.’ Once you let that ball drop, there’s nothing that will force it to come back.”
Many students at the time were concerned about the classist implications of the waitlist policy.
Heather Rhoads ’92, a member of Students for a Financially Accessible Education, at the time told The Argus, “They can call this [need-blind], but it’s not…Administrators are talking about a way to insure themselves that they have enough students who can pay. People on the waiting list, it seems like they would be able to buy their way off—and I think it’s disgusting.”
Following Chace’s proposal, the Hartford Courant picked up on the story as well and quoted Wesleyan spokesman Bobby Wayne Clark.
The Courant article reads, “If ability to pay is ever considered as a factor for admission, it would be only in the case of a handful of students each year, [Clark] said.”
In seeming contrast to Chace’s desire to bring the student body into the discussion through her appeal to the WSA, Clark went on to say, “Students do not run this place, and they shouldn’t be dictating [to us] on this.”
On the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 23, more than 350 students rallied outside of Downey House, where the Board of Trustees was meeting, to protest Chace’s proposal by waving banners, giving speeches, and clanking pots and pans. Thirteen students, representing groups including Society Organized Against Racism, the Student Institutional Priorities Committee, and Students for Financially Accessible Education, spoke.
Students chanted outside of the meeting for about 10 minutes and were saying things such as “Save need-blind today, diversity has got to stay,” “Ho ho, hey hey, need-blind has got to stay,” and “Hey Bill, hey Bro, need-blind’s the way to go.” Others held signs with slogans like “My father is not a CEO, will I still get admitted?”
At the rally, two students scaled the balcony of Downey House in order to be more visible to the trustees, but they were asked to descend by the then-Director of Public Safety Harry Kinne III. The students complied. The rally then ended after several statements, including one from Board of Trustees President Steven Pfeiffer, who acknowledged the protest and said he appreciated the students’ engagement with the issue.
Rhoads and a member of Society Organized Against Racism claimed they heard Chace say, “This university will not change anything as a result of political pressure.”
When the faculty met to discuss Chace’s proposal on Nov. 26, about 30 students held a silent protest outside of Shanklin 107, where the meeting was held, to protest their exclusion from the meeting.
On Monday, Nov. 26, more than 350 students filled Exley 150 for a discussion and debate about Chace’s proposal. The meeting was organized by a group of students who wanted to ensure that students and staff members could have their voices heard even though they were not allowed to attend the faculty meeting that took place the same day. At the meeting students expressed general dislike of the policy, proposed a fundraising drive, and denounced the University’s beautification efforts as out of line with student priorities.
Students expressed concerns that there were not more opportunities for the administration and student body to interact in discussions surrounding the proposed need-blind policy changes. They also questioned the prominent role played by the Student Institutional Priorities Advisory Committee (SIPAC), the members of which were elected by the WSA, not the general student population.
SIPAC issued a statement saying the group was not prepared to endorse Chace’s proposal. Instead, the Committee made a list of alternative ways to reduce budgetary pressure. The list proposed further reductions in academic and non-academic staffs, and suggested a reexamination of graduate programs, the University’s sabbatical policy, varsity sports, and a larger tuition hike as places to save or gain money.
Commenting on the debates of the nineties as compared to today, Brian Glenn ’91 said that community involvement in the earlier case was facilitated by Chace’s transparency.
“What happened in the last debate was, the administration said, ‘We can’t afford it,’ and people said, ‘Let’s look at some alternatives,’” Glenn said. “This time around the administration said, ‘Well, we can’t afford it,’ and people can’t say, ‘Let’s look at some alternatives’ because the administration has been less than forthcoming about things that it’s already done.”
On Dec. 10, 1991, the WSA sponsored an open meeting with administrators, faculty, and students to discuss Chace’s proposal. The WSA had passed a resolution the previous week publicly declaring their disappointment with Chace’s decision not to hold a public meeting.
Administrators defended the proposal, with Chace emphasizing the difficult situation with which he was faced. Chace declared the meeting a success and said he planned to hold more similar meetings in the future with the hopes that forums with students would become regular events instead of responses to crises.
Focus group meetings with administrators were organized on eight dates between Feb. 5 and Feb. 20, which gave students the opportunity to raise important issues with members of the administration including Vice President Joanne Creighton and Dean of Admissions Barbara-Jan Wilson. According to a Feb. 14, 1991, Argus article, however, student attendance at these forums was very low.
SFAE organized a series of protests for the week of Feb. 24-29 designed to get the attention of the Board of Trustees, which had meetings that weekend. The protests included “phone zaps,” a speakout in the Campus Center, class boycotts that garnered the support of 1000 students, 1600 student signatures on petitions, and an occupation of a number of campus buildings.
Students assembled at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 27, and split into groups to walk to the lobby of North College, the financial aid office, admissions office, second floor of North College, registrar’s office, and Deans’ office.
The Middletown Press reported that as many as 440 students occupied the buildings. At about 3 p.m., students conducted negotiations with Dean of the College Janina Montero to allow 60 students to stay in North College and the walkway between North and South College overnight. More than 150 students braved temperatures in the teens to camp outside on Thursday night, with the number peaking around 1 a.m.
The sit-in continued the next day, when 400 students held silent vigil in front of a Trustees’ meeting at Downey House. The meeting was intended to let the Board of Trustees’ finance and student affairs committees hear recommendations about the University’s financial situation and admissions practices. According to an article in The Guardian, “The protestors joined hands and encircled the building, handing symbolic ‘withdrawal forms’ to the trustees as they left the building.” Citing issues with financial aid and Chace’s proposal, 237 students symbolically signed withdrawal forms.
During meetings on the last weekend in February, the Board considered several versions of the plan for the waiting list admissions policy but remained largely undecided. The trustees also commented on the protests by saying they were impressed by efforts like the phone zap in which students could express their opinions through phone calls to the Board, but they considered the sit-ins and chanting outside of meetings disruptive.
According to The Argus’ articles from March 1991, student groups proposed additional alternatives, including a suggestion from SIPAC that the University increase housing costs by $150 per year to create a contingency fund for financial aid, and continued fundraising efforts.
On April 3, the protestors proved victorious, as Chace announced that he would keep need-blind admissions in place for all applicants.
“The waiting-list proposal is now being relegated to a secondary position as a result of strong ideas from members of the community,” Chace said to The Argus.
Instead of cutting need-blind aid, the administration decided to give aid packages with more loans and work-study. Chace’s committee was then given the task of figuring out how to raise money for a contingency plan that would protect the financial aid budget in case spending exceeded expectations. A third part of his revised plan involved the creation of a Financial Aid Overview Committee to oversee the implementation of the “revolving fund.”
Students credited the protests for the solution.
“The students showed the administration just how strongly they felt, and it had an impact,” said Elizabeth Toohey ’94, who was on the committee and a member of SFAE, to The Argus in 1991. “I don’t think the committee would even exist if it weren’t for student pressure.”
Chace made later revisions to the plan before presenting it to the Board of Trustees for vote on May 9, but these versions omitted any mention of cutting need-blind aid.