The groundwork of much of what attracted all of us to Wesleyan was laid during the post-war period under President Victor Butterfield. The dynamism from the arts to the sciences that makes Wesleyan so attractive was the result of a fortuitous opportunity seized by Butterfield at a time when the school almost had to close its doors because of a lack of students and faculty during World War II.

In his book “Wesleyan University, 1910-1970: Academic Ambition and Middle-Class America,” historian David Potts chronicles how the University went from repairing itself towards establishing itself as a premier institution of higher learning in his chapter “War as an Agent of Change.”

“Wesleyan emerged from the war well-positioned, except in financial resources, to deal with lingering challenges and opportunities from the massive military conflict,” Potts writes. “Using advantages created in part by the war, Wesleyan in the next seven years recruited a large cohort of faculty inclined to pursue the president’s liberal arts vision. Experience with highly motivated veterans boosted faculty expectations for student effort and achievement in the 1950s. War-related issues of discrimination prompted and anticommunist fears spurred campus debate.”

Potts constantly emphasizes the importance of finances in the progress that Wesleyan saw in the post-war period. Part of this financial growth has been chronicled in the University’s acquisition of 400,000 shares of Xerox stock worth almost half a billion dollars today, but another key aspect of the University’s financial engine came from Wesleyan University Press, which saw great opportunity in the post-war era given postwar inflation and the rise of the baby boomers.

“Pressure from postwar inflation prompted investment in a business that produced publications for elementary and secondary schools,” Potts writes. “When the baby boomers began to enter elementary schools, tax-free income from this enterprise [Wesleyan University Press] would soon be available to fund advances in facilities and admissions…. A long desired solution for the college’s financial problems appeared to be at hand. By 1952, changes related to the war and its aftermath gave Wesleyan promising prospects for the achievement of full parity with Amherst and Williams.”

President Butterfield’s push for growth after the war’s completion created the foundation for the thriving “Little University” that we now enjoy today. In his chapter “A New Major American University,” Potts outlines Butterfield’s achievements in the post-war period that included the addition of new departments, such as the now-prestigious College of Letters and College of Social Studies, as well as new facilities, such as the Public Affairs Center, that enabled the University to assert itself on the national stage as an innovator in higher education. Butterfield had succeeded at recruiting top-notch professors from around the world in the aftermath of World War Two, but a challenge still lingered in admitting a higher caliber cohort of students than those scouted by Williams and Amherst.

Enter Robert J. Norwine, who was arguably the most influential director of admissions during his tenure from 1953-64 up until Nancy Meislahn, who recently brought the University’s acceptance rate below 20 percent for the first time in its history with the class of 2020. Like many successful Americans in the post-war era, Norwine just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

At an admissions fair in St. Louis in early 1953, Norwine, who was the admissions representative for Westminster College, found himself seated near Wesleyan’s admissions table. Butterfield soon heard of Norwine’s interaction with Wesleyan’s admissions representative, and requested the young upstart for an interview. From there, Norwine went on to revolutionize Wesleyan’s recruitment strategies and admissions decisions in a way that would bring the school into the upper echelon of higher education.

“Norwine gladly accepted the charge to enroll a greater number of students who were intellectually energetic and would make full use of Wesleyan’s extraordinary educational resources,” Potts writes. “He also knew that this goal served Butterfield’s desire to boost the measurable credentials in entering classes to the point where Wesleyan would finally move, in the eyes of secondary school guidance counselors, out of the reputational basement among members of the Little Three.”

Another challenge Norwine faced was finding ways to admit students who broke the mold of their generation much in the way that the Office of Admission today seeks to admit students who are multifaceted and not stereotypical millennials. The post-war generation that Norwine had to deal with was the docile and unambitious Silent Generation.

“Compared to the much-praised GI Generation that preceded them, members of the age cohort born between the mid-1920s and mid-1940s were generally described in [Time] magazine as having modest hopes for job security and a comfortable suburban lifestyle, weak commitment to ideals, a lack of individualism, and little intellectual adventurousness,” Potts writes. “As students, they tended to be ‘docile note-takers.’”

To avoid admitting these kinds of students, Norwine joined the Wesleyan University Press team in “selective recruitment” by including literature about Wesleyan in publications sent to elite high schools, targeting high-achieving students that may not have heard of Wesleyan as much compared to Amherst and Williams. This led to an increase in applicants and allowed Wesleyan to admit fewer, full-tuition-paying students with lower grades and standardized test scores, lowering the acceptance rate and increasing average scores in relation to the Little Three and the Ivies.

Norwine also increased applicants from the Deep South, Midwest, and Far West, adding diversity of thought to Wesleyan while again lowering the acceptance rate.

This admissions renaissance, along with increased capital projects, brought Wesleyan into the top tier of institutions of higher learning in the United States. Without the efforts of Butterfield and lesser-known figures like Norwine, Wesleyan University would not be the intellectual powerhouse that it is today.

  • alum

    What is the acceptance rate for the class of 2020, esteemed Argus editors?

  • Ron Medley `73

    The next book on Wesleyan history (and, I hope I live to see it) will almost certainly focus on the administration of Colin Goetze Campbell who while not Butterfield’s immediate successor, did serve eighteen years as Wesleyan’s president – second only in length to Butterfield himself. If Wesleyan’s reputation “took off” during Butterfield’s years in office, it was Campbell’s mission to bring about a “soft landing” by which I mean, a more realistic financial underpinning than the one which characterized the Butterfield years.
    Conflicting IRS rulings had made a return to the era of steady income from a highly profitable auxiliary enterprise like, “My Weekly Reader”, extremely unlikely and it was Colin who gradually schooled the university in how to exist on capital gains provided by a modern endowment comprised largely of unrestricted stocks and bonds. He also, it should be noted, led the university in creating a “high tuition/high financial aid” business model that has been adapted by it and copied by virtually every other prestigious college and university in the United States. It took place amidst a backdrop of social unrest that took up precisely where the sixties left off and while facing an economic headwind (“stagflation”) that would last the better part of his administration. It should also be noted that it was during Colin’s watch that the university steadily absorbed the equivalent of an eighth “Seven Sister” college while pursuing co-education.
    Colin did it with grace and unflappable good humor and to this day, the only harsh headlines that I can remember from those years were those having to do with 1) a temporary moratorium on need-blind admissions in 1982, and, 2) civil disobedience surrounding the boycott of South African Apartheid. Both were, oddly enough, commentaries on the esteem with which Wesleyan was generally held during the Campbell years.

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