Tag Archives: Independent Ivy

Fighting for the soul of Wesleyan

Apart from the strategic planning sessions, focus group polling, and glossy brochures, I like to think there exists some kind of collective soul at the core of a university—not a living, breathing thing capable of articulating itself but, rather, a sort of impression that’s mainly crafted by students… an identity, a shared understanding, an ideal… and a hope for the future.

That student-formed vision often runs up against the realities of the marketing campaigns that Admissions pumps out to boost our rankings and, ultimately, the quality of incoming classes—however they choose to define that.

We’ve reported on parts of this before; for example, there was Oberlin’s adoption of a cheesy new slogan: “We are Oberlin. Fearless.” The same marketing agency that created that gem was also the one that spun our very own “Independent Ivy” campaign back in ’98-’99, which led to much student protest.

Isn’t it only a matter of time before the next hired gun pumps out another catchy, bold, and fearless media message for Wesleyan? (Sorry, Admissions: “The Art and Science of Education Since 1831” isn’t catchy, bold, or fearless.) Isn’t it time we became more aware of the marketing messages being cultivated by the administration? Isn’t it time we thought about where we want Wesleyan to go?

This was all brought to the surface by a confluence of factors: the Roth administration’s clamping down on things like Zonker Harris Day, its refusal to let the chalking moratorium lapse, and its general reluctance to support “things that are stupid”—all the while defining “stupid” as whatever, in its opinion, it thinks will turn away the kind of high school students it wants to attract. It’s that thinking that leads our president to say things like:

“Zonker Harris day should not be on the calendar next year, and it won’t be,” Roth said. “The institution should make it clear that it’s not supporting things that are stupid.”

What an efficient way to do away with decades of tradition for the sake of robbing the Ivies of a few of their potential students…

And then, Andrea Silenzi ’07 sent us an NPR report by Dan Bobkoff ’05, bringing Oberlin’s advertising campaign back into the news (bonus: they play MGMT’s “Kids” at the end of the segment).

I listened, and was particularly struck by one section:

It’s too early to know if the strategy is resonating with prospective students. Consultants hired by Oberlin say it’s polling well in ongoing focus groups.

And then it hit me: is this how we’re going to define the soul of Wesleyan? Does our school’s image depend on the results of focus groups, opinion polls, and target demographics, or does it depend on us?

Here’s hoping for the latter.

What are we accomplishing?

So I randomly found this livejournal entry from a high schooler that paraphrases a rather…interesting… story about her experience applying to Wes.

[…]After tutoring, I hit the school gym and ran into _____, the teacher I’m working with, and we shot the shit and lifted stuff for about an hour. We talked about racism, college and stuffs.

For instance, he no longer writes recs for Wesleyan or recommends the school to kids… because of me.

I wanted Wesleyan because it made every lit-loving funny bone come out and dance. College of Letters! Secret Societies! Yay!
However, Wesleyan did not love me, and deferred me. _____ wrote me a rec and afterwards phoned Wesleyan, quite puzzled.

Call 1:
_____ : She’s actually smart. Quite a lot of smart. (ad nauseum)
Wesleyan: That’s nice. You seen her SAT scores.
_: Yes. They’re commendable.
W: Yes and no. We’re looking for students more capable in the maths and sciences, which [student] clearly isn’t. Thanks!

_: Math got you, [student].
Student: Always knew it would. Disappointed, but not overwhelmed. So, Oberlin?
_: Sure. My sister went there, I think you’d love it. Still, let me make one more call…

Call 2:
_: Are you SURE you don’t want [student]? If I were Wesleyan, I would.
W: No, we don’t. We want high SATs.
_: But she’s a great student. And a really dynamic kid.
W: We don’t care. We want higher SATs.
_: More than a really great student?
W: Yes.
_: Why?
W: We want to be Harvard.
_: Oh.
W: Yes.
_: Bye, then.
W: Ta.

So, no more recs for Wesleyan. Given my 1490 on the SATs, the school’s anal retentiveness is rather distressingly severe.

What’s most surprising to me was one of the comments:

“I thought about applying to Wesleyan but they felt too . . . science-y.”

Pardon me? Science-y? Wesleyan? Am I missing something? (And this from a neuro major, mind you.)

And speaking of the “We want to be Harvard” snark, I stumbled upon the livejournal of an alum who was on campus for the most recent R&C. He had a great story to tell:

Anyway, during Reunion, an alum, who was just awarded a distinguised something or other for journalism, sat down for a dual interview/conversation with both Doug Bennett and Colin Cambell. One of the questions she asked was what each President’s fondest memory was of their tenure at Wesleyan. For a moment, I wondered if Bennett would tell this story, and then, to my great delight, he did.

The story begins about halfway through my freshman year during a final exam review session for micro-economics. Gil Skillman, the professor, happened to mention in passing that he was on a committee to give Wesleyan a new slogan: The Independent Ivy. The class groaned in response. In fact, when it was officially announced, pretty much the whole community groaned.

Apparantly, the administration decided that Wesleyan wasn’t nearly well-known enough. What it needed was a “catchy little slogan to bolster a market plan” and so it paid some consultant $100,000+ to come up with something. He, being an outsider, reasoned that everyone finds Ivy league schools appealing, so Wesleyan should try to get on that bandwagon. But we weren’t really part of the Ivy league, it needed an additional adjective, one that denoted that we were separate, but connoted that we had an irrepressible free spirit: Independent. Besides, everyone likes alliteration.

While this might have looked good on paper, especially to someone who never went to the school, it was reviled by just about everyone (faculty, students, alumni) who did. Many people chose Wesleyan because it wasn’t an Ivy league school. To us, Ivy implied a stuffy enslavement to tradition and legacies, while Wesleyan celebrated iconoclasm and creativity. It also implied that we weren’t as good as the ivies, so we have to steal their reputation. “Diversity University” while never officially adopted, at least seemed to communicate something that Wesleyan valued.

This continued for nearly two years with a student group forming called “Poison Ivy” whose sole purpose for existing was to dissuade the administration of adopting this slogan. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the phrase, but was too busy to actively pursue its destruction. Which made it all the more ironic when I had a hand in doing just that.

Back then I was part of the Wesleyan Singers and, in addition to our concerts, we were sometimes invited to sing at the President’s house for things like his Christmas Party or Homecoming. Neely Bruce, the professor who conducted us, hated the slogan as much as anyone and composed a song, with a little input from us regarding the lyrics. Somewhere, buried in my records, I have a copy of the sheet music, but it went along the lines of “We’re not the Independent Ivy, and we like it just that way.” I do remember it had two verses.

Anyway, during the Friday night of Homecoming (was it ’99? see this is where I’m starting to forget things), we had a concert where we debuted this song. It met with glorious approval from the audience. Immediately after, we were supposed to sing some old college tunes for the President and the trustees at a party at the President’s house. We talked about whether we should sing there or not. I actually was against the idea since I thought it would mean never being invited back. Here we were, essentially insulting our host in song; not the most polite thing to do. Fortunately, I was over-ruled.

Somehow, Bill Wasch, a trustee at the time, seemed to know what was going to happen. It was odd since Neely didn’t tell him anything and, while I might have mentioned to him that a song was in the works, I certainly didn’t say this was where we were going to sing it. But, whether through supernatural powers or whatever, he seemed to subtly hint that this was the time and place, and after singing a couple traditional things like “The Bells of Old South College” we broke out “The Ivy Song.”

To everyone’s astonishment, Doug Bennet, instead of berating us, turned to us and said, “If you sing that one more time, I will kill the slogan.” We did. And it was dead. Spontaneously, the singers and the trustees then immediately sung the happiest rendition of the Alma Mater I’ve ever heard and probably ever will hear. We clasped backs and swayed back and forth to the refrain of “Old ivied walls, old hallowed halls” and ended with an enthusiastic performance of “The Fight Song.” For once, there was no fighting between undergrads and alumni. We were all one, raising our voices together in song. It is little wonder that this was Bennet’s fondest moment of being at Wesleyan. I know it was mine.

As a small epilogue, I was running the Pep Band at the time. I talked to Bennett during the party and managed to convince him to sing “The Ivy Song” with as many other people as I could find, in front of the football stands the next day during the homecoming game. While news of evening’s events were already racing across campus (I remember triumphantly returning to Alpha Delt loudly proclaiming the death of the slogan), this was Bennett’s official announcement that the slogan was forever dead and buried. It didn’t quite have the same amount of spontaneous energy the previous night had and it was hard to get the crowd’s attention, but we sang it. Loud and proud.