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The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community


Martha Allman: Study affirms test-optional policy for admissions

On Tuesday National Public Radio’s Eric Westervelt broke the story of an unprecedented, longitudinal study challenging the value of standardized tests in the admissions process. Bill Hiss, the principal researcher and former dean of admissions at Bates College, told NPR that “this study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores.”

The study found “trivial differences” in examining the college performance of students who submitted standardized test scores for college admission and those who didn’t. The research suggests a better predictor of college success is the student’s high school GPA. Wake Forest, whose test-optional policy began with the freshman class of 2009, was one of the 33 institutions studied. (This year applications are holding steady compared with last year: approximately 11,000 but with a difference: a 25 percent increase in those applying early decision, a definite uptick.) I asked Dean of Admissions Martha Allman (’82, MBA ’92) to discuss the study’s findings and what they mean for Wake Forest. Here’s our edited, condensed interview. 

Dean of Admissions Martha Allman

Dean of Admissions Martha Allman

Maria Henson: For people who have not read the study, describe its main findings.

Martha Allman: The study was done by Bill Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates College, one of the first colleges to become test-optional. He’s done a lot of research and recordkeeping on test-optional. He expanded his research to 33 different test-optional colleges including state schools, private schools, arts schools, historically black schools. It’s a very broad look and longitudinal. It basically shows there is virtually no difference between submitters and non-submitters in their college years. That’s the main finding.

Henson: Was Wake Forest one of the schools studied? 

Allman: Yes. We did provide data, and I spent a lot of time on the phone talking with Bill Hiss about this.

Henson: Why did you want Wake Forest to make the change to test-optional? 

Allman: In 2008 we began really paying attention to research out there about use of the tests. (Sociology professor) Joseph Soares on our faculty had done a lot of research himself on the biases of the SAT. We felt that this was a way that we could really broaden our applicant pool to attract more socioeconomic and racial diversity and also look at students who perhaps were star high school students — stars academically — but were not applying to Wake Forest because of our average SAT scores.

Henson: Did you do your own admissions tracking after the policy took effect? 

Allman: Yes and continue to do so. We found the same thing that the study found: there is virtually no difference (in college performance). When we went into the test-optional decision there was concern from the faculty, from students, from alumni that this would lessen our academic nature, that we would no longer draw really strong students, that we would become less competitive, that the students would not do as well, that we would have higher attrition. And none of that has proved to be the truth at all. As a matter of fact, last year we had more students graduating with honors than possibly we have had in Wake Forest history. We’ve not seen attrition increase, and we don’t see any differentiation between the submitters and the non-submitters. That’s the big news.

Henson: What has been the long-term trend line concerning submitters and non-submitters applying to Wake Forest? 

Allman: It’s been pretty consistent. Between 25 and 30 percent of the students not submitting. We do ask students to submit after they enroll. Some do. Some don’t.

Henson: I talked to a junior who said her guidance counselor told her Wake Forest would not let you in if you didn’t submit scores. As she put it, the thought would be there is something wrong with you. 

Allman: It’s not true at all. I think even for students who submit we probably pay much less attention to that than we did in the past. We saw this from the first year and continue to see students who have extremely high SAT scores who don’t submit (scores), saying, ‘Philosophically, I love what you’re doing and I want you to judge me on my academic merits, not on my test.’ That’s really exciting to see those students.

Campus tour for prospective students, 2011

Campus tour for prospective students, 2011

Henson: What has been the effect on campus and in the classrooms? 

Allman: We have more students who are eligible for Pell Grants, more first-generation college students and more racial minorities. All of those things have increased.

Henson: How might this study change the admissions process throughout the United States?

Allman: I think one of the exciting sentences that I read in the study was (to paraphrase) ‘With the increasing number of really high quality colleges becoming test-optional — private, public and a variety of schools — families may be reaching the point that they decide to forgo the whole testing process.’ That was a very shocking thing to read in print, but actually a very exciting thing and suggests that we may be on the cusp of a real culture change. Historically, SAT scores have been equated with intelligence. Studies and studies are showing that that isn’t true. And here we have wonderful, empirical evidence that students at selective schools perform just as well without a standardized test as they do with the test.

I have long bemoaned the students who have spent so much time in test prep, so much money and so much energy in test strategy. They could be doing other things. They could be more involved in school, more involved in fine arts or other kinds of important extracurricular and talent activities. Now this may open the door to say perhaps we have put too much emphasis on it, and we need to dial it back and concentrate on other academic issues.

Henson: What will be your next “bold move” as dean of admissions?

Allman: Admissions has to be continually nimble. We never know how the landscape is going to change and how we need to adjust. I think we need to continue to be attuned to what’s going on in the world of admissions and the educational landscape. Certainly we’re very interested in the whole area of access, making sure that first-generation college students, students who have not had a lot of the privileges of other students, have access to Wake Forest. The Magnolia Scholars Program — and the growth of that program — is a testament to that. Making our campus more international is one of the things we’re moving toward, with students coming in from China, India and Western Europe. It’s diversity writ large.

Henson: Does that mean that the Wake Forest a lot of us attended and knew is over?

Allman: I think there are common threads from when you and I went to school and (Provost Emeritus) Ed Wilson (’43) went to school to these students entering Wake Forest that hopefully will never change. The whole idea of Pro Humanitate is, I think, stronger than ever with this generation of students. (And the idea) of service, of social justice issues, of international kinds of issues. The whole student-faculty relationship — the closeness — is something that separates us from a lot of our peers. Students are drawn here because of that. Students live here, and faculty live close by, and there’s close community interaction. It’s been treasured since the time Wake Forest was founded and still is. There may be cosmetic changes in the way the campus looks. It has certainly grown. We’ve added new buildings, and the people always change. We reflect more of what the country looks like now, but the fundamental character of Wake Forest is still there, and it’s very, very strong.

Henson: What have I not asked you that you wish I had? 

Allman: The emphasis on academic excellence. I think that was the greatest worry — that we were making it easier for people to get in and that was going to affect the classroom and our graduates. That hasn’t been the case at all. We continue to attract a really competitive applicant pool. We have not scared away students. In many ways it’s considered more selective because the process has all these subjective factors: we interview students, we have an application that is more in-depth than most any of our peers and we get good press about that. Guidance counselors tell us that the admissions process is a good reflection of what Wake Forest is — that it is intentional, personal and individualistic, focusing on the whole person, not just the quantifiable.”

Remembering Will D. Campbell, a Wake Forester and renegade

Wake Forester Will D. Campbell died Monday at age 88 in Nashville. I first met him in the funny pages but didn’t know then he was a Demon Deacon. He was the inspiration behind the Rev. Will B. Dunn in “Kudzu,” the syndicated comic strip created by my late friend and fellow Charlotte Observer editorial board veteran Doug Marlette.

Rev. Will B. Dunn of "Kudzu"

Rev. Will B. Dunn of “Kudzu”

Marlette had the eccentric cartoon version of Campbell tell it like it was. In one strip, Rev. Dunn said, “Lord, I know we’re called to be fishers of men. But I want to throw ‘em all back.”

In a 1992 article, journalist David L. Langford described Campbell this way: “Here’s a whiskey-swilling, tobacco-spitting, guitar-picking Baptist preacher and truck farmer who is a widely respected writer, thinker, humorist and ex-officio chaplain to the Grand Ole Opry crowd. He doesn’t have a church — a steeple as he puts it — and doesn’t want one.”

Last year, during Words Awake!, Wake Forest honored an inaugural class of inductees to the Wake Forest Writers Hall of Fame. Campbell (’48, L.H.D. ’84) naturally was among the honorees. His “Brother to a Dragonfly” was a finalist for the 1978 National Book Award and named one of the 10 best religious books of the 1970s by Time. But our Wake Forest notable author was unable to attend the ceremony. His son, Webb (’81), returned on his behalf to a campus where his daughter, Kyle (’14), attends, to be joined this fall by brother and freshman Will D. Campbell II. We didn’t know then that the Rev. Campbell was struggling to recover from a stroke he suffered in 2011. What we did know and laud was his national, historic reputation as a voice of conscience in the South’s struggles against racism.

Campbell was born to Mississippi cotton farmers in 1924 and became an ordained Baptist minister at 17. He served in the Army during World War II and arrived at Wake Forest afterward, majoring in English. You can find no activities listed under his name in The Howler of 1948, but Campbell more than made up for that omission in his unparalleled life of social activism and advocacy for the marginalized.

Campbell's senior photo in The Howler

Campbell’s senior photo in The Howler

He attended Tulane University, earned his theology degree from Yale Divinity School, pastored a church in Louisiana, became an integrationist chaplain at Ole Miss and served as a field officer for the National Council of Churches. He was the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Wherever there were momentous events in the civil rights movement, Campbell typically had a role: counseling Freedom Riders; participating in boycotts and sit-ins; challenging the clergy to step up on behalf of society’s forgotten ones; helping escort the nine black students through angry mobs at Central High School in Little Rock.

In 1984, along with Eudora Welty, he came to Wake Forest to receive an honorary degree at Commencement. Wake Forest Magazine welcomed him “home to his college,” adding in an article that year: “In a pickup truck, carrying a Gibson guitar and whittling a cedar stick, and wearing a black plowman’s hat, Campbell preaches and sings and saves.” As The New York Times noted in Campbell’s obituary yesterday, his friends and followers called him “hilarious, profound, inspiring and apocalyptic” as he stomped around “uttering streams of sacred and profane commentary that found their way into books, articles, lectures and sermons.” In 2000 Bill Clinton awarded him the National Endowment for the Humanities medal. A PBS documentary, “God’s Will,” profiles his life.

This week Bill Leonard, the Divinity School’s founding dean, who holds the James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies, offers a must-read remembrance of Campbell called “The Freedom of Will” at Leonard examines the paradox of a man who witnessed unspeakable “meanness” all around him in the turbulent South but who never gave up on grace.

He also recounts a fine Wake Forest anecdote: “Will once told me that he fully understood the name “Demon Deacons” for the Wake Forest University mascot. ‘Hell,’ he commented, ‘anybody who’s ever been in a Baptist church knows at least one demon deacon!’ Will could sanctify profanity like no one else.”

Kyle Webster's portrait of Campbell for Words Awake!

Kyle Webster’s portrait of Campbell for Words Awake!

Campbell was truly a distinguished alumnus, ahead of his time, and, through it all, as brave in the cities as in the backwoods.

The Genesis of Ode to Reynolda Gardens

The idea came to me in June when I interviewed Rogan Kersh (’86) about his returning home to Wake Forest to become provost. All these years he had been away as a scholar and administrator at Yale, Syracuse and New York University. What were his favorite spots at Wake Forest, those places he had missed? After all, he would be able to revisit them at his leisure (on the rare occasions a provost has leisure) once installed in his new post in Reynolda Hall. He said, not surprisingly: “Some of them are almost clichés, I guess. Reynolda Gardens, an extraordinary place to walk or run or lose oneself for a while when things are going poorly or especially well.”

There it was again. Reynolda Gardens topped an alumnus’ list of memorable places. Reynolda Gardens has the force of gravity, pulling our Wake Forest community to the earth as well as to the woods, the paths, the wetlands and, on certain meditative runs, tranquillity. I recalled how many times alumni mentioned to me their deep affection for the place. The latest issue of Wake Forest Magazine celebrates the gardens through the photography of Travis Dove (’04), who studied communication and studio art and now works as a freelance photographer in Durham, N.C. His work appears in the latest issue of Our State magazine. Rolling Stone, National Geographic and Newsweek have featured his photographs as well. I noticed on election day he was shooting from Raleigh for The New York Times. Having escaped to the gardens as a student, Dove understands the emotional connection many of us feel for the place. You will be delighted by his photographs in the spring issue of Wake Forest Magazine. Space prevented us from featuring them all in the issue, but we don’t want you to miss a single image. Deputy Editor Janet Williamson has prepared a slideshow of all the Reynolda Gardens photographs Dove shot for us last summer, accompanied by music from the music department’s Flute Fest. I hope you will enjoy it.

Online education — the Wake Forest way

Last month The New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” the year universities wanted in on the game-changing movement toward massive open online courses. The Times called MOOCs an evolving form that combines education, entertainment and social networking. “Traditional courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrollment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors,” Laura Pappano of the Times wrote. “The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and, well, massive.” (Here marks the historic moment that helped define the higher education disruption: More than 150,000 people signed up to take Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun’s class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.”)

The Times piece appeared two weeks before Wake Forest alumni received a letter from Provost Rogan Kersh and Dean of the College Jacque Fetrow announcing that Wake Forest had joined a “Semester Online” consortium of elite colleges and universities exploring whether and how to offer undergraduate students the opportunity to take online courses for credit from members of the consortium. The group includes Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, UNC Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, the University of Rochester, Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis. The company engaged as a partner that would develop an interactive platform is 2U, which Forbes named this year along with Zappos, Instagram and Airbnb as one of 10 visionary startups to admire and model.

I sat down with the provost last week to determine whether Wake Forest had joined the stampede toward MOOCs. Not at all. The provosts are working together to shape the online platform. No one has signed up yet to offer courses, Provost Kersh said. The 2U website says the company expects the first cohort of students to begin classes in fall 2013, but it is unclear when Wake Forest would begin offering courses. “The danger will be if people assume this is done. We have not been asked to sign an agreement to join yet, and we will be back to the faculty discussing this in a committee of the whole before any decision is made,” Kersh said.

Provost Kersh earlier this year

What follows are excerpts from his answers to my questions about the direction of online education at Wake Forest.

Q: MOOCs are all the rage. How is this different?

Kersh: MOOCs are all the rage. There are certainly ways I can imagine a MOOC-style course helping to supplement a student’s learning, especially about some kind of esoteric subject. But it doesn’t fit with a residential, face-to-face, grounded model of a Wake Forest education that 40 million students are taking the same course offered from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, A to Z.

The appeal of Semester Online is it’s a much more curated, focused, bounded, specific, online offering. Wake is never going to tear off after online anything because it’s the sexy, exciting thing to do. We don’t just tear off after things for their own sake. I think what we are good at is figuring out in what way do technological innovations of all kinds supplement, fit into, help to buttress the traditional Wake Forest model of education. We have a deep, abiding commitment to liberal arts, face-to-face residential as the central model. If at the edges we can provide laptops for every student, start Mac labs — when I was here in 1984 Wake Forest had one of the first Mac labs for students to go use to type our papers in the country. We’ve often been at or towards the forefront of using technology in ways that supplement our basic mission and values, and this feels like another example. Semester Online felt like the best example of an opportunity to explore what online looks like. But this is not a MOOC. I would be very surprised if Wake Forest students were getting credit for any MOOC in the near or distant future.

Q: Explain Semester Online and whether it is a definite plan for the University.

Kersh: Semester Online has evolved and continues to evolve, so any snapshot in time is going to be ambiguous. The idea here is to get a consortium of highly ranked (colleges and universities). Each will offer no more than three — or perhaps as few as one — online courses but not in a MOOC massively open online version but in the size that these institutions are accustomed to offering. …

The general idea is this tightly defined consortium will offer a collective set of courses, the first users of whom will be those university students under very specific circumstances, not students on campus taking a full load at the time but students who are overseas for a semester. In Wake Forest’s case (a student in) one of our language houses who might need a biology course or an art course to stay on track for a degree. A student who has an amazing internship for the summer and is far away and would like to take one of these Semester Online courses during the summer or for that matter has the internship of their dreams and can stay for the fall semester and continue on toward their degree using Semester Online courses.

Wake would still maintain control if it’s another school’s course or if it’s a Wake online course. Just as when I was a student here, I took a Catholic University course/experience in the British Parliament, for example, and I had an adviser here who looked at what I did and gave me credit for it. We’d still maintain that type of control. …

The other group of students who can take these courses will be at what are called affiliate universities — a larger band of elite, highly ranked universities who would like their students to have access to the courses but who will not be invited to offer courses themselves. The consortium will be closed for schools that can offer courses. A larger band of students (from affiliate schools) will be enabled to apply for admission to take courses but (their schools) will not be offering the courses. A Wake Forest faculty member who wishes to offer a Semester Online course, if we decide to join as a collective body, (could have in the online class) students presumably from Wake Forest; a big chunk of the students will be from consortium schools; and there may be students from affiliate schools as well. Those are the rings of the Planet Saturn that is Semester Online.

Q: How would the Semester Online program, if we go forward with it, avoid diluting the kind of experience we have with small class sizes, mentoring and a sense of community on campus?

Kersh: This would be a supplement designed to provide a version of the Wake Forest experience to students who are not currently on campus, who, again, are pursuing an internship of their dreams, who are away for a semester or a summer, who are ill and can’t physically be at Wake Forest.

That’s the way I think of the supplemental nature of Semester Online. Not replacing one-for-one students’ on-campus experience and outside the classroom with faculty and that kind of mentorship and connection. This is not a replacement. It is the supplement at the edges. …

The consortium right now exists as a group of elite schools’ provosts communicating with each other about what this program could look like as we begin to shape it. There are no actual schools signed up to offer courses as of yet. We had this wonderful chance to get in on the ground floor both to understand the online world more and to understand how online education fits into other elite schools’ missions and values. That helps inform our conversation.

This really is a brave new world or a bad new world; we just don’t know yet. Anyone who says: “I know exactly the future of online education at American colleges and universities” is smoking something I don’t want any of. No one knows what the revenue is like. A handful of faculty have made serious money off MOOCs, but no university has figured it out as part of the business model. We are not thinking of Semester Online principally, secondarily or even tertiarily as a source of revenue. That may happen down the road — that would be nice — but we’re much more focused on what our student demand might be for this kind of support, and (for) faculty who might want to put a toe in this area, this is a useful opportunity to do so.