Rapelye looks forward to representing Princeton
By Ruth Stevens
Princeton NJ -- The committee of faculty, staff and students that participated in the search for a new dean of admission learned a great deal about the admission operation at Princeton and other schools during the five-month process. Now the committee members -- particularly the faculty -- are eager to share their findings with the new dean, Janet Rapelye.
That sounds very appealing to Rapelye, who worked over the past 12 years at Wellesley College with a 43-member "Board of Admission." The group of faculty, students, staff and administrators was responsible for making admission decisions.
While she doesn't plan to replicate the Board of Admission at Princeton, there are parts of the process she hopes to bring with her.
"Whether it means involving faculty members in the actual [application] reading (because it's an enormous commitment) or whether it's spending more time with them, finding out what their interests and desires and experiences in the classroom with students are -- I will want to find the right mix," she said.
Rapelye (rhymes with "happily") said she wasn't looking for a new job when she became aware of the Princeton opening. But several factors attracted her to the position, including the intellectual opportunities available to students, the University's commitment to its financial aid program and the pending expansion of the undergraduate student body.
"Having been at other places that are selective -- Williams, Bowdoin, Stanford and Wellesley -- one of the things I've really loved about the work that I've done has been looking for intellectual curiosity and academic excellence, and that is something that is valued here," she said. "The kind of academic work that students do, in terms of their junior- and senior-year focus, is really unparalleled. That appealed to me in being able to represent an institution that values its undergraduate experience and the intellectual life of the undergraduate."
Rapelye termed the University's generous funding of its financial aid program "a real foundation" that would support her work in admission.
She said she looks forward to the 500-student increase in the student body, expected to be phased in starting in the fall of 2006. "What a wonderful opportunity to admit more students to take advantage of what is here," she said. "[Because] the applicant pool is so broad and deep, this is something that could only be good for the University. I see the expansion of the student body as an expansion of thought, and that's what Princeton is about -- that's what higher education is about."
Many approaches to admission
At Wellesley, Rapelye is credited with working to expand the size of the applicant pool and increase the diversity of the student body. While she said Princeton's applicant pool is larger than she has been dealing with (Wellesley receives 3,400 applications per year and Princeton receives more than 15,000), she believes her 20 years of experience in the field of admission will carry her through the transition to a larger, more complex institution.
"The great value of having worked at places like Bowdoin, Williams, Stanford and Wellesley is that I have learned that there's not just one way to do admissions," she said. "There are many different ways. I have learned each time that I have moved to adjust to a new system and then to bring the best practices with me."
Rapelye said her key achievement at Wellesley was looking at where the need was -- a too-small applicant pool -- addressing it and changing it over time (it increased 34 percent during her tenure). Right now, she believes one of Princeton's needs is to more effectively communicate the University's strengths.
"[We need] to convey how extraordinarily powerful this institution is to students and parents in a way that meets them where they are," she said. "I think Princeton has been doing that, but I think there are many more ways now -- because of technology, because of the Web sites, because of the way publications can be put together -- that could be built upon."
Some of the "best practices" Rapelye used at Wellesley involved ensuring the diversity of the student body. She mentioned several strategies implemented to reach out to underrepresented groups, including high school visits, campus visits, phone-a-thons, online chats and targeted mailings.
"There is not one thing that I can point to that did everything -- it was all of those programs and more that really helped us achieve our goals," she said. "Everyone on the staff was a recruiter of students of color. It is a bigger job than just one person can handle."
Rapelye said that the Supreme Court's ruling in the University of Michigan cases will have a great impact on these types of programs. "I'm very much hoping that the Supreme Court supports affirmative action and allows us the greatest latitude in making decisions," she said. "If there is a ruling against affirmative action, we will, of course, comply with the law. And I imagine I will rely heavily on colleagues here at Princeton as well as colleagues elsewhere to come up with new ways to work toward a more diverse and multicultural community. That won't be easy if that happens.
"But I think the value of educating students from every background -- whether it's ethnicity or race or socioeconomic -- is important," she continued. "And I also think that having a wide definition of diversity -- diversity of backgrounds, diversity of beliefs, diversity of talents, diversity of thought -- is something that is very important to the world of higher education."
In addition to affirmative action, issues that recently have been in sharp focus for Rapelye include early admission and legacy admission. Wellesley currently offers both early decision (as does Princeton) and "early evaluation," a nonbinding decision plan under which students get an early indication of their chances for admission.
"If used responsibly, early decision or early action programs can be very good programs both for the institution and the student," she said. "But I do worry that there are students across the country, primarily in advantaged schools -- whether they're public or private -- who feel that they have to apply early decision or they have missed an opportunity. That wasn't what early decision or early action was started for. It is important to be a player in the national debate, and I certainly look forward to playing a part in those discussions."
In discussing legacy admission, Rapelye said that admitting offspring of alumni is important -- but not to the exclusion of other more qualified applicants. "I feel strongly that at private institutions, such as Princeton and the ones where I've worked, paying attention to family ties of the institution are a worthy consideration in the admissions process," she said. "However, I think each student needs to earn [a] place in a class. So I think admitting legacies is an important part of the process, but I don't think just being a legacy guarantees a spot in the class."
Another issue Rapelye faced at Wellesley that she expects to deal with at Princeton is dispelling outdated stereotypes of the institution.
"One of Wellesley's images that it is trying to dispel is the white gloves and pearls," she said. "I'm quite used to having to discuss the current realities of an institution versus what its history is.
"The histories are important, though, and I think there are great strengths from those histories and those traditions," she continued. "But the world has changed and these institutions have changed. The ability to articulate what those changes are and to build on the wonderful foundations that are here is an important part of what an admissions office has to do. I think it's important to recognize the traditions and the history of the place, and yet to say we are in a very different place now."
As she prepares to leave Wellesley and join the Princeton staff on July 1, Rapelye said her first order of business will be to become acquainted with the faculty and staff. She particularly mentioned getting to know faculty members with an interest in the admission process, coaches and the admission office staff.
"I see job one as trying to meet as many people as possible," she said. "In a large complex place such as Princeton, that won't be done over a summer. That's going to be a few years' work. But that's an important part of coming into a job like this."
Rapelye said she views another of her accomplishments at Wellesley as "having built a staff with whom I really enjoy working, who are wonderful professionals, who really contribute to the mission of the college. I'm very anxious to get in and work with the staff here and to support them and to find ways where we can work together," she said.
She also plans to assess the internal procedures in the admission office. "I'm not anxious to come in and make a lot of change at first," she said. "I'd like to learn what is working, and then build upon that. I'd like to come in and really get the lay of the land, and to learn what is really good here. You don't process 15,000 applications without doing a lot of things right."
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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Karin Dienst, Eric Quinones, Evelyn Tu
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Margaret Westergaard
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett