Elmhurst College: A Letter from the President

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A Letter from the President

Dear Friends of Elmhurst College,

Last week, the College received considerable attention about its decision to include an optional question on its admission application that would allow prospective students to self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. While the news coverage overall has been highly favorable, it has inspired a great deal of commentary and expressions of opinion, both for and against this administrative action. I’ve heard a number of legitimate concerns expressed by our many varied constituents, and—unfortunately but inevitably—I’ve heard the College’s action and intentions misrepresented at times in some of the media.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, I thought I’d reach out to you with some thoughts on “frequently asked questions” inspired by last week’s coverage.

Question 1.  Why did Elmhurst decide to add this question to its application for admission?
The decision originated quite naturally in the Office of Admission. Each year, Dean of Admission Gary Rold and his team evaluate the effectiveness of the admission application, adding some questions and retiring others. The process is well-grounded in a clear understanding of what constitutes current best practice in undergraduate admissions.

As Gary told me and the cabinet, “Elmhurst works very hard to find ways to help students transition to college life. Key to that transition is the identification of students with particular qualities who are looking for a friendly, supportive campus environment. For many years, we have sought information about ethnicity, race, faith tradition, national origin and language spoken at home, with the intent of facilitating the transition of the applicant to full membership in our campus community. We ask students about their interests, high school activities and the like so that they can be put in touch with valuable campus resources and programming, and to gauge their eligibility for certain scholarships. This year, we simply decided that the time had come for our campus to include self-identified LGBT students in this process. Creating a positive, welcoming environment for all of our students is part of our mission. It’s reflected in our core values.”

Question 2.  What about this scholarship money?
Every year, we offer prospective students a wide range of scholarships—Presidential, Dean’s, Founders, Transfer Excellence, UCC, Music, Art and Theatre and others. For many years, we’ve offered what we call Enrichment Scholarships to members of groups that have been traditionally underrepresented on campus.  As we note in our admission materials, this scholarship “is not limited by race or ethnicity,” though it often is informed by those attributes. We’ve awarded Enrichment Scholarships to a wide range of qualified students whose presence in our community would add to the diversity and richness of campus life, including students who have unusual talents or who are African American, Hispanic, Asian, Mixed Race, Muslim, Hindu and so forth. This year, we also will offer this scholarship to academically qualified, self-identified LGBT students.

At one-third tuition, the Enrichment Scholarship serves as a relatively modest incentive for enrollment. Our average scholarship is over 40% of tuition. This year, we offered scholarships to 1,800 admitted students (both first-year and transfer); about 12% were Enrichment Scholarships. The overwhelming majority of scholarships are offered based solely on academic criteria. Many students who were eligible for an Enrichment Scholarship actually qualified for an academic scholarship that superseded the Enrichment award.

Finally, as Gary Rold notes, “scholarships are offered as a discount off of a student’s tuition and do not take money away from other students. We do not have a fixed number of scholarships. We offer scholarships to all qualifying admitted students.”

Question 3. But why are you offering scholarships to LGBT students? What do they add to campus life?
A self-identified LGBT student brings distinct perspectives and experiences to campus, which add significantly to our cultural diversity. Of course, among our core values is our commitment to cultural diversity and to fostering mutual respect among all persons. Moreover, the best research in the field shows that undergraduates learn better when they engage a wide range of persons both like and unlike themselves. They prepare better for life in a highly diverse society and a multicultural world. For all of these reasons, we intentionally recruit students of color, students from a wide geographic area, first-generation students and many others. In short, self-identified LGBT students add to our campus mix and thus enhance the education of all of our students.

Question 4.  Did our affiliation with the UCC play a part in this decision?
Yes. It plays a part in all of our efforts to serve our students and live out our institutional values. The UCC describes itself as “extravagantly welcoming.” We are, too. The church has a long and honored tradition of meeting people where they are in life to share the Good News. That tradition is highly consonant with our own core values.

By the way, when the President and General Minister of the UCC, the Reverend Dr. Geoffrey Black, received word of the change in our application, he sent me an email. “This is good news!” he said. “I might add that it is yet another UCC first and I am delighted to hear about it.”

Question 5.  Aside from determining scholarship eligibility, how will asking this question on the application help LGBT students?   
In practical terms, we invite applicants to identify themselves as members of the LGBT community in order to provide them with better student services when they arrive on campus. As for all students from underrepresented groups, the sooner we know how many such students to expect, the better we can plan appropriate co-curricular programming, as well as link up those students with their particular campus affinity groups—such as the Black Student Union, HABLAMOS, or Straights and Gays for Equality (SAGE).

In short, we want LGBT students, like all students, to succeed at Elmhurst. We want them to learn and grow in a safe environment. We want them to know from the start that they will not feel isolated here because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Question 6.  Won’t people lie on their applications just to get an Enrichment Scholarship?
That is always a possibility. A white person might try to pass as a light-skinned Native American, for example. At worst, adding LGBT persons to the mix may marginally increase the potential for pranks and fraud. In fact, though, there’s no evidence that either happens a lot in practice, at Elmhurst or elsewhere. Young people tend to take college applications seriously; they tend not to see them as opportunities for mischief.

Question 7.  Why weren’t alumni and friends of the College informed in advance of this change?
In candor, it didn’t occur to us to announce this sort of move. At one level, adding a single, optional question to our application is the sort of routine thing we do on campus many times every day.  It didn’t constitute a change in College policy; rather it represented an application of our existing admission policies and processes, grounded in our well-articulated mission and core values, to an additional set of prospective students.

At the same time, I regret the fact that some of our friends felt blindsided by the move, and I understand that people of good will can disagree with our decision.  Our goal now is to engage all of our friends, whatever their point of view, in constructive dialogue on this and all other issues.

Question 8.  What was your strategy for dealing with the news media?
We did not make this move for the publicity. Once our administrative decision entered the public realm, however, our Office of Communications and Public Affairs worked tirelessly with the news media to ensure that they reached the right campus contacts and that they clearly heard the way that the institution understands its decision. This careful framing of the story appeared on our College home page and is reflected in much of the media coverage. In short, we understood this action as a principled institution seeking to do right by its students. This understanding is reflected in the respectful coverage we received in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Chicago Sun-Times (both story and editorial), the Chicago Tribune, Inside Higher Ed, on Chicago Public Radio, on the web sites of CNN and Time, on Channel 5 and elsewhere. Moreover, Melissa Allen ’07 of our communications team monitored Twitter and other social media venues and responded effectively and respectfully to comments.

Question 9.  What has the mail been like?
Predictably, it’s been mixed. For decades now, our society has been in flux on LGBT issues.  We understand that we’ve entered a discussion in progress, and we’re determined to state our point of view as fully, respectfully and thoughtfully as we can. We are especially eager to engage our alumni and friends who may have questions.

In closing, I would like to share one email in particular that stood out for me. It came from a woman I’ve never met, who lives in Pennsylvania.

“Dr. Ray—bravo!” it began. “I congratulate you on the inclusive nature of your [institution]. As the mother of a young man who came out shortly before his senior year in high school, I only wish the universities and colleges to which he applied would have asked that question. He ended up attending Bowling Green State University in Ohio and found his way, but there were many bumps along the road. I wonder how much smoother his road would have been at Elmhurst. Many, many thanks to you for your progressive, sensitive and open-minded attitude. Best wishes for a great academic year.”

If you would like to know more about the change in our admission application, please contact Dean of Admission Gary Rold. Thank you for your attention and interest in Elmhurst College.

Sincerely,

S. Alan Ray
President
Elmhurst College

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