Former Dean of Admissions and class of 1929
Interviewed on January 17-18, 1979 by Horace W. Hewlett
Tape 1, January 17, 1979:
Tape 2: January 17-18, 1979:
Tape 3: January 18, 1979:
[This transcript was produced at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions]
HWH: This is Horace Hewlett talking with Eugene S. Wilson, Dean of Admission Emeritus at Amherst College, in Grosvenor House on the Amherst campus on Wednesday, January 17, 1979.
By way of introduction, Bill, let me just note for the record that at Amherst you were Alumni Secretary from 1939 to ‘46; you taught English during that period, too, part of two years; and you were Dean of Admission from 1946 to 1971. How did you happen to come back to Amherst from your work on the Wilson Lines in Philadelphia?
WILSON: Well, Bud, I had spent ten years in the inland water transportation business, starting as a stevedore and then truck driver and work in the shipyard and ending up in passenger traffic. I had been assigned to Philadelphia from ‘36 to ‘39. I got interested in occupational counseling through the Junior Chamber of Commerce, which I helped found in Philadelphia, and through occasional lectures at the Wharton School of Business. This brought inquiries from students who wanted to know how to get a job in business, so this particular sideline of work fascinated me-- how young men decide what they’re going to do with their lives.
Fred Allis came through Philadelphia in 1938, I think it was, and had lunch with me. I had been a Class Agent for a year or two after graduation, but I had not been back to Amherst but once-- in the fall of ‘35-- for a brief period and I couldn’t be considered a very loyal alumnus except that I of course gave a few dollars each year.
In 1939 I had two offers, one to come to Amherst as Alumni Secretary and the other was to be Vice President in charge of passenger traffic for Chicago and Southern Airlines. Well, I decided I’d rather work with the youth aged 18 to 22 than fly the skies, so I told Fred Allis I would be an active applicant for the job of Alumni Secretary. There was a meeting in New York of the Executive Committee of the Alumni Council consisting of Jack McCloy, Walter Orr, and Dwight Billings-- I’ve forgotten who else was on the committee-- and they took me to lunch and interviewed me for an hour after lunch about my thoughts and whether I was going to use Amherst as a stepping stone to some other job and so forth and so on. But they, after I’d left, agreed to offer me the job. I came back to my tenth reunion. My acceptance depended on Stanley King accepting me and he arranged an hour-and-a-half interview with me at my tenth reunion on Sunday on the porch of his house. We had a very interesting talk. Stanley King and my father had run the 1921 $3,000,000 campaign and were good friends. I suppose this didn’t hurt me in my interview, but anyway Stanley agreed and so I came to Amherst in September 1939.
HWH: I’ll be darned. Was your father a classmate of Stanley’s?
WILSON: No. He was 1902 and Stanley was 1903,
HWH: The Chairman of the Board of Trustees at that time, as I recall, was Al Stearns.
WILSON: That’s right.
HWH: And he was the entire time you were Alumni Secretary.
WILSON: I believe so; I’d have to check the records on that. Fred Allis continued as Secretary to the Board of Trustees, I think for two years, and then I was Secretary pro tem and then made secretary and continued until I took the Admission job, and then I think Al Guest took over as Secretary. I’m not sure.
HWH: Yes, in ‘46
WILSON: Walter Dyer (1900) edited The Graduates Quarterly and he resigned. I tried desperately to get a member of the English Department to take over the editorship of this noteworthy publication. George Whicher turned it down, Ted Baird turned it down; I couldn’t get anybody to take it so it was forced upon me and I edited it ‘til I think ‘47 when Horace Hewlett (1936) came to Amherst to lighten my burdens.
HWH: I think George Whicher edited it after Genung gave up the editorship.
WILSON: I think he did for a few years. That’s right. I thought he’d love to do it again, but it turned out not to be true.
HWH: Did you find that combination more interesting-- being secretary of the Board as well as Alumni Secretary?
WILSON: Yes, it tied me in more closely with the things that were going on at the College. As Alumni Secretary my job was to interpret the College to the Alumni through meetings-- I traveled with Stanley King-- and in editing the Quarterly it gave me a more overall picture of the College. I was permitted to attend faculty meeting as a visitor and this also helped me to understand, in part at least, what was going on at Amherst.
HWH: Any members of the Board stand out in your mind as being particularly helpful to the College?
WILSON: Well, Eustace Seligman was one of the key questioners of the president, always the one who’d done the most thorough research on matters to come before the Board, and was an outstanding trustee. Francis Plimpton was very good. Harlan Stone didn’t enter often into the debate or discussion, but when he did his views were quite often controlling. Stanley King was a master at preparing himself for the meetings and if he had something coming up that he wanted which might be rejected, he would call Harlan Stone and Lewis Douglas and Frank Boyden and Al Stearns ahead of time and then say to the Board, “I haven’t had a chance to call all of you. This has come up rather suddenly. But I have talked to the four men I’ve mentioned and they agree that this might be a worthy project. Is there anybody who has any comment?” And of course nobody wanted to argue with the men listed. Jack McCloy was as serious about his business there...
HWH: A very distinguished group.
WILSON: It was a distinguished Board. Clare Francis was on it.
HWH: Did Al Stearns have an imprint?
WILSON: I wouldn’t say so. He did pretty much what Stanley wanted. He was a dignified chairman but not an active participant in most of the debates.
HWH: You mentioned that you taught for two years.
WILSON: Taught English composition under Professor Baird’s direction. During the war, when they were hard up for an English teacher, Stanley King gave me a temporary appointment as an instructor in English. They were two exciting years for me because I didn’t know very much and I told the class this at the start and we learned together as far as it was possible. I’m sure that I learned more than any man in my class.
HWH: Do you remember any students at that time that stand out in your mind?
WILSON: Well, I’d have to go over the records to see. There’s a chemist down at Brown, who was one of the candidates for the Amherst presidency, named Gibbs who stood out in the class, but these were men assigned from the Army class, they weren’t Amherst men, most of them. And in the pre-meteorology group and other groups that were assigned here, so they were mostly men who were fleeting through Amherst in pursuit of a military career of some sort.
HWH: What brought you into the Admission post?
WILSON: Well, Charlie Cole had agreed to accept the presidency. I hadn’t known Charlie very well, although his wife and my wife grew up together in St. Louis and were the closest of friends all through their secondary school days, and they lived on Orchard Street near the house we had when we first came to Amherst. So I got to know Charlie and through our wives we became close, and when Charlie said he’d accept the Presidency, he asked me if I would be willing to move over and be Dean of Admission and Dean of Freshmen.
HWH: Do you have any idea why he felt this would be a good post for you?
WILSON: I don’t know. I’d worked closely with him on the alumni study that the Alumni Council put on at the end of the war on post-war Amherst. It was my thought that this was one way of involving the alumni in the intellectual life of the College. We established four sub-committees in different areas of the College operation-- one of them on curriculum. Charlie Cole was the overall head of this program. I was secretary of all the four sub-committees and reported directly to Charlie, so I worked very closely with him. I got to know him very well, and he got to know me very well, so I don’t know what made him think of me in this position. But he asked me if I would take it and I said it was one job that would excite me.
HWH: As secretary of that post-war study, you must have had responsibility for appointing a good number of alumni that served on those committees.
WILSON: I had a pretty good run-down on the experience and ability of many alumni, and that curriculum committee was an outstanding group-- all the committees had top men on them who were alumni and who gave their time. We paid their expenses for travel. The curriculum committee had its final meeting at the Princeton Inn and the College picked up the expenses for that weekend of work, but they got no other remuneration for their labors. They were really interested in making some intelligent suggestions for what Amherst should be like, how it should shape itself in the post-war period. And Gail Kennedy worked closely with these committees. He read carefully the reports that came out and Stanley King was so helpful on this because he sponsored and supported financially four colloquia at Amherst between the faculty and the alumni committees. The one on admission and scholarships, for instance, met here and reported to the faculty, and the President and Dean MacMeekin, who was handling admissions then, were present. And the curriculum committee met with Kennedy’s committee when they were here for their colloquium. So there was a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas between alumni who’d been through Amherst and Gail Kennedy and his workers.
HWH: This has diverted a little from what we had discussed before, but I had missed this, this is an area on which I had no information.
WILSON: Well the alumni published their report, which is in the Archives, a very complete report, each sub-committee reported.
HWH: “Amherst Tomorrow,” I think.
WILSON: Yes. Correct. A very interesting document.
HWH: Well, Stanley has been thought of by many as a President who added buildings and endowment to the College, but perhaps more credit should be due him for his thoughts of post-war Amherst.
WILSON: I think he saw that he might be resigning and that the curriculum and the whole social life-- the question of fraternities was one of the great problems then, they were being challenged all over the country-- and it seemed an opportune time to have these studies going on.
HWH: Well, I think both the alumni report and the faculty report were landmarks.
WILSON: Yes. I was Director of the American Alumni Council in my last year with that organization and I presented a paper on what we were doing and thought other alumni would do the same thing, but to my knowledge no other college tried it.
HWH: This answers in part the question that led us into this discussion. I think Charlie may have recognized you as someone who knew the faculty, who knew the alumni involved, and was sympathetic to the ideas that came up in both the alumni and the faculty reports.
Having selected you, Bill, you began your duties early in the fall...
WILSON: July 1st. July 1st MacMeekin left his office and I then moved in. And the Class of 1950, the largest class at that time to enter Amherst, had been admitted and I was to be their Dean of Freshmen. So I spent the summer and the course of the whole year studying their folders. Through my counseling of those who were in difficulty, either emotional or academic or behavioral-- it was a lively class-- I got some insight into what to look for in future candidates. It was a wonderful laboratory for a fellow to have at the start.
In going through the Admission Office I found no studies that had been made of any sort of correlations between College Board scores and marks, rank-in-class. There were no cumulative records from schools, the feeder Schools, so the first thing we did was to go back five years and write down the name of every school which had sent us a student. We put under that school the name of each boy that had come to Amherst and we marked down his rank in class at his school and his College Board scores. I guess that was the main thing-- rank in class and the College Board Scores. So we had a five-year record of every school that sent us students.
One of the interesting things that came out of this was that in the following June, in ‘47, Al Stearns came into my office at the June Board and Commencement Weekend. Al was Chairman of the Board at Mercersburg Academy and headmaster emeritus of Andover. And he said, “Bill, I’ve got some questions to ask you. Three men applied from Mercersburg Academy this year and they were all turned down. They look like good men according to Mercersburg’s records. Why did you turn them down?” A question that I was to hear often in the next twenty-five years from a variety of sources. So I got out the book on Mercersburg Academy. Nobody who’d had an average of less than 85 at Mercersburg Academy had succeeded at Amherst academically. And none of these applicants had a record of over 85. I said, “Since you’re familiar with Andover, let me show you the Andover record. We would take any boy from Andover who graduated in his class of 250. Boys with a 60 average would do 70 work at Amherst. Boys with a 70 average would do 80 work at Amherst So,” I said, “you can see from our cumulative records why we…” Well, he couldn’t believe the figures. So I think he went back to Mercersburg and had some talks with them, but he had no further questions for me on that score.
But those are the records that I used. Of course we kept them up to date each year and they were a big help in evaluating the academic work being done at the variety of schools, too, from which students came.
HWH: You said that when you began in July of ‘46, that the Class of 1950 had already been admitted and was the largest the College had ever had. It might be well for the record to explain why that was the largest class.
WILSON: That’s a good question, Bud, because it happened that that was the year that the veterans were getting out and the College had to face the problem of how much they were going to favor veterans and how much their regular clientele. The secondary schools were very much afraid that the veterans would take so many places that they wouldn’t get many of their students into colleges. And Amherst, I think, did a wise thing: they took about 200, as I remember it, veterans and 210 civilians, so there was only a drop of a few civilians and, we could tell the schools that we were not going to cut them short on the distribution of our freshman class. That’s why it was so big, that number of veterans. The Class of ‘51, for instance, had a drop to fifty veterans and 200 regulars.
HWH: Did this cause any problems in your entrance as Dean of Freshmen in counseling a class that large?
WILSON: Well, as I remember, Hack Coplin was here as our clinical psychologist and he and I worked closely together. Cases that were beyond my experience and ken made me feel that I could pass them on to Hack Coplin and he’d determine whether they went on to a psychiatrist or not. But I don’t remember any unusual disorder from the veterans. They were serious about their work, they played hard and they worked hard. They were anxious to get going in the world and get their studies in shape.
HWH: As I recall, as a whole they were a group of serious students after all they’d been through.
WILSON: That’s right.
HWH: Now there was an unpleasantness as you arrived and that involves succeeding your predecessor, Dick MacMeekin.
WILSON: Yes, Stanley King had told him he could remain in his college house for a year if he wanted to without pay. We all thought he would leave for another job, but he didn’t. He stayed here all year and had some things to say about me and Charlie Cole, but we survived without being shot at, one way or another, just by words. He left after a year.
HWH: Hadn’t there been some agreement, or at least understanding, that Stanley would give Dick the word?
WILSON: Oh yes. That was a very nasty situation, because when Charlie said he would become President, he got President King to agree, in a meeting in New York, that Stanley King would tell Dick MacMeekin that he would not be reappointed, and give him a chance to resign and go out with Stanley. But Stanley returned to Amherst and talked things over with his wife and the very next day wrote Charlie and said, “No, I will not let MacMeekin know ahead of time. You’ll have to fire him.” And the assumption was that Peg King had said to him, “You can’t do this to Dick MacMeekin. He’s your appointee. Let Charlie fire him if he wants to, but you keep out of it.” So Stanley changed his mind. It was a nasty situation. Dick was not told ahead of time.
HWH: Dick had other duties than Admission, too, didn’t he? Wasn’t he a kind of right hand for Stanley in a number of things?
WILSON: I don’t know that he had other duties. Stanley was really admission officer and told Dick what to do. Stanley had good friends whose sons couldn’t get in for one reason or another, and they would come up to see Stanley and Stanley would interview these young men and then he would admit them and put S.K. on the folder, which meant that the boy was to be admitted regardless of anything else. It would be fascinating some day to make a study of the S.K.s. I suspect they’ve become successful young men-- men like Charlie Merrill, who may not have had enough Latin but had a lot of other things.
I only had one brush with MacMeekin; it was towards the end of his stay here. I guess the next to the last year I was visiting Buffalo alone, and the Nichols School was the feeder school there and Stanley King always visited when he went there. Stanley and Dick when they traveled together, would always visit the private schools, never the public schools. So I went into Dick MacMeekin’s office and said, “Dick, I’m going up to Buffalo and see the alumni up there and I have a day free. Can I be of any help to you in interviewing anybody?” And Dick said, “No, you keep out of Admission. I don’t interfere with you in your Alumni work and you stay out of Admission-- we don’t need any help from you.” So I said, “O.K.” That’s the way it was there.
HWH: Was the procedure which you found in any way scientific, or was it all based on reputation and interview?
WILSON: Well, in those days we asked “religion,” and I noticed the number of Jewish students ran three to five percent. I didn’t think much about this until I went to a meeting at Yale University called by Noyes, who was then admission officer at Yale, and the Admission Officers from Princeton and Harvard and Dartmouth and, I believe, Williams and Swarthmore were there. And at the end of our meeting-- I’ve forgotten what we discussed-- but at the end of the meeting the Swarthmore admission officer said, “I’d like to know what you’re doing about the Jewish problem. I’d like to go ‘round the room and ask how many Jews there are in each of your classes.” Well, this was a new slant to me and when they got to me, I said, “We run three to five percent.” Well the Swarthmore man said, “Come on Bill, no kidding. Don’t hide anything, we’re all honest, we’re all talking freely.” I said, “I’m telling you. I’ve checked back five years. We run three to... We have very few applications from Jewish students.” “Well,” Swarthmore said, “I still think you’re lying; thirty percent of our applicants are Jews.” Being a Quaker school, telling everybody they have no prejudice, the Jews were piling up on Swarthmore. The other schools were all under ten percent. This horrified me, being a Quaker, too. So in one of our first reports to the schools, we made it very clear that race, creed, and color played no part in assessment at Amherst. And of course our number of Jewish applicants then began to zoom. The number of Jewish students in a class used to run between fifteen and twenty-two percent-- one year we had twenty-nine percent. When that happened and I told the faculty what the story was in my Annual Report to the faculty at the first faculty meeting, three of the faculty, whom I shall not mention, came up to me afterwards and said, “You’re going to ruin this place.” Two trustees, whom I shall not name, did the same thing when they saw the figures. But my feeling was that there are very able, interesting Jewish students around this country and if they’re going to be excluded from some places, this would be a good field to fish in. And so we began visiting the New York public schools, which the Ivy League would not do. Occasionally M.I.T. would send somebody to the Bronx High School of Science, but so far as I could tell, throughout my twenty five years, except for Harvard, the Ivy League and Wesleyan and Williams stayed under ten percent. They didn’t talk about it anymore but occasionally you’d get some indication, information of what was going on. And our Jewish students in our studies met our expectation by and large.
HWH: Did Charlie Cole give you complete freedom?
WILSON: Oh, when Charlie asked me to take the job, I said, “Only one requirement, Charlie: no race, creed, or color restrictions of any sort.” He said, “Of course not.” And Charlie never interfered in any way with Admission.
HWH: Did you have a faculty committee on admission then?
WILSON: No, the committee consisted of Dean Porter, Vincent Morgan or Curt Canfield who were handling veteran counseling at that time, my own assistant, whoever that was, and one faculty member. What we did under Charlie’s regime, we met once a year, when the Class had been selected, in the Admission office and Charlie made me read the name of every boy, his rank in class, the school he came from, and his College Board scores. We had some interesting things on this sort of thing, because we’d come to a boy, I remember, with a 300 verbal and a 325 math who had been admitted, and Charlie’d practically jump out of his chair and say, “What’s he got?” So I explained his background, the school he came from, his record, and how these scores couldn’t possibly be a fair indication of this boy’s ability. He ended up with an 81 average when he graduated and is now a public school teacher. But there were a few like that-- when you got to a low score, Charlie would come out of his chair.
HWH: Do I recall that Charlie used to have a kind of wild card?
WILSON: Well, each committee member was supposed to have a wild card, but they didn’t exercise it very often. The Dean would come down usually when we were in the final process, Dean Porter would come down, and he’d pick out a folder from the ones we were finally selecting and, “How did this one get in?” Or he’d go through the “out,” those we weren’t taking, and he’d pick out a fellow with high test grades, “Why isn’t he in?” But he would kid about it, and we were left completely free to select the class. That was the admission committee in those days. As the numbers of applicants mounted, when a faculty member was appointed to the Admission Committee I would ask him in and talk to him about the problems we had and what he was willing to do. Would he be willing to visit schools for a week with us in spring vacation? No, they never wanted to do that. Well, I said, “If you want to play a part in our selection, you’ve got to read every folder; you just can’t come in and read a few folders.” Several times they’d say, “Fine, we’d like to do that.” So they would come in at night when we were reading, and a couple of them read as many as 200 folders and said, “Forget it! Let us know when your final meeting is.” But at those meetings we discussed the make-up of the freshman class. When I took over, 65% of the students came from private schools, 35 from public. The studies I’d seen at other places showed that public school students academically, as a group, outperformed those from private schools.
[END OF SIDE ONE, TAPE ONE]
WILSON: So, over the years we gradually shifted in our make-up in a class to around 65% public school and 35% private. Since this was revealed in our Annual Reports to the schools, some of the Headmasters in the private schools were unhappy and stated so, but I was influenced in this move by our own studies which showed again that as a group the high school students performed better academically than the private school students. A very important study at Princeton (I do not remember the author’s name) not only showed this, but they took men at the end of freshman year who had similar test scores and similar record for freshman year and then studied them at the end of sophomore year and the public school students had moved ahead of the private school students. So this was one of the moves we made and it changed the picture a little bit at Amherst in the make-up of a class.
HWH: When I came to Amherst, I think anyone who applied was accepted. It’s far different from that now and it was over the years when you were head of Admission. Do you recall when Amherst became more popular for candidates for admission? Was it soon after the war, or can you think of any reason why Amherst’s reputation increased favorably?
WILSON: Well, once our New Curriculum was out we began to send reports to schools. We sent them out because the first year, I think it would be the Class of ‘51, we had about a thousand applicants, but some three or four hundred were not equipped to handle that New Curriculum. This led to our sending to the secondary school counselors a frank, open, honest statement on the curriculum and on the make-up of a class, and statements on what we were looking for in students, to try and help counselors keep from our doors those who were not qualified academically. So, when students had come here under the New Curriculum, had survived and gone back to their schools, we urged them to report to their counselors about their life here and how they liked it. The interest in Amherst began to grow and I think the counselors did more to ask students, “Well take a look at Amherst. With a record like yours, you might want to look at a place like Amherst.” In fact, we made the counselors the main point of our whole promotional efforts, rather than alumni. The other colleges were relying on alumni recruiters heavily and I hesitated to do this because the type of alumni who wanted to do this were the type who were healthy extroverts and liked to judge students by their personality, by their athletic ability, and I was afraid that we would not get the kind of students we wanted with alumni. Whereas with counselors, I felt we could get more of the kind of students we wanted. So our main efforts over those twenty-five years were keeping the counselors fully informed of what we were doing, giving them feed-back on the class, in fact our reports to schools were so frank and open that some of the Ivy League admission officers criticized me severely and said Amherst shouldn’t do this, that Board scores were confidential and whom you admitted were confidential and this kind of information should not be given out. Eventually, all of them but Harvard did it-- issue reports. In fact, so many schools began to issue reports that the College Board made up a special book showing the statistics on the reports to schools.
HWH: But you were the first to do this, as I recall.
WILSON: Amherst was one of the first. I’m not quite sure we were the first, but we were one of the first to promote relations with schools in this way.
HWH: Do you recall what year you began this?
WILSON: I think we began it in the fall of ‘47. This was one of the main reasons that helped us attract the kind of students we wanted because the counselors worked with us.
HWH: The so-called New Curriculum had many demands, as you indicated, that automatically turned back quite a few students who couldn’t handle one part of it or another since it was required. Did you find this an advantage?
WILSON: Well, it was an advantage in eliminating those who were faint of heart academically. When alumni would go around with me to visit schools and I’d talk to the five or ten students who were thinking of Amherst, the alumni were quite often horrified at the dim picture I gave of Amherst-- of the terrific pressure (not really pressure but challenge) to students that came from this curriculum-- that they were afraid that nobody would come, but I think quite the opposite happened. It helped us get the kind of students that the curriculum wanted to serve. And when we’d interview students in a group or singly and the student would say, “Well it sounds like an awfully tough program,” we wouldn’t try to console him and say, “No, it isn’t that tough.” We’d say “It is tough, very tough. And there are fine institutions that offer much easier programs like Williams and Wesleyan and we suggest you look at them.” In fact, I think we should get credit for boosting the applicants to both Williams and Wesleyan because we mentioned them so often. It was a help to us in getting the kind of students that the faculty wanted.
HWH: Did you find the students who came in as freshmen excited right through the first year?
WILSON: Well, the failures came from two areas, by and large: math-science and the foreign language. Knowing this, as we moved along through the years, we paid doubly close attention to the student’s preparation in mathematics, science, and foreign language. And it was for these two courses that we would turn down students most often, that we thought could not handle this challenge. After the first class was in Amherst, and I had them followed through freshman year, I saw that I could, with this curriculum where everybody would take the same thing except for foreign language, I could make a predicted average based on the student’s academic performance in secondary school and the College Board scores. So I began to make a predicted average for every freshman for his freshman year’s work, before the freshman reported. And this was put on the Bogie card. Then at every marking period--the six—weeks marking period and so forth, every six weeks we had a marking period-- I would check the performance of these freshmen against the predicted average. If a boy was more than five points below my predicted average, I would get him to come into the Dean of Freshmen’s office and I would talk with him. I wouldn’t accuse him of not meeting expectations, but just ask him how things were going and about his different courses. And this was a wonderful way to uncover problems that freshmen had, because some of them were really troubled about their roommate, relations with their family, girl problems, or they might need some extra help, some tutoring from upperclassmen, or to talk to a professor. So it was a wonderful way to follow up and it also taught me so much about Admission, because I could see where the weaknesses were in these students and chart in my own mind the kind of student that would find our program difficult. This was a laboratory and the thing that AMAZED me was that in talking to other admission officers they never followed up even the failures, because they said they were too busy-- how can I follow up? But being Dean of Freshmen was the greatest educational advantage for an admission officer.
HWH: I was about to ask you that. It must have been a terrific load, though.
WILSON: It didn’t seem to be. I seemed to have plenty of time with two secretaries to do all the work and the correspondence. I didn’t have a dictaphone in those days. I’d dictate for an hour and then interview the rest of the day or work on my research, or see freshmen or something.
HWH: You were on the road a lot, too.
WILSON: Not as much as I was in later years. When I dropped the Dean of Freshmen, I think it was in ‘57 or ‘58, Charlie Cole wanted me to devote myself to “deaning” work and turn the admission over to somebody else, and I said “No, no way. The most important job at Amherst is the admission of students. This is what makes the college and it’s more important than even your job, Mr. President.” Charlie didn’t agree with me on that. But I refused to go into deaning and Charlie thought I was crazy and he worked on Louise to get me to change my mind, but I wanted to stay as Admission officer and gave up the deaning which I missed tremendously. But those seven years that I had as Dean-- or whatever they were, seven or ten years-- taught me so much about admission that I thought I had a real advantage over admission people who never followed up.
HWH: Did you know of any other admission officers who were also Deans or counselors to freshmen?
WILSON: No, I didn’t. No.
HWH: As the New Curriculum began, my recollection is that the math-science course foundered for two or three years. It couldn’t really get the direction that the Kennedy committee had hoped. Then came Arnie Arons. Could you see a difference?
WILSON: No question about it. I wouldn’t say that it had foundered, but they did have difficulty integrating those two courses and making one out of them, and when Arons came, he was a “take charge” guy and he knew exactly what he wanted to do and the whole course had a greater unity. I’m sure he irritated some of his colleagues, but from my position he was one of the greatest teaching forces that Amherst had. I remember his first year in that course: he failed I believe it was 80 freshmen at the end of six weeks in the Math-Physics. We’d never had anything like this in the way of failures-- failures from these hand-picked guys--so when I saw the marks I, in my undiplomatic way, went right down to Arons’ office. I’d never met him so I introduced myself and said, “I’ve just seen your marks, Professor Arons, and the only conclusion I can come to is that you don’t know your business or I don’t know mine.” He looked at me in a gentle way, which he didn’t often look at people with, and said, “I don’t know whether you know your business or not, Mr. Wilson, but I know mine. And I urge you to hold off attacking me until the end of the year. Now these young men have been through science courses which did not ask them to think. They’ve been taught to memorize the derivations, formulas, and whatnot, and they can parrot anything, but they don’t know what they are saying. My job is to try to help them understand what they think they know. And it’s going to be painful, it’s going to be hard on them; it’s going to be hard on me and my colleagues. But, you give me time because I think they’re capable of learning.” So I said, “O.K. Professor, I’ll wait ‘til the end of the year before we have another chat, because if this mayhem continues, I can’t admit the people we’re admitting.”
Well, about two weeks after that the James Dormitory had a freshman dance and at two minutes to twelve their Class president got a roll on the drums and said, “Now fellows, we’re going to have a ‘hate Arons’ silence for two minutes. I want to see it on your faces. Now everybody together: hate Arons, hate Arons, hate Arons!” And there was quite a scene there. Then, this same Class-- in May, I happened to be passing the Fayerweather building when Arons gave his final lecture to that Class on “What I Hope You’ve Learned from this Course.” That Class gave him a standing ovation the like of which I have never heard in Amherst.
It ended up, I believe, with twelve men failing the course. And those twelve men had to go to summer school and take calculus and physics over again. If they failed physics they had to take physics. I argued with Charlie and the Dean saying this was not right, that they should be required to take another science course, maybe, but they were through with mathematics, they didn’t have to repeat it; they had tried and there was no point in having them take more mathematics. The Dean and Charlie never gave in on that point; they had to take the course they had failed over again or the equivalent. But that was the start of Arons.
Well, every year fifty to seventy people would fail the course at the six weeks; and at the end of the year there’d be ten or fifteen who would fail it. I interviewed every one of the ones who failed those first few years as Dean of Freshmen. I had to tell them they had to go to summer school and I often would say to them, “Aren’t you sorry you came to Amherst?” And “I’m sorry I took you, because you didn’t have to come to Amherst and we ~put you through a failing situation.” Time and again they’d say, “I don’t regret it. It’s been one of the best courses I’ve ever had. I just couldn’t grasp it.”
HWH: Then there was no personal animosity instilled against Arons.
WILSON: No, no, not at all. Very rarely. Occasionally there’d be, but very rarely. He was an amazing demonstration of a tough teacher in being beloved and always remembered. You ask any alumnus today which teachers had the most impact on him, and Arons is always one of the top five men listed.
HWH: As time went by, students began coming to Amherst better prepared than they had, even in the ‘forties.
WILSON: Yes, because Advanced Placement Tests had come into the College Board and schools were doing more with advanced placement for the academically gifted students, so that calculus began to get students who had had algebra. In those early years, nobody had heard of calculus by and large. They’d had trigonometry and solid geometry. Solid geometry dropped out, introduction to calculus came in, advanced physics came in, advanced chemistry, advanced language courses, advanced English. We used the Advanced Placement Tests, though we never required them, which got us into trouble with the College Board, because they said we were laggards, that we were a fine college and should do what other colleges were doing and demand the Advanced Placement courses. I said, “With our curriculum, we have the kind of program that challenged the student regardless of what he had.” I said, “I’ve seen too many men who had physics and have trouble with our course. They’ve gotten an A in physics and flunked our course at the start. And we automatically place them in language, and there’s an adjustment period after a week or two so that if they’re overplaced or underplaced the teacher makes the adjustment and we move them forward or backward. Advanced placement depends on your having the, kind of teaching the student had when he took the advanced placement tests, and I say at Amherst we offer a different kind of teaching that requires thought rather than memorization, therefore we’re not too interested in advanced placement.” Of course this irritated the College Board, but we didn’t change that. We did eventually begin to give advanced placement-- we always did in language and occasionally in American Studies. We’d let a student skip that if he could satisfy the teachers.
I remember one boy-- I think he was ‘51 or ‘52-- who came in after two weeks and said, “Can’t I be excused from this calculus course? I know calculus.” Well I got out his record card. He’d had no calculus in his high school down on Long Island. I said, “When did you study calculus?” He said, “I studied this summer. I took three books out of the library and I know calculus.” I said, “Well, would you be willing to talk to one of our math teachers and if what you say is true, we will certainly excuse you from it and put you in an advanced math course?” So I said, “Let me call Professor Sprague.” I called Professor Sprague and said, “Have you got a few minutes to talk to a student about mathematics?” He said, “Yes, send him right over.” So the boy, whose name was Green, went over and as he was going over I called Lim Sprague and told him the story, how the boy had learned calculus. Sprague said, “Well we’ll see about that.” So Sprague gave him a test of ten questions, all with increasing difficulty and the boy passed them all very quickly and handed in the answers and discussed it with Sprague. After the boy left Sprague said, “He does know calculus.” Well it turned out to be a boy who was Phi Beta Kappa and I think he was magna or summa. I believe he is now a professor of mathematics out in Chicago or somewhere. So there were occasional boys that we did advance through courses where they could show a mastery of the subject.
HWH: Many colleges used advanced placement to shorten the student’s career at their institution.
WILSON: This was a burr in our pants. Yale would make them sophomores-- no, excuse me, Yale would not make them sophomores, they’d make them freshmen but then put them right into junior class allowing them to skip sophomore year if they did well in freshman year. Harvard would make them sophomores and give them all sophomore courses. For very bright students this was our biggest challenge, because we had to try and prove as we talked to these students, “Look, why does Harvard do this? Because they’ve got such an easy freshman year it’s not challenging. We don’t do it because we’ve got a freshman year that will twist your gut. If you want to take the easy course, go ahead to Harvard.” This is the only way we could fight it, and we lost many interesting students just because we did not give sophomore standing to students.
HWH: Well, there must have been some students, when you were also Dean of Freshman, who talked about this frequently-- Why can’t I go ahead and shorten my career to three years at Amherst?
WILSON: Well, at that time we had a tie-up with M.I.T. whereby you could spend three years here and two there and get a degree from Amherst and M.I.T. The faculty would not, however, extend this to medical schools or law schools. But occasionally we’d have a student leave at the end of junior year for a place where he could gain entrance. The two Cole boys-- Cohen boys who changed their name to Cole, I believe, from Denver or Chicago-- got into Chicago after three years here, I think one got in after two years here. But we didn’t have very much of that, really.
HWH: Over thirty years I can recall only a couple of cases where the faculty voted to graduate a student after three years. I recall one lad who went down for a doctoral program to Princeton.
WILSON: Yes, in physics. I remember that, but I think that’s the only one I can remember. It came up occasionally, but the faculty said no.
HWH: As time went on, however, the curriculum changed. It reflected in part the better preparation of students and I think it reflected, also, the attitude of our faculty.
WILSON: Well, when Arons left, Science 1 began to sort of fall apart. The English-humanities course required tremendous work on the part of a teacher and all over the country requirements were dropping out of curriculums and students were told that they could be free in their maturity to pick courses that they thought would be helpful in the future. So Amherst sort of swung along with the national mood.
HWH: One of the first things to be dropped at Amherst was the language requirement.
HWH: Which, I think, reflected as much the faculty view as it did the student preparation. Well the curriculum now, as you know, has very few requirements. It’s only that ILA course in the beginning. Do you have any thoughts on whether it’s better to have a permissive curriculum as we do now-- and it was even more permissive until this year-- than it would be to try to organize a program?
WILSON: Well, because of my conditioning and experience, I favor, for freshman year, a set program. We roomed the freshmen in the same dormitories because we felt, and I think it was sound, that the freshmen were all reading the same books. At the same time they were writing papers on the same subject for English composition-- this led to some plagiarism and writing other guys’ papers-- but it also stimulated a great deal of thought. Whenever freshmen met there would be discussion about that assignment for next week in composition-- what do I do when I do physics?-- what are we going to say about that? And there’d be argument and discussion about it. The same thing about reading Madame Bovary-- the whole class would be talking about Madame Bovary; the same thing in history and in sophomore year in the American Problems course. There’d be a lot of discussion about how you were going to do your paper. And I think there’s a value in this united attack on the problems coming out of a course and having the freshmen live together. Most colleges scatter freshmen through the upperclass dorms on the grounds that it gave them acquaintance with mature people, which I always thought was eyewash but there may be something in it. With our curriculum today there must be some discussion about what you’re taking and how your teacher is, and how much you like him, but I question whether there’s the same amount of discussion about course assignments that there was under the required curriculum.
HWH: Did you have a chance to visit these classes in session? I was thinking, for example, how interesting it might be to sit in on Ted Baird and one of his.
WILSON: No, I never sat in on his. Of course I saw a lot of Baird during the War when he would have the English teachers together every week. We’d meet for an hour. And I had one run-in with him. In one of our sessions he belittled Bill Spurrier, who was here teaching religion, because Spurrier had written on the blackboard a quotation with an S.K. after it and had written “Save.” So that when Baird came in to his classroom he saw this S.K. quotation and he said to our English teaching group-- Francis Fobes was in it, and Armour Craig-- “Who does Spurrier think he is quoting S.K. in a course in religion? What does Stanley King know about religion?” And so I happened to see Spurrier that day and I said, “What are you quoting Stanley King for in your course on religion?” And he said, “What are you talking about?” So I told him of Baird’s story and he said, “That was Soren Kierkegaard.” So the next time the English group met, I said at the end of the meeting, “Professor Baird, you owe Spurrier an apology.” And Baird said, “What do you mean?” So I told him the story. Baird grumbled and left the room. But from then on our relationship seemed to cool a little bit. I shouldn’t have called him down in public, but he’d accused Spurrier to the very same people I said he owed an apology to, but he didn’t like it.
But coming back to Admission. We began to invite the counselors to Amherst for a colloquium here during which they met students, faculty, and administration and had two days on the campus. They went to classes and we did this to try to give them an inside glimpse of what was really going on at a small liberal arts college like Amherst. It was part of the educational program for counselors. We tried to pick counselors who were leaders in their state counselor organizations-- president of the New York State Deans and Counselors, president of New Jersey-- because they would have an influence with a lot of other counselors. We’d pick headmasters, a certain number of headmasters, as well as public school counselors. And I think this was a big help to us. Our attempts to get black students were continuous, but with the curriculum we had, most difficult, because very few black students had had the training to handle the calculus-physics and the foreign language. But we did get wonderful help from Dunbar High School in Washington, which was the school of prominent men in the past who’d come to Amherst and who were black. We visited black high schools in New York, well, blacks in New York; there are no black high schools in New York, but blacks were scattered all through. We visited black high schools in Atlanta, in Chicago and Indianapolis and Cleveland and invited black counselors to come to the campus. They didn’t often accept, but we did everything we could to try and get blacks. We increased the number, but not greatly, mainly because the curriculum just made it so difficult to get a black student to try it.
HWR: Were you readily received at these institutions?
WILSON: Oh, yes. Wonderful cooperation from the counselors or the principals and the counselors would actually recommend students to Amherst. Not too often, but occasionally, we’d locate a cracker-jack boy, have him all signed up to come to Amherst, and then we’d get a letter from him in May, saying, “I’m sorry, I’ve decided to go to Harvard.” The Harvard alumni had heard about him and gotten on him, gotten more money than we were offering, and stole him away from us. I complained to the Harvard admission officers about their pirating tactics, but they never let up on them.
HWH: I would think one factor in having the counselors, headmasters, headmistresses, principals come to Amherst would be a chance for them to talk to students who had gone from their schools to Amherst. Which should have been very clarifying for them.
WILSON: Right. Well when the blacks began to get organized here in the ‘sixties, late ‘sixties, after our curriculum had been abolished, they met in the Babbott Room one night and demanded that I appear before them, which I was glad to do. And they blasted me for not doing enough to recruit blacks and I turned the gun back on them. I said, “Will any one of you men who has done anything to recruit a black from your own school stand up and report?” Not a one got up. I said, “If you want us to do a job on recruiting, you’re our right arm. When you go back to your school, you go in to the counselor and tell him what a great place this is and you ask for the names of students in the class behind you who might be interested, and you talk to them and then you give me a written report on what you’ve done and then we’ll meet again next year and see who’s doing a job around here.” So I said I’d have no more flack from them. But this was the key to recruiting-- to get students to go back and report on what was going on.
[END OF TAPE I, SIDE TWO. BEGINNING OF TAPE II, SIDE I]
HWH: This is Tape #2 of an interview with Dean Wilson on Wednesday, January 17, 1979.
Bill, when we left the last tape, I had just asked you if you have any way of knowing what brought Amherst to the attention of most of the applicants that you got from secondary schools.
WILSON: Well I think the feed-back from students who were here was as important as anything. I did get some alumni help and started very cautiously with I think twenty-five or maybe thirty-five hand-picked men that I’d known that I asked to help us in the recruitment program. I deliberately kept it low profile, and a few of these men did great work. I inherited men like Luther Ely Smith in St. Louis, and Wills Engle who had worked with my predecessor, and George Witney in Philadelphia, who had done ace recruiting and sent us some wonderful men. But the alumni were not too active, partly because I didn’t want them to be. But when we’d get a star applicant from, say, San Francisco area, we’d write our alumnus there and ask him to follow up on the boy to see if he met some of our students at vacation time and to try and get him. But I used them more for follow-up than initial uncovering of talent. My bitterest critic in Washington was a fellow named Hart, I think it was Bill Hart, who was always blasting me about the fact I didn’t give enough attention to the Washington area-- and you know. So after a couple of years of this flack I said, “Bill, we’re going to reorganize the whole Washington area and we’re going to appoint you chairman of recruiting in the Washington area. Will you accept the job? You’re interested in it, I know.” He said, “You bet I will.” So he has done a great job down there in Washington. We don’t get any complaints from the Washington area any more.
HWH: You probably had alumni as teachers or principals or headmasters.
WILSON: Occasionally we did. I think probably I was derelict in not making a master list of our teachers and asking them to feed back information. We did have Ted Eames at Governor Dummer, and we had a group of teachers at Exeter and Andover, and Deerfield, of course, that would give us feed-back occasionally. But we didn’t have any systematic work through these men. I think maybe that is one thing we might have done that we didn’t do.
HWH: Over the years I suspect Deerfield probably placed more students than any other school. That sort of dried up.
WILSON: They used to send us fifteen or twenty-five a year.
HWH: We had twenty-three in my Class.
WILSON: Yes. Well in my Class only 60% graduated, I believe, and it probably was somewhat similar in your Class. But Frank Boyden became a bitter critic of Amherst and me. I was a Deerfield boy, but I cut down greatly on the number of Deerfield boys we took because we wouldn’t take anybody in the bottom half of his Class and the Deerfield boys in our cumulative records hadn’t done so well. They’d do less well than they had at Deerfield. I showed these figures to Boyden, but he said that calculus-physics course was an unfair course for freshmen and he couldn’t recommend any boys to Amherst. So what should have been a strong booster for Amherst turned out to be a counter-influence, because he would tell other headmasters that he didn’t like the Amherst curriculum and he was one of our most bitter critics. One year we took only one boy from Deerfield. I didn’t think Mr. Boyden would speak to me the next year, but he did, of course, because he and my father were so close. But it created some feelings there between Amherst and our old feeder school.
HWH: Well, he couldn’t have been off Wilsons entirely, I think your brother Rab...
WILSON: Rab was a trustee up there. I know he’s retired but he... But this was a real problem.
HWH: Do you think of any particular schools, public or private, that seemed to do a better job than other schools?
WILSON: Oh I could name twenty-five of them that worked more closely with us than other schools. I tried to get in to all the counselor organizations. The annual meeting of the New York Deans I’d go to even though I wasn’t in New York because I got to know a lot of counselors. The College Board, when the College Board would meet, I would never eat with anybody that I knew at luncheon tables. Quite often I’d go to a table where everyone was a Catholic sister or a Catholic priest in order to increase Amherst’s exposure to people that we don’t usually see. The Ivy League would always sit with headmasters from Andover, Exeter, Choate, Loomis, and so forth. I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. I was the first college in the East to get into the Association of College Admission Officers, which was a western organization-- midwestern I mean-- and I rose to be their president in 1959. But I figured that these admission officers out there talked to a lot of students who want to go East to college and that the best thing we could do was to have them aware that Amherst was one helluva place to recommend if they weren’t going to the Midwest. I tried to get the Ivy League to come in to make it a national organization and it took me a long time. Princeton was the first, Dartmouth the second, finally Harvard caine in. But this was a move that I think helped us greatly. I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a lot of the states and counselors meetings once I’d become known in the field. I never turned down a chance to speak to counselors wherever it was, whatever time, or wherever, because it kept the Amherst name before them and the Amherst program before them. I also wrote many articles for the College Board Review, the National Association of College Admission Counselors, Deans of Women. I wrote all the articles I could on problems of admission, selection, adjustment, and so forth, again keeping the Amherst name in front of organizations. I was a trustee of the College Board and ran their fourth Colloquium for them at the Arden House. And it was an interesting experience because I got from Mount Holyoke profiles of ten girls, and I got ten boys from Amherst, and I made up a little booklet that gave all the information the admission committee had on these twenty students. I took it down to the Arden House and at the first session I said, “You’re going to be divided into ten admission committees of nine people each. (These were 60 admission officers and 30 headmasters and principals.) And you’re going to be asked to pick three of these ten that you would admit-- three boys or three girls for a very competitive college; six for semi-competitive; and you’re to rank them in order of your preference of your committee. And then at the last day of the session, Rick Snyder, who was Director of Admission at Stanford, is going to tell you what really happened to these students at Mount Holyoke and at Amherst. Now you’re admitting them to Mount Holyoke and Amherst; you’re not admitting them to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. But you’re to pick the students that you think will be the best bets.” And then the dénouement came at the last thing and it was a fascinating experience, because we had a few jokers in there. We had some high-ranking boys with test scores and marks who flunked out, and I had this boy with a 500 verbal and 325 math in, and nobody picked him anything but tenth. Then when it was read that he graduated with an 81 average, it sent them away shaking their heads. But the whole point of the experience was to point out that they didn’t know everything about assessment. And it was interesting to see that after that, colleges’ admission officers began to use this program with their alumni committees, with other schools, school colloquiums as a way of introducing them to the mysteries of human assessment.
HWH: That’s interesting.
WILSON: A lot of fun.
HWH: I know a lot of alumni magazines after that posed the same questions to their readers.
WILSON: Right. They began to give sample cases and say, “Would you admit or not admit?” And the next issue would tell them what happened-- or in the back of the book they’d tell them.
HWH: There are so many factors involved in selection. One that I think you tried to include as much as you could was geography.
WILSON: Yes, that was something we paid attention to, not that it’s terribly important because the class values-- upper class, middle class, lower class values-- tend to be somewhat similar throughout the country. But the more variety was not only geographical but the kind of background the young man came from-- whether he was a rancher’s or a banker’s son or a lawyer’s son or whatnot. And this played a part in the assessment.
When we first started in I changed the admission form because I was quite confident from my ten years in business dealing with people in all walks of life, and having been a stevedore with 70% of my co-workers black or of foreign extraction, I felt I would be a natural to assess young men of eighteen with an interview. I had great confidence in myself. But after I made my predicted averages and began to follow up and see my own interview notes, I realized that I was not very talented, that there was a helluva lot more to interviewing than what I was capable of doing. We tried to get information that would be helpful to us in picking students with imagination and resolution-- those were the two key words that we constantly sought. Imagination means a guy wants to learn; and resolution means he’s strong and he’s not afraid of hanging on and driving and getting something.
So we figured that what the boy had read would be very important, so we asked the question,v which book-- I’ve forgotten the exact wording,-- which book you read during the past year was the most important? And then I discovered later on that this was being written by mothers, fathers, teachers of English, other classmates, and it didn’t tell you a darned thing. The boy sometimes hadn’t even read the book. So then I figured that we’d find out what they did in the summertime-- did they earn any money?-- and we continued to ask this.
I tried to find a way to pick those who’d be good in science and I had the Physics Department make me a black tetrahedron about eight inches high out of black wood-- ebony or something. And it was in two pieces, had it sawed diagonally down so you had this funny-looking thing. So when i interviewed a boy who was interested in science, I would say, “Do you know what a tetrahedron is?” “Oh, yes, Sir.” “Well, here are two parts of one, put it together so it becomes a tetrahedron.” “O.K., Sir.” And then it was fascinating to watch them because some boys would look at it and immediately pick it up and put it in the right place. Other boys would sort of frantically match the different angles trying to make it a tetrahedron. So I gave them a C and an A to the guys that just looked at it and put it together. Well, my follow-up study shows that this didn’t reveal who was a good scientist and who wasn’t a good scientist.
Then another experiment I had: I got three 3x5 file card cases and painted one gold and one silver and one gray and I put a piece of gum in each one and toward the end of the interview I’d say, “I’m going to put you through a choice test-- the Psychology Department has me making a study for them. Would you mind participating?” And they’d say, “No, no.” I’d say, “Well, in one of these boxes is a prize for you. Which box do you think it would be in-- the gold, the silver or the lead?” And the boy would think a minute or two and then, as I remember it, 35 out of the 39 I checked picked the lead. Only two guys picked the gold. And this puzzled me because I thought they’d all take the gold. So when we were through, I’d say, “Have you read the Merchant of Venice?” Most of them would say, “No, they didn’t know it.” Well, then I discovered in rethinking the thing through, that they were so used to puzzles, and they knew darned well that the best prize wouldn’t be in the most attractive package, so they were gambling most of the time, on the lead. And I didn’t learn anything that would help me in assessment, from this. This was a value test, you see.
HWH: How did you go about raising questions you want answers to for even the form that you send out for admission?
WILSON: Well we gradually shaped it down to trying to find out-- we put most of our weight on what they’d done. When I started, a boy had to give two letters of recommendation-- I thought, Gee, these would be helpful. They weren’t helpful. Again, being freshman dean, I’d go back and read the recommendations. The worst bum in this high school would get the best recommendation, because the principal isn’t going to have the college write back and say, “We turned you down because of your recommendation.” So the recommendations were worthless and we stopped asking for them. We assumed that every boy who applied could get good recommendations-- so don’t bother reading them. We tried to make our judgments on the basis of what a boy had done in his school work, in his hobby, in his activities, in the summertime-- that actions speak louder than words. And we tried to guess from the cumulation of performance, a-doings, what would make for resolution and imagination here. And in the interview that’s what we sought. Now, in the interview I differed from all my colleagues in admission. I took the whole family in-- mother, father, child, brothers, little sisters, whoever was there-- because I wanted to see the family react in what they knew was a pressure situation. I’d often start out with the mother, saying, “Now I don’t want to interview your son. I want to interview you, Mrs. So-&-So; do you mind if I interview you to start with?” “Well, I don’t know,” they’d say, and the boy would beam at his mother being embarrassed and I’d ask her a couple of questions. Not about the boy, but their home or something, their community. And then after a little while shift to the boy and I’d ask him what questions he had. I judged them more by the questions they asked than by the answers they gave, because it showed they’d done some thinking, some preparation, that they wanted to know more, and I felt that the questioning spirit was the kind of spirit we wanted. So if a boy said, “I don’t have any questions,’t he got a zero as a rule in the interview.
HWH: You waged a battle for some time to get writing samples in the College Board.
WILSON: Yes, and we finally got them and they lasted for six years and I read every single one of them, personally, and rated the boy plus, zero, or minus. Plus meant this boy can write. Zero meant I didn’t know. Minus meant no, can’t write. And we used these and used them in the assessment and in our ratings of the student. But I was horrified to find on checking with most colleges that they did not want to bother to read them. One of the big reasons for introducing the writing sample was to tell the secondary schools that writing is important. You’ve got to demand more writing from your students. It had some impact in this regard, by forcing the schools to require more writing, but it died because the colleges were not using it. When we got this thing through the College Board, I went to our English Department and said, “Look, we’re getting this writing sample. It’s going to be a tremendously important instrument in our assessment. Will you men read these for us and rate them?” They wouldn’t touch it, which disappointed me greatly because I thought this would be a very valuable help to us. We got no help from them.
HWH: Was it mostly a matter of time?
WILSON: I don’t know why they refused to do it. But it increased our time, of course. We had to spend a lot of time reading those, and I considered it a very important part of our assessment material.
HWH: That’s not used now.
WILSON: It dropped out in ‘65 or ‘66. Now it’s beginning to come back in in another form. They have readers this time. The Psychometrists fought the introduction of the writing sample because they couldn’t do anything with it. They can’t do any follow-up studies, they couldn’t do any correlations. They said this is a worth less kind of test, it’s entirely subjective. It has no scientific value. The English advanced placement test, of course, had readers who would read, and the history test (I think you read down there, didn’t you?)...
WILSON: ...in the early years. Armour Craig, I think, read for English.
HWH: Last year, about half the entering class came in under Early Decision. The office this year has cut it down to about a third. Do you have any opinion on the value of that program?
WILSON: Well, we introduced Early Decision because Harvard, Yale, and Princeton--our big competitors, particularly Harvard --would go to their private schools--they’d send three men from their staff to Exeter and spend two or three days there interviewing 150 men and rating them A, B, C. I refused to do that. Exeter used to get very mad at us because I’d go up and interview twenty boys and I said, “I don’t want to see them individually. I don’t want to rate them. I can’t do it in thirty minutes. I want to talk to them in a group about our curriculum and what we’re doing. I want to invite them to come down to the College. We have some Amherst men teaching on your faculty and I’ll ask the Exeter students when they come up here to talk to any boy who wants to talk to them about Amherst, but I’ll not participate in this quick assessment that Harvard does.” And it strained the relationships a little bit. So I refused to participate in this, but we then began to try and separate the students who really wanted Amherst from those who were cast-offs, rejected by Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. I found some difference in motivation from my dean’s work-- Dean of Freshman work-- in boys who came here as a second or third choice and those who really wanted us. So we wanted a system that would give priority to students who say Amherst is my first choice. We used to have that in the first days because the College Board told you whether a boy was first, second, or third choice. That only lasted about three or four years. And we told the schools, we take our group from the boys who had us first choice, because we have six or seven hundred who have us that way, more than we can fill the class with, and we’re not interested in the boys who have us second or third choice. So with the Ivy League doing what it was doing, it was telling Exeter that we’ll take 35 of these men, 40 men. And I said that’s fine, I don’t want to talk, but then I would be asked to interview the rejects, you see, which was another reason why I didn’t want to make any decision quickly at Exeter or Andover. So we devised this Early Decision program for students for whom Amherst was their first choice. And we thought that if we had enough qualified applicants, we would take half the class on this basis. And that’s how it started.
HWH: Was that original with Amherst?
WILSON: I don’t remember. We were criticized by Harvard, Yale, and Princeton for doing this. They said, “We have so many wonderful applicants we can’t begin to tell anybody in December that they’re going to be accepted.” I said, “Well we don’t have that many wonderful applicants. We just have no trouble picking up.” So they hated us for doing it.
HWH: Did you follow through on the performance of those admitted on Early Decision?
WILSON: I can’t remember whether we did, Bud, or not. I suspect we probably didn’t. That came in in the late ‘sixties and I don’t think I did.
HWH: You made a point some years ago, while we were getting more students from public schools than we had before the war, that many of the public schools were becoming more like private schools in their clientele, particularly in suburban areas like Scarsdale or Bronxville and so on. Is that a legitimate criticism of scaling how many from public, how many from private, to show that we’re more open to the...
WILSON: Well there is an overlap there. Scarsdale, Bronxville, Winnetka, there are a few suburbs that were very wealthy-- as Chevy Chase school in Washington-- where the clientele tended to be in terms of social values similar to the private school students. But this never entered our thinking too much. Evanston High School in my opinion was the greatest public high school in the United States because it had some mix-- Italian, Blacks-- very different from Winnetka. We were always a little suspicious, as we were with the private schools, of Winnetka students. The question was, are they teachable with their values and their background, are they teachable? The same thing with students from impoverished areas. In fact, I discovered that our most independent students were apt to come from the wealthiest families and the finest private schools and the boys that we got from extreme poverty levels were the most conforming, because they felt they’d stepped into a new world whose values were very different and they didn’t want to be different. On occasion you’d find a boy like Paul Dodyk (1959) from Hamtramck (Detroit), who’d speak his mind but there had to be real independence on the part of a poor boy to dare to differ in the values. Sons of labor leaders you’d think would be perfect here, but too often they didn’t speak out-- they wanted to be like one of the gang.
HWH: You made great efforts to attract sons of blue collar families.
WILSON: Yes we did, we did. Who was the famous Detroit auto mobile man? Victor Reuther. I was on a panel for Ladies Home Journal with Victor Reuther, an article, an interview we did with the Ladies Home Journal that they ran. And I had a long chance to talk over the three days we were down there with Victor Reuther and told him that we would do anything to work with his organization to get sons of laboring people at Amherst. He took a very dim view of it. He said, “Look, Wayne University in Detroit takes care of our kids and I don’t think you’d get very many.” “Well,” I said, “If you think of anybody, you know, or any way we can work with you, let me know.” But if a boy’s father WAS a labor leader, or was a plumber or a carpenter, he was different. So he started off with a slight advantage from the son of a lawyer, doctor.
HWH: You also made efforts to attract students from junior colleges or community colleges.
WILSON: Yes. I was a trustee of Holyoke Community College, for a year was Chairman of their Board of Trustees, so I got to know what was going on in community colleges and decided that we were going to take some transfers and that these kids who had started from nowhere and went from home, couldn’t go away, couldn’t get the money, or somebody sick at home, we’d pick up some interesting characters. So we began to communicate with the community colleges in Massachusetts. I also met with the acting director of the, with the Director of the American Association of Junior Colleges to try and work out something with him where colleges would promote..
HWH: Ed Glazier?
WILSON: Yes, I think that was his name. He was very interested. I said we want to start with Massachusetts, but this thing could become a national move. So we began to pick up a few of these students who had had, some of them, terrible high school records, but had come on fire in college. And we had good success with their records here-- interesting young men. So we proved the program and Ed Wall has carried it so much further; he’s done much more to develop it, but I gave a key talk to the New England group of College Board people, a paper entitled “There’s Gold in Them There Hills,” telling what the community colleges were doing and the luck we’d had, to try to get them to also step up their efforts. They never did much. They were afraid to tackle it, but it was an interesting addition. If we’re going to take transfers, we don’t want transfers from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Williams, Wesleyan. If they can’t make it there, forget it. But kids who would really welcome a chance...
HWH: It became easier to do that after the New Curriculum changed.
WILSON: You couldn’t do it before, really.
HWH: Well there are quite a few, as you say; Ed has extended that.
WILSON: Yes, done a great job.
HWH: I think the students have turned out well.
WILSON: Yes. He’s made some studies.
[END OF SIDE ONE, TAPE II. BEGINNING OF SIDE TWO]
HWH: This is a continuation of the interview with Dean Wilson begun yesterday-- continuing on Thursday, January 18, 1979.
Bill, over the last twenty-four hours you’ve had a chance to check some of the records at the Admission Office. Did you find anything?
WILSON: Yes, to add to the comments I made earlier about the report to the schools-- the first one Amherst sent out was in October, 1947, Report #1, and it was the first college, non-confidential college report on a freshman class and how a class is selected that was ever issued by any college or university. Our hope was that this report would help counselors steer students toward Amherst who were capable of doing, handling our new curriculum. I was amused in reading that first report to see that an interview was required, a device we later dropped, and I also said that the principal’s report, the counselor’s report, was a very essential element in our assessment-- again something we turned completely around on during my twenty-five years in Admission. We gave them in that report the geographical distribution, number of students from public and private schools, the College Board average of the class and contrasted it with the averages in previous years, and we tried to speak of the qualities we look for in our students, the kind of students most likely to be accepted. We made a very clear statement that there were no quotas at Amherst on race, creed, or color-- something that colleges weren’t admitting or doing in those days.
Another interesting thing I found in going back over records was the part Amherst played in establishing the College Scholarship Service of the College Entrance Examination Board. In my visits to schools, counselors often complained about the number of financial aid forms, different forms, that students had to file when they applied to three or four different colleges-- or ten colleges. Of course they had to file, fill in many different application forms, and attempts to establish a common application form failed except for the Ivy League which did develop one in the ‘sixties. So I got the idea that there ought to be a way for the College Board to have the students file one financial aid application with the College Board, and then this could be duplicated and sent to the colleges named by the student. So I went to New York to have a luncheon appointment with Bill Fels, who was Vice President of the College Board at that time. And on the train on the way down, Don Eldridge, who was Director of Admission at Wesleyan, got on at Meriden and we sat together on the way to New York. I told him of what I was going to urge the College Board to do and he said the idea was sound and he would go with me to add extra weight. So we called on Bill Fels, explained the idea to him, he liked it and said the College Board would probably do something with it. The next thing I knew, Frank Bowles, the head of the College Board, had decided to go ahead with a study, a two-year study, of the idea, and he’d gotten $50,000 from a Foundation to study it. He appointed a committee with John Munro of Harvard as chairman and I was on that committee. The first meeting was held in September, I believe, ‘50 or ‘51, at Harvard, and I complained about taking the two years to study something that was so obviously needed. It was a waste of money and a waste of time and it ought to be implemented promptly. The committee didn’t agree with me, nor did Frank Bowles.
A month later the New England Association of Colleges and Universities, an organization of sixteen of the oldest colleges and universities in New England, had their annual meeting-- I believe it was at Bowdoin, though it may have been at Dartmouth. At this meeting the presidents of these institutions attended together with the deans of faculty and usually some other person, the treasurer or another administrative officer. Charlie Cole, the President of Amherst, always took me with him to these meetings and on the way up to the meeting I told him about the college scholarship suggestion that I had made. He agreed there was no point in delaying it, so at the meeting of the New England colleges he told them what we were up to and thought that this association should add its weight to immediate implementation of this program. The presidents of the colleges agreed and appointed a committee of Conant of Harvard, Dickey of Dartmouth, and Cole of Amherst to put pressure on Bowles to start it off promptly. They were successful in doing away with the two-year study and returning the $50,000 to the sponsoring corporation and this is the way the College Scholarship Service was started.
HWH: Yesterday you mentioned another organization that you might like to speak to, and that was the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
WILSON: Yes, at the fourth colloquium of the College Board, which I directed, there was a man named Thompson there who was executive secretary of the N.A.S.S.P. and we had many talks during the three days at the Arden House. He said, “Why don’t you join the N.A.S.S.P.?” I said, “I’m not a principal.” He said, “That’s all right, we need somebody from the colleges on our school relations committee. And if you join, I’ll see that your membership’s accepted and we’ll put you right on that committee.” So, I thought, wonderful, twenty-five thousand principals with Amherst represented, it would be great! So I accepted and we had a couple of meetings of the School-College Relations Committee and I ended up being chairman of it and we made that study that I think I reported earlier-- to try and work out a common form for the schools to report on their students to the colleges.
HWH: There’s still another organization with which you were active and that was the National Merit Scholarship program that I think John Stalnaker...
WILSON: John Stalnaker ran that for years. I was on it for a three-year term and it was very interesting to see the way it worked. There were twelve admission officers from different colleges and universities who handled the selection of the finalists, the winners from the finalists, and at that time many schools or colleges were using a checklist and the National Merit people were using a report form which listed eight or ten personal qualities and then said-- excellent, very good, good, average, poor. The counselor was supposed to check under honesty, community service, cooperation, intellectual ability, all these eight or ten characteristics. I discovered some of these admission people going right down and throwing out every applicant who didn’t have every check under excellent. When I questioned some of them on what they were doing, they said, “Well, in this kind of competition there’s no use considering anybody who isn’t excellent.” “Well,” I said, “Who marked them? Who is making these judgments? You don’t know anything about these people. They may be the father of the guy who’s applying. You don’t know anything about the counselor that’s checking them. This is a stupid form. We shouldn’t pay any attention to it at all.” But I didn’t get very far with that argument. It’s such an easy way, when you had-- for instance, I worked on New York State and there were 350 finalists and we were to pick 30. And they were all great students, wonderful kids. Maybe using the checklist was as good as any other way, but you’d end up with half the group getting excellent in everything so...
A man named Dr. Holland, who was with the American College Testing Service, and I worked together one year out there and we were impressed by the kids who weren’t getting any attention from the selection committee who were creative-- artists, musicians, poets, writers-- and they didn’t have top College Board Scores, they didn’t have a top National Merit score, they were more apt to be down in the seventieth percentile. So we persuaded Stalnaker one year to let us select ten percent of the winners who would be picked on their creative promise instead of just high marks and test scores, but Stalnaker never made a follow-up study of our selections to my knowledge and never reported back to us on whether we’d made terrible choices or whether they were interesting choices.
But this was the kind of person that we tried to look for at Amherst--who doesn’t rank in the top, usually the top academic performance, because a creative person is often writing poetry, drawing pictures, dreaming about something, inventing something, and letting the demand thing slide a little bit. And I’ve never made a study of the ones we let in on that basis, either, which I should have done to see whether it was just a hunch or whether there was really something in it. Although studies by psychologists have shown that the creative person often has an IQ of around 125, 130-- not 140 or 150.
HWH; One of your activities in which you expressed great interest was that of occupational guidance. I notice, incidentally, that you seem to be careful to refer to it as “occupational guidance” and not “guidance and placement.” Do you see any difference in your views of 1949, when you wrote a report on this program, and now?
WILSON: No I don’t. I used to meet with other placement officers, as they were called, from the men’s and women’s colleges and universities in the east. We had an organization and it met once a year. In thinking more and more about it, I got horrified by the placement aspects, as I explained in my report. Only one other placement officer agreed with me and that was a man at Harvard, named John Steele, I believe his name was, and he and I felt exactly the same way about providing students with all kinds of written material, lectures on how to do things, but then the actual job-getting had to be done by the student, the digging up of the companies they were going to apply to. This was developing the students who were independent and who after they left college would know how to go and look for another job and wouldn’t come running back to college and say, “1 lost my job, get me another one.”
HWH: You expressed in that report your hope that students would begin planning or thinking about their careers as freshmen. Most places don’t even think about it until senior year. Were you able to get students to start in on this as freshmen?
WILSON: I tried awfully hard. I took one summer vacation and wrote a little booklet, a ten-or-twelve-page booklet, called “After College, What?” which we gave every freshman when he checked in. In his folder of material there was one of these little booklets. I got a local artist to make some clever little drawings for it.
HWH: As a matter of fact, I got a neighbor, Maude Peters to do it.
WILSON: Oh, I guess you were the one that did that, Bud. Right, she did a nice little job. And it was written up in the National Vocation Guidance magazine and we had demands from all over the country for copies of it and we sent many of them out. But at was disappointing to me because this outlined what a student should do, each of his four years here, to make himself aware of the options he had, and after the freshmen would leave the freshman dormitories in June, depart, I’d have the janitors pick up these booklets and bring them back to me to give out, and a third of the Class would leave them on their desk and wouldn’t take them with them.
HWH: I think we went through three or four printings of that over the years.
WILSON: That’s right. It had a good circulation. But students would still come up to senior year and say to me, “What have you got for a fellow like me?” I’d say, “How about that booklet we gave you freshman year? What have you done with the suggestions?” “We never got any booklet.” They didn’t remember it. The fathers would write me and say, “Why doesn’t Amherst run some kind of a placement bureau?” So I had a standard letter I would send them.
HWH: You indicated in that report, too, Bill, that you had a reserve shelf of books on the subject of occupational direction that you maintained in Converse Library. Did you feel that that was fairly helpful?
WILSON: Excellent. They have that library now, it’s augmented greatly since my little collection. We began to get feed-back from men in different jobs that we would file, for instance, under the telephone company, under General Electric, so the student would write back after a year and state the kind of problems that he had in adjusting to the new environment, to industry and so forth. So students could read these. Then we started bringing in a collection of summer job information, so that a student at the end of the summer would report on his work. And Chamberlain who I believe-- Al Guest and Chamberlain-- enlarged on this, so there was a great volume of reports on summer activities.
HWH: You indicated, too, that ideally Amherst should have a full-time occupational guidance director. I don’t think Amherst ever did, but Syd Chamberlain was there part-time.
WILSON: He was there part-time. And Guest handled it as part-time. The big dean who taught wrestling, what was his name?
HWH: Henry Littlefield.
WILSON: Littlefield handled it part-time. It’s never been a full-time job the way it is at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Williams, Wesleyan.
HWH: Williams apparently has one of the stronger programs, but I gather there’s as much involved in placement as there is in guidance.
WILSON: They do a placement job, yes.
HWH: I think the admission officer, Fred Copeland’s brother was in that.
WILSON: That’s right. Manny Copeland ran it.
HWH: He was on that on a full-time basis. Our students refer to it, whether they know or not, as one of the best at finding jobs for students after they leave college.
WILSON: Well, Stanley King used to let me give one or two Chapel talks a year on the question of choosing a job and this would bring in a few students the next day or two, but then it would dwindle down. They tend to do nothing until the pressure is on and they get in a corner.
HWH: I think Career Conferences began while you were running this, didn’t they?
WILSON: I don’t think I started that. I did start the idea here of bringing up outstanding men in certain areas for a talk. For instance, I polled the senior class and asked them to check off which of twenty-five different occupations they would be interested in hearing more about. One of the ones they mentioned was restaurant and hotel management. Well we have no courses in it. So there were thirty fellows who’d mentioned restaurant and hotel management, so I got ahold of Mr. Jarling, who was the veteran hotel manager of the big hotel in Springfield, and I got him to come up one night and have dinner with me and then talk to the students who were interested in hotel management. Mr. Jarling and I went over to the Babbott Room and one student showed up. It was a sickening experience for me and I tried once or twice more to get men in in leading things. Of course, there were always people from the law school, the medical school, the business school that came around and we had a separate medical school advisor and Ziegler did a lot of the law school advising. They handled that. I handled the business schools and had relations with the deans of all the business schools. Harvard had a man, I’ve forgotten his name, who’d take any student I recommended, because he knew I knew business and knew the students. Of course I used that privilege very cautiously.
HWH: I would think so.
HWH: I guess Al Guest is the one that organized the Career Conferences. And Harry Knight was chairman of one of the early ones. One of the first ones was a real performance. Remember, they got a man who was vice-president of General Electric?
WILSON: Bob Canning.
EWE: I’ve forgotten his name. Liddy? But Harry would round up all his business friends and others. At first they were well attended, then they fell off. Did you attend any of them?
WILSON: Oh yes. I used to go to them because I was interested in the alumni who’d come back. But right after the war in ‘46, I established alumni advisors on occupational counseling in various parts of the country because the veterans were writing, saying, “Where can I get some help?” And these alumni had volunteered to talk to the veterans who were trying to find their way in the business world and there was quite an interest there, through the veterans but I don’t believe we brought anybody back to the campus for a conference.
EWE: Were Alumni ready to lend a hand?
WILSON: Yes, they were. They were very generous in giving their time. They always were. Because when a student would come in and say to me, “I’ve read everything about advertising, I know what it is; I’ve read Fortune’s article on different big agencies; I’ve read the books you have there. I want to talk to someone in advertising.” Well there were a lot of men in advertising-- from Bruce Barton, Bill Esty on down. And these men were happy to take these boys to luncheon. But I wouldn’t let them talk to an alumnus until they had thoroughly prepared themselves for the interview with a knowledge of the company, of where they thought they fit into it, they had to know the different divisions in an advertising agency and which one they were interested in-- whether it was art or copy or customer relations or the financial end or what. They had to have some idea of what they wanted to do.
HWH: In many ways this would be a great advantage to an interviewer.
WILSON: Oh yes.
HWH: So that I would hope that alumni would use it to locate possible...
WILSON: Well I always tested the student out with questions before I’d let him go to see an alumnus. If he wasn’t prepared, I’d send him back for more preparation then come back to see me, so as not to waste the time of the alumnus, where people say, “Have you got any job? I’m looking for something. What have you got that’s interesting?”
HWH: “I like people.”
WILSON: Yes. Right. Time and again.
HWH: You said in your report, too, that visitation by companies to interview students on campus seemed to you to be overrated.
WILSON: Yes, it’s outlined in the report there. I thought it was a foolish competition to get into for most students because most students would not be accepted-- occasionally a rare boy, who you knew was a sure winner. But he’d be accepted by every guy that came through the College because of the superficial interviewing that they did. I was not impressed with the personnel men that were sent to colleges. They were like the Harvard guys who went to Exeter, spend thirty minutes with this guy and give him an A, give him a B, give him a C.
HWH: Yes, as you mentioned yesterday.
WILSON: Yes, exactly.
HWH: So many colleges and universities, too, rate the success of their programs by the number of businesses that visit.
WILSON: Yes, and the number of students that they place, which I contend has no place in your measurement of the success of your organization or the worth of it.
HWH: It got to the point at Amherst in the ‘fifties, and I think well into the ‘sixties, where 80% or more of our graduates went on to further study.
WILSON: That’s right 80 to 90%.
HWH: Did this have any effect on the occupational guidance program?
WILSON: Well, it must have cut down on the number of people who would come here, because there just weren’t enough. I know Henry Littlefield and Chamberlain, too, would call off interviewers. They’d ask for students to sign up who might be interested in General Electric, and if only three signed up they’d call up Bob Canning and say, “Bob, forget it. We’ve only got three guys and if they’re really interested they’ll come down and see you.”
HWH: Did you try to work at all in cooperation with Smith or Mount Holyoke?
WILSON: Well I inspected their operation when I first started in to see what they were doing, but in my thinking about the kind of service we should perform, I just couldn’t buy that placement program.
HWH: Are there any other things on this subject you’d like to add that I haven’t raised?
HWH: I meant to mention yesterday something you raised, and that was during World War II when you tried to keep in touch with alumni, as Alumni Secretary then, overseas or elsewhere. Was there some success to that program?
WILSON: I don’t know how successful it was, but I began to get letters from all over the world from our men who were in various branches of the service and often asking what’s going on at the College. So I thought it might be interesting and worthwhile for the College to keep in touch with these alumni, some of whom never lived to come back, by sending them, I’ve forgotten whether it was two or three times a year, a mimeograph report on Amherst today, giving them an idea of what units were here and what the College was doing to train people, and how the College was meeting its problem of survival during the War. And I got a wonderful set of letters back from each one of these, from different men telling what they were doing, and this made material for the Alumni Notes, of course.
HWH: Is there still a collection of those letters?
WILSON: I haven’t asked Al Guest, but I suspect that there must be a collection. I’ll check some day. I’d like to re-read them and see what I was talking about.
HWH: I don’t know if you remember that Al tried to have reunions here on the campus, not for students who had enrolled at Amherst but those in the meteorological and other programs.
WILSON: I remember he did. Occasionally a man would stop back, a guy who had been in my class and was just going through Amherst to say, “I just stopped by to say Hello, dreaming of the old days.” But I didn’t see anybody... for about five or ten years after those men were stationed here I’d see one or two a year,-- but then it dropped away and in the last ten or fifteen years I didn’t see anybody that stopped by.
HWH: During a period during the War I know you were in charge of a Conscientious Objector Camp.
WILSON: The first one that was established by the Quakers down at Patapsco Park in Baltimore. There were fifty-two men assigned to the camp and we had a fascinating time trying to keep them out of picketing everything in the city of Baltimore.
HWH: It impressed me that you were beyond draft age; you had a family of four children; and you chose to...
WILSON: Well they needed somebody for three months while they picked a permanent director and so Stanley King gave me leave. Stanley was very interested. He thought I was crazy in my stand as a conscientious objector, but he invited Louise and me to his house a week before we went down to the camp in June, and he asked us to tell the few faculty friends there about our stance and what we were going to do. Then when we got back in the fall, he had us over with the same group of people. “Well, what was it like? What happened? What did you learn? Are you still a C.O.?” And I remember during the War, at the very beginning, no it was ‘41, I think, the Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni and the Alumni Council met to urge universal military service. Jack McCloy was chairman of the meeting and he went around the room and asked each person what they thought-- whether they’d be in favor of it. He got to me, and I said, “Jack, I’m a Conscientious Objector, a Quaker, and have no use for war at any time. There are other ways of defeating people, and I can’t approve of this thing. But as Secretary of the Association I’ll send out any letters that you draft, I’m not going to sabotage your work.” And Jack McCloy said, “Bill, you hold your ideas as long as you can.” It impressed me tremendously. I thought he’d probably blast me for being a dope or something. “Now you hold those ideas as long as you can.” And he went on to the next person.
HWH: Were you the only one expressing this?
HWH: Did this have any come-uppance for you from alumni?
WILSON: No, I went to Stanley King and said, “If my position as a C.O. embarrasses the college-- I said this to the Alumni Council-- let me know, because I’ll leave right away. There’ll be no problem. In my teaching,” I said, “I will never use my teaching platform to broadcast my ideas about Quaker ideas about conscientious objection.” So Stanley said, “Well if you can’t hold those crazy ideas around a college, where can you hold them? Stay right where you are.”
HWH: Stanley was very good that way.
WILSON: He was.
HWH: What were your duties at the camp? Were you just running it?
WILSON: I was the Director of it and we divided the camp into committees and I had them governing themselves. I very rarely made a decision. When the camp had to do something, they argued it out and debated it and made the work assignments-- we were assigned different jobs around the park. We had General Hershey over one night and he said, “I want to see what your camp’s like.” So the camp got all spruced up for him and he had dinner with us and then answered questions for an hour and a half. The boys put it right to him and he put it right to them. Then a whole series of camps developed out of this program around the country.
HWH: Were those attending the camp largely out of education or from all walks of life?
WILSON: All walks of life. One of the greatest boys there was a butcher. Another was a member of Jehovah’s Witness who was always getting arrested for picketing and passing out leaflets in front of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, or something like that. They were men from, some, a few were from education. A boy named Schneiders had won the American Legion prize for the best essay, as a high school senior, on “Why I Am an American,” and when he registered as a C.O., that following July after he had gotten his award the American Legion tried to get the $500 back. Three of these men were assigned to Danbury prison for refusing to sign their draft card even, and they were such a pain in the neck in the prison that they were paroled in my custody to get them out of Danbury before they tore the place apart. They had all the prisoners wanting to have sit-down strikes and everything.
HWH: Were they mostly white?
WILSON: Yes. We had only one, I believe, only one black man.
HWH: That was the Jehovah’s Witness?
WILSON: No, no. That was another man. But about fifteen out of the fifty-two were religious objectors and the others were political objectors.
[END OF SIDE TWO, TAPE II. BEGINNING TAPE III]
HWH: This is Tape Number three of a discussion with Dean Wilson on admission and other matters.
Bill, I’ve enjoyed these chats with you and I’d just like to ask you now if there’s anything you can say about your life here at Amherst from 1939 to 1971 as an active member of the institution
WILSON: Well, Bud, I felt very fortunate because I was fully challenged and I loved my work and my associations with the people in the town of Amherst and in the College. In my alumni work, before I came up to assume the position of Alumni Secretary, I dreamt of finding new ways to help alumni continue their learning, their book-learning, by having professors visit alumni associations, by having the Graduates’ Quarterly run lists of the best books in geology, or the latest books in geology-- different ways of involving the alumni, after they graduate, in the educational process. I never achieved any great success in this area and it was an unfinished business with me.
My work in the admission office and in the Dean’s office was continuously challenging, exciting, and occasionally rewarding. As I analyze my life here, the thing that kept me so happy and so interested in the work was my inability to master the science of human assessment. I knew there must be ways of delving into the inside motivational drive in students, but I never discovered it. And it was that constant search, that constant search, for a way of judging which students would benefit most from our particular offerings that kept me entranced and excited and sometimes frustrated, because I kept thinking-- next year I’ll solve it.
I did learn a great deal through the dean’s work because I had to see every student who was failing in the freshman year, and men that I’d picked who wouldn’t fail. So this was an educational experience.
But every morning, coming to work, I was able to whistle coming to work because I was looking forward to it. I never tired for a moment of interviewing students. My colleagues in other colleges would say, “My God, when it gets to three o’clock, I don’t want to see any more people.” And they didn’t like the interviewing particularly-- and particularly a whole day of it. But I was just as interested in a guy at four-thirty as a guy at eight-thirty, because I was constantly trying to find an answer to the question, which man?, which man is best for us?
HWH: If you ever had solved that mystery, I think you would have been a very different kind of Dean of Admission.
WILSON: Well I wouldn’t have written about it for sure.
HWH: What part of it, if there was such a part, did you like least?
WILSON: The travel. I enjoyed being at a school, talking to parents, teachers, counselors, students, once I got there, but the at first riding the trains hour after hour, then the planes-- of course we didn’t have to battle the traffic you have today. But they were old DC3s and then the larger planes, and that travel, being away from home and the office-- this I didn’t care for.
HWH: How about the nights reading folders?
WILSON: I didn’t mind that at all. Each one was a new adventure. You’re peeking into another prospect’s hopes and we tried for years to develop a rejection letter that would make people happy that they were not going to go through what Amherst offered. I finally, I think, worked out a decent rejection letter, but I found there was no good way to say no to a person and have them anything but discouraged and disappointed.
HWH: I would suspect that the greatest difficulty in saying no would be to an alumnus whose son was rejected.
WILSON: This was the hardest part, And I hurt some alumni badly and they tried to hurt me in retaliation and I understood it, and accepted it, and it was an unpleasant part of the job. But as it happened so often, I learned over the passage of time, that the son of the alumnus we rejected would go to another institution and have a happy, successful experience. And just enough fathers would write in and say, “Bill, I forgive you. This boy’s had a great experience, he didn’t miss Amherst a bit, and I’m coming back to my next reunion.”
HWH: An argument you had going for you, more than some other institutions, was the fact that the curriculum required a background that many other institutions didn’t.
WILSON: Yes. The first year I sent out all the notices at once, the rejection notices, and alumni didn’t get them until May and I thought that this was foolish. We can’t do this. So I began right there offering alumni advice and counsel all through the senior year in high school. We sent out rejections in January to sons of alumni-- and to anybody who was clearly out-- we’d notify them very promptly that the preliminary selection had taken place and that they were not going to be in the final group, trying to give them plenty of time to apply at other places. And this was helpful in alumni relations.
HWH: I remember another ploy that you used, maybe it was not a ploy, but it had value-- that was your indicating to alumni that you didn’t admit your own sons.
WILSON: This wasn’t a ploy-- it was a frank statement. The boys always thought I turned them down just so I could say that, and save myself, my face with alumni. They’ve accused me of that many times. But it did help to make alumni a little more understanding when I told them that my own two sons weren’t qualified and had happy and successful experiences in other places.
HWH: There’s one thing we’ve left out completely, Bill, and I’d like to have it on the record, and that’s the support you got from Louise through all these years that made it possible.
WILSON: She was the most marvelous wife for Alumni Secretary. She would put on a luncheon before the football game for the alumni returning, the Trustees and the Executive Committee of the Alumni Council-- thirty to forty men-- at our Woodside Avenue home, and she would have charge of that luncheon. I got some help from other wives, but it was a tremendous thing and we had alumni in our house constantly and she was the greatest asset a man could have. Everybody loved her. She didn’t love all the alumni, but she was loved by all of them.
HWH: I think it would be fair to guess that she was forthright if she didn’t agree with some decision you had made.
WILSON: Oh yes, a good checkrein on my thinking, and never once complained about my working Saturdays and Sundays during the final selection, and nights-- never once complained, part of the job, she accepted it, took care of the kids, and never once said, “Why do you do that?” I’m glad you mentioned that. She was a great partner, a real partner.
HWH: Bill, for the present, I think that’s about all we can cover. Unless there’s something you’d like to add.
WILSON: Let’s get a cup of coffee.
HWH: Let me just say for the record here, that we’ll have another piece of material of your relationship with Stanley King. That will probably become a separate little document in itself. Thanks very much.
(Transcript completed 3/27/79)