For a Personal Touch in Admissions, the President Takes Up Pen and Paper

May 08, 2016

The Letter Writer

Ric Damm
Zach P. Messitte
 Each February, Zach P. Messitte, president of Ripon College, reaches for his pen and begins writing the first of approximately 100 handwritten letters to prospective students. After gathering basic information about each — hometown, prospective major, high-school extracurriculars — he pens a note encouraging the student to consider Ripon. He averages five or so messages a day, writing the bulk of them in March.

That recruitment strategy, Mr. Messitte believes, tells students something about the nature of the liberal-arts college of just under 800 students, in Wisconsin. "It’s personal," he says. "It’s small."

Mr. Messitte came to Ripon College in 2012 after working as dean of the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma. His love of letter-writing stems from having received handwritten letters from that institution’s president, David L. Boren, for whom he also worked while Mr. Boren was in the U.S. Senate.

At Ripon, which relies heavily on tuition to fund its operations, Mr. Messitte wanted to show his staff that he was "in the trenches" beside them, recruiting students. In 2014 and 2015, after a few years of declining enrollment and falling revenue, four full-time positions were cut. As of May 3, deposits from incoming students were up 6 percent over last year. Though Mr. Messitte can’t directly correlate students’ decisions to matriculate with his letter writing, he says the effort doesn’t hurt.

"You get to know what your incoming class is going to look like, where they’re from, what their interests are," he says.

Take, for example, a West Coast high-school senior he wrote to this spring. After learning she was interested in Italian and theater, Mr. Messitte — who is fluent in Italian — wrote to her in that language about Ripon’s theater program. She wrote back — also in Italian. She plans to attend Ripon this fall.

Not every correspondence ends that way, Mr. Messitte says, but the process reinforces the idea "that this is a place where you’re not a number, not one among many. You should stand out. You’re someone the president is interested in." — Jenny Rogers

A Gap in the Archives

K.J. Rawson
 When K.J. Rawson began doing research on transgender archives for his dissertation, he never imagined he would become an archivist himself. In February, Mr. Rawson, now an assistant professor of English at College of the Holy Cross here, began what is believed to be the first digital archive of transgender history. He and his students just added the thousandth document to a trove that traces a century of change.

More than 20 universities and nonprofit organizations are collaborating on the project, which Mr. Rawson directs at Holy Cross. Partner institutions and projects include the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria, in Canada.

One of the challenges of finding records, Mr. Rawson says, is that the word "transgender" has been around only since 1965, so documents were splintered into categories like "cross-dressing," "transvestite," and "transsexual."

"I started to see each of these collections as a puzzle piece," Mr. Rawson says. "They were being collected all over the place, yet people seemed unaware of where they were."

Materials going into the Digital Transgender Archive take tangible form in the boxes and folders that crowd Mr. Rawson’s office. Because many documents are personal, like underground newsletters and family photographs, he reaches out to copyright holders directly. "Often when I ask permission to use something, I’ve been surprised that the answer is, yes — and here’s all this other stuff," he says.

The archive has turned up some surprises. For example, the strong parallels between trans newsletters from South Africa and the United States suggest that far-flung communities were aware of, and even in contact with, each other. Scholarly challenges have arisen too, such as the categorization of documents in a field where labels are highly politicized. Mr. Rawson says that Holy Cross, a Roman Catholic institution, has been extremely supportive, although the affiliation makes him hesitate sometimes to upload sexually explicit historical materials.

The archive, Mr. Rawson says, can be a "corrective" for misunderstandings of transgender communities, which have been sexualized and pathologized in history. "If you think about how vast the historical record could be, archives are so limited," he says. His hope is that new kinds of archives will help overcome those limitations. — Daniel A. Gross

Aid Director to Retire

Dan Sears, UNC-Chapel Hill
Shirley A. Ort
Like many good ideas, the Carolina Covenant was born out of frustration, says its creator, Shirley A. Ort.

She was frustrated, when she created the program in the early 2000s, with the idea that stories about the rising cost of a college education would deter prospective students from low-income backgrounds from even applying.

Ms. Ort will retire as associate provost and director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this summer, completing nearly five decades in higher education. She considers the development of the Carolina Covenant, which makes it possible for eligible students from low-income families to graduate from the system’s flagship debt-free, as a highlight of her career.

"It’s really satisfying because I’ve seen firsthand what it means to the students that have benefited. Like so many on this campus, I would have been a Covenant kid," she says. "It just makes me feel really good that we’ve removed finances as a barrier for so many of these students."

Chapel Hill’s program was the first at a public institution, but many similar programs followed. Ms. Ort knows not all campuses can create a program as large as Chapel Hill’s, which now serves more than 700 students, but she encourages institutions to do what they can.

Ms. Ort says student aid today faces many challenges in her state and nationwide, and she is concerned about the student-loan program being "under attack."

"If I were younger," says Ms. Ort, who is 70, "I’d just keep going. One of the reasons I’ve worked so long is because I’ve liked it so much." — Courtney Kueppers

New Chief in Illinois

After a year of tumult that saw its leader fired amid a spending scandal, the College of DuPage has chosen a new president.

Ann Rondeau, who will be the first female president in the college’s 49-year history, is a partner and consultant with the IBM Watson Group and a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy. She has served as president of the National Defense University, in Washington. She will begin her new post in July.

She will arrive at a challenging time for Du­Page, Illinois’s largest community college. It is facing state and federal investigations over spending and other decisions, and its accreditor placed the college on probation in December. Controversies and discord at the college culminated in the firing last year of its president, Robert L. Breuder, who has filed a lawsuit against the board accusing it of wrongfully terminating him. — Charles Huckabee

Obituaries: Longtime Leaders

Melvin D. George, a president emeritus of St. Olaf College who also served twice as interim president of the University of Missouri system, died on April 25. He was 80.

Mr. George was the first non-clergy leader of St. Olaf, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. During the nine years he led the institution, from 1985 to 1994, the college raised nearly $73 million.

After he retired from St. Olaf, he was chair of an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources that produced the 1996 report "Shaping the Future: New Expectations in Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology." He then served as vice president for institutional relations at the University of Minnesota and as interim president of the University of Missouri.

Twenty-one years earlier, he had held the same interim role at Missouri, after serving nearly a decade as the system’s vice president for academic affairs. He was also dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Another campus mourned the loss of a leader last week. Dan R. Jones, president and chief executive of Texas A&M University at Commerce, died unexpectedly at his home on April 29. He was 63. Mr. Jones took the helm at the university in 2008 after serving for five years as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Texas A&M International University. Under his leadership, enrollment at Commerce increased rapidly, and the university created the state’s first competency-based degree program. — Anais Strickland

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