The recent opinion piece by David Kane ’88, “What Does It Mean to be the Best?” (Sept. 20, 2017), is based on two premises that are, to be charitable, retrograde and profoundly ill-informed. First, the “mission” of Williams is not, as Kane claims in his opening sentence, “to be the best in the world.” Rather, our mission is to use the considerable resources that we are fortunate to have to provide the best possible education to students who can benefit deeply from it. With a Williams education, our graduates go into the wider world and make that world a better place. That is our mission.
The second false premise of this piece is narrower but far more insidious. It is that the “best” students, the only ones we should admit to Williams, are those applicants with the highest standardized test scores. The false corollary is that we should design our admissions processes to maximize the average SAT scores of the entering class. This is a ridiculous proposition for at least two reasons.
First, the very notion that the “quality” of students can be defined on a single linear scale is preposterous. To be sure, we only admit applicants who we are confident can be successful in our rigorous academic environment, and our graduation rate of over 95 percent shows that we are successful in this. But all students who enroll at Williams bring with them a wide variety of attributes – personal, academic, artistic, athletic, religious, linguistic, social and so on. Our community is by far the stronger for it, and the education that every student receives by far the richer. The notion that our students, bringing to Williams their remarkable whole selves, can be ordered by who is the “best” is to misunderstand completely the nature of our students. It is to misunderstand completely the nature of human beings.
Second, it has been well known for decades that standardized tests such as the SAT aren’t measures of intrinsic intelligence – and certainly not measures of personal value – but rather of academic preparation. Of course, we are interested in the admissions process in the academic preparation of our applicants. But any academic measure, whether it’s a standardized test or a grade-point average or the strength of an applicant’s curriculum, has to be understood in the context of the challenges the person has faced and the opportunities that have been made available to them. As we all know, we live in a society that distributes educational opportunities incredibly unevenly and unfairly. To find talented students whom we want to bring to Williams, we have to consider what they’ve done in the context in which they’ve grown up and imagine the incredible things they’ll do when obstacles are replaced by opportunities.
It’s just not the same thing to go to a poorly-resourced public school as it is to go to a well-resourced private school. (If it were, the private schools would all close!) We value students from both of these backgrounds, but we have to work harder to find the talented and high-achieving students who, by accident of birth, have been given fewer opportunities to develop and demonstrate their abilities. And we’re proud of that work. Just last week, 127 students attended the first of our Windows on Williams (WOW) programs of the fall. These are prospective applicants who have not been given the same opportunities as others in our society. Many of them ultimately will enroll here, and we will be absolutely thrilled to welcome them to our community.
Which brings us to two very important points. First, every single student who is here at Williams is here because we believe in them, we want them here and we hope they will bring their full self to our community. Williams is a better place, and can only aspire to be the “best” college, if we have a student body drawn from every part of our society. The alternative, a school with students whose only characteristic is high SAT scores, would be a college not only much the poorer but ultimately doomed to irrelevance.
And second, we’re not going back. We are committed, in fact we are recommitted, to this work. The strength of our student body – the strength of Williams itself – rests both on our students’ talent broadly defined and on the wide diversity of backgrounds from which they hail. This is who we are, it is who we want to be and it is who we will be in the decades to come.
Adam Falk is the president of the College. Liz Creighton ’01 is the dean of admission and financial aid.