Sunday, September 10, 2006

Colleges prospect for gold

This was a very long and detailed article, I've just put a few bits of it below. It's well worth looking up and reading completely.

Extracts from
How Lowering the Bar Helps Colleges Prosper
Duke and Brown Universities Rise in Prestige In Part by Wooing Kids of Hollywood, Business Elite

By Daniel Golden for the Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2006
  • Twice a year, after reviewing applicants to Duke University, Jean Scott lugged a cardboard box to the office of President Terry Sanford. Together, Ms. Scott, director of undergraduate admissions from 1980 to 1986, and Mr. Sanford pored over its contents: applications from candidates she wanted to reject but who were on his list for consideration because their parents might bolster the university's endowment.

    Over more than 20 years, Duke transformed itself from a Southern school to a premier national institution with the help of a winning strategy: targeting rich students whose families could help build up its endowment.

    At the same time, and in a similar way, Brown University, eager to shed its label as one of the weakest schools in the Ivy League, bolstered its reputation by recruiting kids with famous parents. While celebrities don't often contribute financially, they generate invaluable publicity.

    Traditionally, universities have relied on gifts from alumni, who are rewarded with "legacy" preferences for their children.

    What makes Duke and Brown, among other institutions, stand out, is the way in which they ramped up and systematized their pursuit: rejecting stronger candidates to admit children of the rich or famous, regardless of their ties to the university.

    In the world of higher education, children of the rich and famous are known as "development cases," pursued by presidents and fund-raisers often to the dismay of admissions staffs.

    Brown raised its profile by enrolling children or stepchildren of politicians and celebrities, including two presidents, three Democratic presidential nominees, two Beatles and seven Academy Award winners. A particularly controversial case was the son of Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz, whose application sparked a debate within Brown.

    To make room for an academically borderline development case, a top college typically rejects nine other applicants, many of whom might have greater intellectual potential.

    Duke has acknowledged the existence of development admits. University spokesman John Burness says the ensuing donations help the university fund facilities improvements and financial aid, among other areas.

    When Terry Sanford, a former North Carolina governor, assumed Duke's presidency in 1970, he found a university with a budget deficit ... "Terry said: 'What we need is some first-class funerals,'" recalls his biographer, Howard Covington.

    To increase donations and help make Duke a top-tier school, Mr. Sanford turned to an old friend, Croom Beatty, a teacher and fund-raiser ... At Mr. Sanford's urging, Mr. Beatty scoured the nation's prep schools for applicants whose families could enrich Duke.

    Duke's recruiting also involved raiding wealthy families traditionally associated with other top universities, especially Yale. The Mars candy-bar clan, the Kohlers (Wisconsin makers of plumbing fixtures) and the Wrigleys of chewing-gum fame started sending their kids to Duke.

    Texas oil magnate Robert Bass, a Yale graduate, and his wife Anne, a Smith College alumna, donated $10 million to Duke in 1996, three years after their son enrolled, and another $10 million in 2001. Anne Bass joined Duke's board in 2003. Through a spokesman, the Basses decline to comment.

    Word spread in private-school circles that Duke was hunting for development cases.

  • Parents looking for a contact at Brown invariably came across the name David Zucconi. Mr. Zucconi held various titles in 44 years as a Brown employee, but one job remained the same: behind-the-scenes liaison to the rich and famous, a role he took on with unusual gusto.

    Mario Zucconi says his brother's name was passed between Brown alumni in the know. "He was out with Walter Matthau. He had drinks with Walter Cronkite. They wanted to get their sons or daughters in."

    "He got some kids into Brown, pushing, one way or another, who should never have been there," recalls Mr. Nicholson, the former Brown admissions officer. "Usually they were children of great wealth or alumni. I would try to accommodate him. Sometimes the kids whom he referred were God awful. I'd call him and say, 'Dave, you've got to do some screening.' "

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