Whitman’s reputation grows and changes with class of 2009

Josh Goodman

As graduating seniors leave Whitman behind, they leave a place with a bit of a different reputation than when they first arrived. More selective, less hippie and more diverse are just a few of these changes, according to a survey of students.

But seniors also leave a place that retains many of the features they came for:   rigorous, friendly, and full of opportunity.

“[There are] less hippies, more people in suits, fewer white people; it has become less PNW (Pacific Northwest),” said senior Rand Biersdorff.

“I think we are still known for the quality of students and the opportunities that teachers present,” added senior Kiki Brennan.

The ever-changing Whitman reputation is a result of a combination of factors:   being recognized in publications, college outreach and simply the students themselves.

“Some might believe that Whitman’s reputation is something that we create in a public relations kind of way or that we market, but I think our reputation is based on what alumni say about us.   It’s based on faculty scholarship and accomplishments, student scholarship and accomplishments, whether it’s the debate team, or research, presenting at conferences,” said Dean of Admission Tony Cabasco.   “It’s also how high school counselors perceive us and know of us.   And how outsiders: review and ranking systems: rate us, and how we’re perceived by prospective students and the general public.”

In addition, Whitman’s reputation has changed in recent years through its mention in popular college-search books. These include the Princeton Review’s The Best 368 Colleges, The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students and even All-American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes in the college’s reputation has stemmed from Colleges That Change Lives, a book that profiles 40 excellent liberal arts colleges throughout the country.   Not only has this book brought Whitman nationwide exposure, but Whitman, along with most of the other featured schools, go on a Colleges That Change Lives tour that helps Whitman draw students from areas it doesn’t normally travel to.

“If we were to go to New Orleans by ourselves, we’d be lucky to get 15 people,” said Cabasco.   “But with Colleges That Change Lives, we’ll get 800 people.”

As a result of the tour, national exposure, as well as outreach, Whitman has become more geographically diverse.   Only about 35 percent of new students come from Washington, down from 40-45 percent four years ago.

Whitman has also become more racially and socioeconomically diverse.   Twenty-six percent of admitted students for the class of 2013 are racial minorities, up from about 18 percent four years ago.   And there are more first-generation college students than before, at 13 percent of the admitted class versus 10-11 percent in the past.

However, Whitman’s reputation hasn’t caught up as quickly.

“While some things have changed, people’s perceptions have changed more slowly, such as the perception of Whitman as not diverse,” Cabasco said.   “That takes time.”

While most of the focus on Whitman’s reputation has to do with students and alumni, staff and faculty, and national rankings, another aspect is its relationship with Walla Walla.

“I think in terms of Walla Walla, we are more engaged with the local community than we’ve ever been,” said Associate to the President Jed Schwendiman. “Students who are mentors and volunteers through the Center for Community Service play a huge role in connecting the college to the town.”

Junior Jenna Stearns echoed that sentiment, adding the importance of the student-faculty relationship as a part of Whitman’s reputation.

“It is seen as a school for people who are interested in service to the community and a good broad liberal arts education with faculty who care more about the students than their research,” she said.

Faculty who care about their students is a commonly mentioned aspect of Whitman, and part of Whitman’s reputation that hasn’t changed.   Likewise, Whitman remains an outdoorsy school, and a school with a great books class (be it Core or Encounters) to serve as a first-year experience.

“There is something uniquely Whitman about the Whitman experience that is still there today,” Cabasco said. “An alumna from 1985 or 1965 would still recognize that spirit here today.”

Though the college, and its reputation, are sure to keep evolving, there will still be something uniquely Whitman for members of the Class of 2009 when they come back.