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Fall 2003

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Centennial spotlight

On campus

Faculty focus

Arts on view



Class notes


by Peter MacDonald and Susan Rosenberg

Considering the perennial news reports exposing campus vices—from violent hazing to alcohol poisoning to gambling rings—across America, Skidmore has it easy. Whether because of its founding ideals of service and caring, or its culture of tolerance and friendliness, Skidmore is known as a haven of individualism in a fundamentally civil atmosphere. More and more, it’s also known as a major contender academically.
     At the same time, the college is grappling with issues at the fulcrum of social and academic life: Is Skidmore a “party school” steeped in alcohol and drugs? Does the social culture put pressure on faculty to make course work easy? Or do low classroom expectations help make over-partying easy? Are there downsides to raising academic standards?
 There’s no argument that today’s Skidmore is better known and more highly respected than ever. Witness its inclusion in recent years in U.S. News & World Report’s “top tier” of liberal-arts colleges; the drop in the proportion of applicants accepted, from 66 percent in 1996 to 45 percent in 2003; the jump in enrolled students’ average SAT scores, from 1090 in 1994 to 1250 in 2003; and the steady stream of students winning prestigious national scholarships and research grants. Skidmore’s Honors Forum, which began with thirty students in fall 1998, has grown to about 200 members. And their influence, like the Filene and Porter scholars, seems to permeate the whole college: in their best honors courses, some faculty report, they can’t guess which students are Honors Forum members and which aren’t.
     Nevertheless, Skidmore continues to struggle with problems of alcohol and drug use, vandalism, and academic underachievement. These are familiar, even eternal issues at Skidmore and every serious school, but—perhaps because they contrast so strongly with Skidmore’s dramatic advances in recent years—they’re currently front-burner issues of campus debate.
     One eye-opener came last fall, with the results of the government-funded 2001 Core Institute Alcohol and Drug Survey, which measures the experiences and attitudes of some 50,000 students at more than 100 two- and four-year colleges in the United States. While Skidmore’s administrators are skeptical about the methodology and the validity of comparisons with non-liberal-arts colleges, they don’t dismiss the results. Of particular concern is binge drinking and marijuana use: 70 percent of Skidmore students in the survey reported having five or more drinks at one sitting in the previous two weeks, and over 50 percent said they’d smoked pot in the previous month. Both percentages far exceed the Core averages. And just this fall the cheeky Princeton Review college guide placed Skidmore at the top of its “reefer madness” ranking—a notoriously dubious measure statistically, but one that feeds, and reflects, a widespread reputation.

     Nearly 80 percent of the Skidmore respondents in the Core survey said the social atmosphere on campus promotes drug use. However, Michelle Van Slyke, the college’s health educator, observes that students often overestimate their peers’ use of drugs and alcohol. In any case, she says, “We need to let students know that it’s OK not to drink.” She hopes to work with groups like Bacchus and Gamma, the student “healthy alternatives” club, to sponsor more alcohol-free activities on campus.
     “Compared to the 1980s, when there were fifteen kegs on the quad one weekend, things are much quieter and safer,” says Thomas “Pat” Oles, dean of student affairs. “Partying may be down, but our tolerance has dropped too; we’re more concerned than we used to be.” Oles says he took the opportunity of the Core report to rhetorically “beat up on the students”— the Student Government Association and the Skidmore News in particular—to find solutions. “Use your influence to focus campus discourse on moderation, personal responsibility, and an ethos of caring about your peers,” he wrote to the Skidmore News editors last fall.
     In students’ eyes, it may be vandalism that’s most troubling. Campus vandalism is usually alcohol-related, according to the campus safety and student affairs offices, and it jumped from $36,000 worth in 2000–01 to $50,000 in 2001–02. Former Honors Forum president Justin Rogers-Cooper ’03 sees kicked-in doors and broken furniture as the visible eruptions of a residence-hall lifestyle sometimes characterized by a “complete lack of respect for other people.” The problem topped the agenda at an HF-sponsored panel discussion that drew students, faculty, and administrators. Says HF director Philip Boshoff, an English professor, “Faculty eyes were opened to the conditions students are facing in the residence halls.” Residential living can reinforce academics, he says, but not if disruptive dormmates interfere with studying and sleeping. A followup forum is planned for December, to focus on gender issues and tensions at Skidmore and in society at large. No doubt one subject will be the fact that those doing the vandalizing are primarily freshman and sophomore males.
     Rogers-Cooper, an English major, isn’t opposed to partying, but he doesn’t want it to affect Skidmore’s intellectual climate. Watching classmates head downtown to start the weekend on Thursday night, he admits to “a feeling of resentment—not that you resent the fun they’re having, but the next morning in class they’re not adding to the classroom experience.” Skidmore News columnist Andrew Lindner ’03, currently pursuing a PhD in sociology, sympathizes. In a 2002 commentary, “Taking Thursday Night Back: Anti-Intellectualism at Skidmore,” he wrote, “We all know the scene. The professor asks a question. Silence.…Then, the same kid who answers every question examines the room, sighs, and raises his hand. Everyone hates that kid and wishes he would just shut up. I should know. I am that kid.” Not doing your reading, coming to class unprepared—as far as Rogers-Cooper is concerned, that’s “silent cheating. Students learn as much or more from the dialogue in class as from the readings. A liberal-arts college is like a democracy: you count on everyone to do their bit.”
     Juan Martinez ’03, a government major, agrees that some students are on autopilot, but says there are plenty of high achievers: “You can get away with doing jack-squat, leaving your life uncomplicated by extracurriculars, taking the bare minimum number of credits, and selecting a single major. But there are so many students who double-major with a minor and three strong extracurricular interests that it all balances out.” In fact, the number of Skidmore students graduating with a double-major and/or a minor has steadily risen, from 38 percent in 1994 to 47 percent in 2003.
     Martinez’s comments also reinforce the findings of the 1997 Student Cultures Project, an inquiry by faculty and student-affairs staff concerned with academic ambitions and expectations. Their research identified three distinct academic cultures at Skidmore, roughly characterized as excelling, getting by, and slacking. The research also revealed a strong link between faculty involvement and students’ motivation to learn and work hard. Rebecca Bilbro ’04, a double-major in English and mathematics, reports, “Getting close and talking in depth is possible with almost every faculty member I’ve had at Skidmore. My professors are interested in what they’re doing and willing to talk to students about it.” Adds Lindner, “The rigor is there if you want to take it on. The faculty is there.” Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser, who teaches creative writing, confirms: “I work as closely with students as they can bear, especially on the advanced level.”
Engagement and escapism
Median SATs of incoming freshmen
2002: 1250
2001: 1230
2000: 1230
1999: 1220
1998: 1200
1997: 1180

Average spring- semester GPA at Skidmore
2002: 3.30
2001: 3.25
2000: 3.19
1999: 3.20
1998: 3.15
1997: 3.14
Seniors with double majors or minors
2002: 51%
2001: 48%
2000: 41%
1999: 42%
1998: 46%
1997: 44%

presentations in Academic Festival
2002: 150/60
2001: 115/54
2000: 78/23
1999: 82/35
Percentage of spring-term grades given
44% A, 36% B, 7% C, 1% D, 1% F

44% A, 39% B, 9% C, 1% D, 1% F

41% A, 40% B, 11% C, 2% D, 1% F

42% A, 41% B, 10% C, 2% D, 1% F

39% A, 40% B, 12% C, 2% D, 1% F

37% A, 41% B, 12% C, 2% D, 1% F

Had five or more drinks in one sitting in the past two weeks
Skidmore average: 70%
(Core survey group average: 46.5%)

Smoked marijuana in the past month
Skidmore: 52%
(Survey average: 20%)

Have missed a class as a result of drinking or drug use
Skidmore: 42%
(Survey average: 33%)

Have gotten in trouble with residence-hall staff, college authorities, or police as a result of drinking or drug use:
Skidmore: 24%
(Survey average: 14%)
For nearly two years Charles M. Joseph, interim dean of the faculty, has been working with the faculty Committee on Educational Policy and Planning to develop a new “academic vision” that emphasizes four Cs—critical thinking, collaboration, communication, citizenship. Though Joseph says his Liberal Studies 1 students are “more engaged, better prepared, and more receptive than ever,” he also notes an ambivalence when it comes to committing to excellence. When he talked this winter with student-government leaders about the four Cs, he was struck by their resistance: “An aspect of Skidmore they really like is that they have the choice of working hard or not. They’re reluctant to give up that flexibility.” Andrew Kirshenbaum ’03, last year’s SGA president, explains, “Skidmore students care about both academics and social life. But when it comes down to it, fitting in is more important than getting the grade.”
     A 1999 survey showed that 47 percent of incoming students expected Skidmore to be “comfortable,” while 19 percent expected “challenging,” and just 15 percent “intellectual.” Whether or not these expectations hold up once the school year begins, most students do set their habits and aspirations early in their college careers, argues Oles, the student-affairs dean. “Once students declare their majors and get hooked up with professors, Skidmore’s curricular strength and rigor become evident to them. But it’s important to make those connections happen sooner.”
     For Beau Breslin of the government faculty, one key solution—at Skidmore as at other colleges—is to resist grade inflation. He says insisting on higher standards will increase academic quality: “There is a need for a little more competition. Those elusive top grades—we just don’t have them, if over 80 percent of our students are getting As and Bs.” Breslin’s math is right: in spring 2003, 46 percent of all grades were As, 38 percent Bs. Skidmore’s average GPA is 3.29, compared to 3.14 six years ago. Pushkala Prasad, Zankel Professor of Management for Liberal Arts Students, also blames grade inflation. “I see a lot of student potential going unused,” she says, adding, “Some students are too consumer-minded about education. But I tell them, college is not a superstore at the mall; you can’t just bring your money and buy what you want. We’ll teach you, but you have to do the work too.”
     Joseph agrees. “I’d like to see faculty making the highest demands possible. It’s a contagious process. And it’s actually the rigorous but fair professors who fare the best on student evaluations.” Joseph wants faculty to feel it’s “all right to confront students academically and socially.” In fact, “it’s their responsibility,” he adds, though he acknowledges that not all faculty agree with this approach, especially outside the academic sphere. Juan Martinez says there’s no denying that “professors who expect more get more.”
     Joseph hopes the four Cs will be widely embraced by the faculty. The plan would mean enhancing collaborative research, service learning, internships, independent studies, and seminars. Another hope is that faculty members who teach first-year students can also serve as their advisors, to help get students engaged with their teachers from the start. On the citizenship side, it would mean more faculty presence in the nonacademic aspects of students’ lives. Joseph knows all of these would require thorough faculty deliberation “and some tradeoffs, given that many faculty members are clearly overcommitted and stretched dangerously thin.”
     As academic standards evolve, double-major Rebecca Bilbro hopes that increased rigor won’t threaten curricular flexibility and opportunities for exploration. “There’s a lot to learn in college that isn’t necessarily academic. I might not have been able to double-major at Amherst or Harvard,” she says. Mary Crone, on the physics faculty, argues that more academic rigor will “increase creativity, not stifle it. It doesn’t simply mean that more facts are memorized; it means a deeper understanding of issues and greater excitement about ideas.” For her part, Prasad laments that “our culture tends to disregard the power of memory and dismiss it as ‘rote.’ I’m sorry, but remembering is an essential part of learning.” And if engaging in deeper, richer learning leaves “a little less time for sports or clubs,” she says, “I can live with that.”
     As an embodiment of Joseph’s hopes for a Skidmore education, Mark Polanzak ’03 might be exhibit A. The winner of the English Department’s top fiction prize for his novella The Atlantic Desert, Polanzak took maximum advantage of the quality and accessibility of the college’s faculty, engaging in successive independent studies with acclaimed authors Kathryn Davis and Steven Millhauser. As a consequence, living the life of a writer, once a fantasy to Polanzak, is “real and within my grasp,” he says. “Skidmore is a place that allows students to cruise by and a place where Thursday is the start of the weekend.…It’s comfortable. But what a lot of people don’t get is that this place can be electric, awesome, broadening, exhilarating—if you pick up and take that next step. The possibilities are there. And those possibilities are a lot better than just comfortable.”
As part of his former job, Peter MacDonald served as a resident director in a prep-school dormitory; as a student, Sue Rosenberg had to share a dormitory with a campus fraternity.

“Get tough”? Get real.
by Thomas P. Oles, Dean of Student Affairs

Parents often ask me, “How does the college respond to students using drugs or alcohol?” Underneath the question is a hope for reassurance that the college can protect their child from the vicissitudes of campus culture.
     I am not always sure how to respond. On some occasions it is helpful to list our regulations, health education programs, referrals to counselors, and disciplinary procedures. Reducing student alcohol and drug consumption is critical to health and safety on campus as well as to the quality of the academic experience. When a student’s abuse of alcohol or other drugs comes to our attention, and it does not involve other, more serious misconduct, we begin with a warning and counseling, and perhaps referral to professional services. When appropriate, we involve parents. Further violations of alcohol and drug policy may lead to formal campus disciplinary action.
     If these efforts fail, the student may be suspended or expelled. On other occasions, it’s more useful to tell parents about our philosophy of education and personal development. Skidmore students are emerging adults, capable of making decisions about their lives. They make mistakes, they suffer consequences, and they learn. While here, they decide how they want to live and learn and the kind of communities they want to create. Students influence one another in countless informal settings and in formal venues such as the Honor Code Commission, All College Council’s Subcommittee on Alcohol and Other Drugs, the Integrity Board, Bacchus and Gamma, and residential life programs. Helping students assume responsibility for their behavior is our ultimate purpose, so we focus our attention on helping them discover, develop, and use their personal resources—and the extraordinary array of help available at Skidmore—to make appropriate, responsible choices for themselves.
     Skidmore students are bright, ambitious, and creative, and our approach to working with them is collaborative and optimistic. We are very good at supporting their autonomy and involving them in educational experiences, but we are not particularly good at controlling their behavior. The college provides a structure of rules and regulations and enforces them, but we devote more of our energy to teaching and advising students. Reduced alcohol and drug use is more often a function of students’ increased engagement with their education than a result of anti-drug programs or regulations.
     The use of alcohol and other drugs on college campuses is a serious public-health problem, and when the Princeton Review suggests that Skidmore is the number-one “reefer madness” college, it is tempting to impose more restrictions on our students. However, using administrative power to compel compliance makes obedience rather than education our goal, and more administrative control of students means less opportunity for them to develop self-control. A flexible, thoughtful approach that respects students’ autonomy—and promotes their involvement in promulgating and enforcing college policy—is more likely to succeed than “getting tough.”
     In the end, supporting student growth and promoting an engaging academic and social environment are the surest ways to a safe and healthy campus.

Pat Oles has been a social-work professor at Skidmore since 1986; he took on the deanship in student affairs in 1998.


© 2003 Skidmore College