Applicant Pool Reaches Record High Despite Murray Controversy

The Emma Willard House.

Middlebury College

The Emma Willard House.

By BOCHU DING

The admissions office reported in January that applicants to the college reached an all time high. With 9,230 total applications, Middlebury’s pool increased by 3.6 percent from the previous year and exceeds the previous 2013 record. 

The announcement arrived shortly before the one year anniversary of the Charles Murray incident, where “The Bell Curve” author’s lecture was met with protest from students. The incident soon drew the attention of national media outlets, thrusting Middlebury into the spotlight and invoking a national debate about free speech on campuses.

As critics of the college emerged from every ideological corner, the admissions office began evaluating the impact of the protests and the negative media coverage that followed. Beginning last spring, the office tracked three data points: withdrawals of early decision applicants, the number of campus visitors through June and yield for regular decision applicants. 

But the data collected led to an unexpected conclusion: The impacts of the Murray incident on admissions were marginal at best.

“We lost nobody who applied and was admitted early decision,” said Greg Buckles, dean of admissions. “Our regular decision yield was up just a little bit, and we had a great number of visitors. We were on track with the previous spring, which was a record year.”

Despite speculation that coveted regular decision applicants would be discouraged from accepting their admission offers, the college’s yield rate for the class of 2021 reached a five-year record high of 43 percent. 

The admissions office also hired an external consultant, who interviewed four sets of eight to ten students across the country on their perception of Middlebury, including in the surveys questions about the Murray incident.

The polling results ultimately drew two major conclusions.  For students who didn’t view Middlebury as one of their top schools, few were aware of the situation at all.  For students who favored Middlebury, the incident simply reflected the critical debate taking place on college campuses across the nation.

“The consistent response we heard, if I can sum it up, was essentially: that just sounds like what college is supposed to be — a bunch of people in lively debate and argument,” Buckles said.

Some conservative first-year students saw the incident as providing room for conversation and civil debate.

“I knew that Middlebury was a very liberal school when I applied and that being conservative here would put me in the minority,” Brendan Philbin ’21 said. “The Charles Murray incident actually made me more excited to come here, as it opened the door for many discussions about free speech on campus, a topic about which I am very passionate.”

For others, Middlebury’s qualities and opportunities eclipsed the blemish of the incident.

“I thought lightly about it, but the actions of a few rowdy individuals do not and should not reflect the viewpoints of the entire Middlebury student body,” Allan Lei ’21 said. “On top of that, Middlebury had always been one of my top choices, so I just wasn’t gonna let that overshadow my deep enthusiasm for the school.”

Incoming students are not alone in viewing the aftermath of the incident positively. Andi Lloyd, dean of the faculty, said, “At least some prospective faculty suggested that they appreciate the fact that Middlebury is actively engaging these issues — issues that are, of course, not unique to Middlebury — as hard as those conversations may be, they see it as a good thing that we are actually having them.” 

“I believe that the incidents have had, in the long run, a positive effect on our community,” Nora Bayley ’21 said. “We have used the incidents to realize flaws in our administration and governing system, and have tried to fix them to better represent our community as a whole.”

Although the Murray incident had a marginal impact on the growth of the college’s applicant pool and its reputation, the critical internal conversations have allowed Middlebury to establish itself as a leader in the broader national discussion about speech on campus. 

A committee on speech and inclusion was formed in response to the incident, and recently issued its first report and recommendations for campus change. The past fall, the faculty also launched “Critical Conversations: Advancing a Culture of Freedom and Inclusivity.”  As part of the series, the college invited a panel of scholars to discuss the creation of a robust and inclusive public sphere. In a completely different capacity, first year students were also able to navigate the topic of speech in the seminar course “Free Speech v. Racist Speech” led by Professor Erik Bleich. 

“The only way to find compromise is to listen, and I think now we’re starting to have the conversations we need to be having,” Emma Clinton ’21 said. “People are talking, the administration is listening, and hopefully that will bring change for the better.”

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