Dean Fred Hargadon on Princeton admissions, circa 1990

Today’s post was written by Lisa Dunkley ’83, Project Analyst at the Office of Development, who worked under Fred Hargadon from 1988 to 1994.

“Yes!”  Those of us who knew, or knew of, Dean Fred Hargadon cannot hear that exclamation without thinking about the blunt, welcome way successful Princeton applicants (and Stanford students before them) learned their admission results.  The phrase became so strongly identified with him that Hargadon Hall, the Whitman College dormitory that was an honorific gift from several anonymous alumni, has the word engraved in stone at the building entrance.  The simplicity of the message belied the long hours and deep experience that led to those decisions.

I worked in Princeton’s undergraduate admission office from 1988 to 1994, and was one of the first three people the Dean hired. I first met Fred at my interview—he is a tall, unassuming and often endearingly rumpled man. I was working in book publishing, and he is a voracious reader. We talked at length and with ease about books, and on occasion he would interject a question. I was a little tense, waiting for the “real” interview to begin. After about 45 minutes or so Fred stood and thanked me for coming: that was the interview. In retrospect I was impressed at how my answers revealed much more than I realized, an experience I found as disconcerting as it was fascinating. When Fred offered me the job a few weeks later, there was only one answer: Yes!

An admission neophyte, I was clueless about how differently the office operated under his watch compared to his predecessors, but I didn’t particularly care. Fred’s approach seemed right to me: admission was all about the applicant: our responsibility was to pay very sharp attention to all details and to make the playing field as even as possible for everyone, from the child of itinerant farm workers to the offspring of royalty, both real and conferred. Our job was to render a reasoned opinion about how well each student took advantage of whatever resources were at his or her disposal. “Children don’t choose where they grow up,” he once told me.

Fred was very open about how he ran the annual process and discussed it with audiences on many occasions over the years (of which this videotape is one). When he was asked how he managed to balance all of the competing interests at play in each year’s applicant group—a frequent question—he said that his goal was to leave every special interest group only slightly unhappy.
Staff training was unlike anything I’d known before. During the admission season, “first readers” like me passed our folders to more senior officers. Later we would review the finer observations they had added to our summaries: it was the best kind of one-on-one tutoring we could have. Summers are traditionally slow in admission, when most of us either meet with campus visitors or take vacation. In this “off season,” Fred’s strong preference was for us to read books of all kinds. He had a list of recommendations (from On Excellence to The Phantom Tollbooth), but there was sound reasoning behind this exercise: it was our responsibility to have a wide, deep and flexible vocabulary to describe each applicant with as much accuracy as possible. “There is a right word for everything,” he told us.

Fred’s memory is remarkable. My office was at the opposite end of the hallway from his suite. One day I heard his unmistakable footsteps approach my door. I’d seen this play out with my colleagues before: had I made an error? And when? Before I could entertain any possibilities, he simultaneously knocked and opened the door. In his hand was an applicant’s folder, and I braced myself for bad news. Fred waved the folder and said, “I admitted her mother to Swarthmore!” He shook his head and returned to his office.

Of course his mailboxes—traditional and electronic—were filled with the distress of parents whose children would be educated elsewhere. He answered almost every one of those letters himself and kept copies of the correspondence in binders for our reference. Those letters were instructive in their tone and approach. Some writers were genuinely puzzled, such as the mother of a wait-listed student who lived in a tiny town in the Midwest and was the unquestionable star in her small community. Her mother pleaded with Fred: what more could we possibly want? The Dean’s response to her began, “If I were [her] mother, I’d have written to me, too” and in understanding and compassionate terms explained, to the extent he could, how we reached our decisions. Some of the other parents were scarily hostile. If Fred were rattled by this—and it was an annual grind—he never let it show. He responded with grace and dignity to people whose sometimes nasty correspondence should have earned them far less consideration.
This film is rather typical of Fred’s presentations. Although the picture quality is not as high as is now common, the content is as valuable as ever. Unfortunately the film doesn’t capture how his audience is closely attentive, listening very carefully—which was his goal. Dean Hargadon speaks and writes with great care, just as he expected of his staff, and this clip provides some insight into his thoughts and mannerisms. I regret that it only hints at what his presence is like.
Currently my personal and professional lives are less strictly dictated by the academic cycle, and my winter weekends are my own. But I’m still attuned to the admission calendar, and have flashbacks every so often, particularly in the spring. Fred Hargadon, and others who dedicate their lives to admission, have stamina on par with any endurance athlete. I found the job exhaustive, exhausting and exhilarating, and while I moved to another position after six years, I don’t regret a thing. Was working in “Dean Fred’s” admission office one of the best decisions I’ve ever made? That’s easy: “Yes.”
Lisa Dunkley ’83

This VHS videotape is part of the University Archives’ Historical Audiovisual Collection (Item no. 1410)

2 thoughts on “Dean Fred Hargadon on Princeton admissions, circa 1990

  1. This video was taken in 1995, probably at the yearly Reunions talk from the Dean of Admission, which continues today. The year can be extrapolated from a question Dean Hargadon answers at the end of the video about Gina Grant whose admission to Harvard was rescinded after news clippings were sent to Harvard that she had been jailed for killing her mother when she was 14, a fact she did not include on her application.
    http://www.nytimes.com/1995/06/11/us/for-student-who-killed-her-mother-acceptance.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

  2. Pingback: A Letter to Susan and Suzy | critical junctures

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