Bill Shain gives out lots of bad news?but that doesn't mean he likes doing it.
"We're going to turn down probably fairly quickly more than 80 percent of the people we meet," said Bowdoin's new dean of admissions. "That doesn't mean the journey has to be obnoxious."
On Shain's list of top priorities as he enters his new post after leaving the equivalent position at Vanderbilt University is to establish an admissions process that "treats people well."
"One of the things I'm really concerned with is the high level of service to families and students," he said. "I would like to do everything we can to make our process one that people enjoy whether or not they get in."
Shain said that he has come into a strong office that functions well, but he plans to make sure the office responds quickly to email and phone calls, wants to get acceptance letters out earlier than in the past, and has given admissions officers their own recruitment areas. Shain himself will keep a territory, including parts of metropolitan New York.
"One of the things about having a territory is that there will be people with whom I'll already have a relationship and some students I can follow through," he said. "I'll have to know everything about how [the recruitment process works] because if you don't have to do it, you don't learn it."
Yet Shain is concerned with the trickle-down effect of providing a certain level of recruitment: receiving more applications.
"I'm the only dean of admissions that I know that worries constantly about if it's going to be harder, much harder to get in here, because who wants to spend all winter turning down 85 percent of the likeable young people that you meet," said Shain. "I really believe that the potential to have an admit rate below 15 percent here is very real. I'm not sure I like it. I'm not sure you can control it."
However, Shain said the single thing he most wants to do at Bowdoin is attract the best minds the College can find.
"Admissions at its most exciting can really enhance the classroom," said Shain. "It's a new challenge for me because I'm coming to a place that's much more actualized than any place I've worked since Princeton. You're already starting with a very good campus with very bright students. Where do we go from here? But it would be whatever would make the classroom more [vibrant]."
Shain said the admissions office and the faculty committee on admissions are planning on having a dialogue about the types of students who make the classroom more dynamic.
"You know the people who make a classroom more interesting for you, and you also know the people who make the classroom more annoying. But there are some people whose comments in a classroom can be hugely useful to everybody in it. It would be nice to be able to find those more," said Shain. "How you get to know that through an admissions process is a challenge."
Enhancing what Shain called Bowdoin's "traditions of diversity" is also on his agenda, especially diversity of background and ethnicity. He'd like to see Bowdoin become a model nationally.
"I would think what you would really want is diversity of perspective so you have people who think differently than you do," he said. "And with 1,700 bodies on campus how many different ways of being can we get? You don't admit somebody because they're different. You admit someone because they're qualified and because their whole person seems to fit in with what we're trying to do here."
Shain said that instead of focusing on what makes up the ideal student, the real question to ask is what makes up the ideal class. Yet, he also believes it is essential to keep admissions focused on people rather than symbols.
"Every file is a person and every person is an individual," he said. "You try to see them in context and figure out what's there, and of course it requires wisdom that nobody has."
The announcement on Tuesday of Harvard's plan to end early admissions, citing that it puts minority and low-income students at a disadvantage, has the potential to put Bowdoin's and other admissions offices around the country in the spotlight.
A record proportion of this year's entering Bowdoin class was admitted on early admission.
Shain said in a follow-up email on Wednesday that it's not early decision itself that's the issue but "it is a problem when there is disproportionate tilt towards candidates who apply early."
"If your class is not excessively filled through early decision, there are ample slots available for students whose families were unaware of early decision, and, indeed, the diversity (economic, ethnic, geographical) of our entering class leaves me comfortable that we are responsive to families in the full range of socio-economic circumstances," he wrote.
He added that while early decision will always be a topic of discussion at Bowdoin, he did not anticipate any changes "at the present time."
Shain said he does not foresee any changes to Bowdoin's commitment to "a Maine presence," and that Bowdoin wants to keep its in-state composition at over 10 percent. However, he noted that challenges to doing so are Maine's declining population and the state's high schools that have trouble competing with big-city suburban high schools.
"You might be a strong candidate from Maine with a very different testing pattern?though tests are optional?than you would from other places," said Shain, "but here do fairly well?though maybe not freshman year?as you adjust to a very different pace of academics."
In discussing the role of athletics and legacy in the admissions process, Shain said academics take precedence, noting that "what's really important is that somebody with athletic skill be primarily a student," and that "we don't admit anyone because of who their parents are."