A College’s New Course

One afternoon during my first semester at Simon’s Rock College, a classmate and I were hanging out in the crammed dorm room of one of our sophomore friends, a girl named Alex. Classes at the small college in Great Barrington were over for the day, so the three of us were relaxing–sprawled on the floor and gabbing–when a knock came on the door.

“Room inspection,” we heard a muffled voice say from the hallway. It was the dorm’s resident director, or RD, a stern-looking young staff member who also ran several athletic program on campus. It was she who, more than a week ago, had posted notices warning of the upcoming “inspection day”–notices that we had forgotten all about until now.

“Sh_t,” said Alex, jumping up and pausing before opening the door. Quickly, the three of us glanced around the room. Everything looked okay: no holes in the walls, no broken furniture, no empty beer bottles or rolling papers sitting on the desktop. Satisfied, Alex opened the door.

“Hello, girls,” said the RD, stepping into the middle of the little room, followed by one of her student assistants. She nodded at us perfunctorily, then clasped her hands behind her backs and began to survey the contents of the room. Our eyes followed hers as the moved from the stereo to the cinder-block bookshelf, from the tapestries and posters on the walls to the bed covered with papers and books.

I think all five of us saw the bong at the same moment. How we missed it during that first quick look around I don’t know–it was nearly four feet high and made of bright-red, shiny plastic. It loomed garishly in a corner next to a withered, nearly dead plant, and as I stared at it, explanations started racing through my head: could we say the bong belonged to someone else? Could we convince the RD that it was, perhaps, some kind of musical instrument?

But the RD’s brow had furrowed, and Alex already had her face buried in her hands as she waited to hear her punishment–social probation and parent notification probably, or maybe even suspension.

The RD swiveled to face us, her expression still stony. “Alex,” she said. Alex looked up at her miserably. The RD slowly extended her finger to point at the offending corner of the room. She locked eyes with Alex and spoke very carefully:

“That plant,” she said. “It really, really needs watering.”

Alex looked at the RD, and then at me, uncomprehending. Then the realization spread over her face: nothing was going to happen to her.

“The plant!” she sputtered. “Oh, yes! Definitely! It does need watering! I’ll water it right away!”

“Right away,” agreed the RD, moving back toward the door. “I mean, as soon as I leave this room.”
Then, giving all of us a last, warning look, she turned and followed her assistant out of the room and shut the door behind her.

* * * * *

This story, nearly ten years old now, would hardly have been considered unusual in the old days at Simon’s Rock. Although the school has long stressed academics and intellectualism, it is also, without a doubt, a product of the countercultural 1960s, when it was founded on a pretty radical concept: the idea that many bright, motivated (although not necessarily “gifted”) students are both academically and emotionally ready to attend college by the time they’re halfway through high school.

Simon’s Rock was–and still is–the nation’s only “early college” for such students. Although a handful of the 300 or so students who attend each year are high school graduates, most freshmen enter during what would be their junior, or even sophomore, year of high school. The average age of the incoming class is 16.

Typically, students stay at Simon’s Rock for two years and complete an associate of arts degree before transferring to other colleges, although, increasingly, students are staying for four years (or even longer) in order to get their bachelor or arts degree.

Simon’s Rock’s unique mission, as well as the period during which it was founded, both helped to give the school a reputation for permissiveness and unconventional behavior that lasted well into its second decade of existence. The reputation was not altogether undeserved.

Today, the college is in many ways a different place. For one thing, three years ago, Simon’s Rock endured a shocking tragedy when sophomore Wayne Lo took a semiautomatic rifle and went on a campus shooting spree, killing a teacher and a student and wounding four other people. The sobering event was the sort that might make any school–especially one with a laissez-faire disciplinary–policy of take stock of itself.

According to school officials, though, many of the college’s changes were under way even before the shooting incident. Like a number of other “alternative” colleges, Simon’s Rock has tried to become more serious, both in the students it attracts and the lifestyles it tolerates. The college’s president, Leon Botstein, says the school wants its image to reflect “not just a progressive institution, but an institution of academic quality.” In this regard, Simon’s Rock is an example of how an irreverent ’60s experiment has tried to reshape itself for the ’90s.

But if Simon’s Rock has changed to keep up with the times, it could also be said that the times have finally caught up with Simon’s Rock. That’s because the school’s goal of providing a challenging higher education to younger students seems increasingly relevant at a time when studies show high school student’s dwindling motivation and falling test scores. Indeed, with teenagers growing up faster than ever these days–becoming, at a younger age, more experienced in the ways of the world, if not always more mature–the Simon’s Rock model is becoming an increasingly accepted idea among educators.

In a broad sense, Simon’s Rock is emerging from its own adolescence. And it is doing so in much the same way that many of its students emerge from theirs: with difficulty, but with a more clearly defined idea of what it wants to achieve than when it began.

* * * * *

It was in 1964 that Elizabeth Blodgett Hall, a former headmistress at the prestigious Concord Academy in Concord, decided to use her family’s inherited 250-acre Great Barrington estate to create a new kind of school–a place where the last two years of high school, whose lecture-based classes she felt were “largely a waste of time,” for many bright students, could be “telescoped” with the first two years of college. It was a bold idea, and one that proved difficult to put into practice.

“Those early days were pretty tumultuous,” remembers Natalie Harper, and English professor who has taught at Simon’s Rock since 1967, one year after the first freshman class entered. “I think the fact that so many of the faculty were idealistic back then, combined with the fact that we were really the first ones to try doing what we were doing, meant there were a lot of battles…for a while, our curriculum was sort of a free-for-all.”

The constant conflicts gave the school a reputation for instability and strife, and by the end of the 1970s, enrollment had dropped. There were fears that the school might fold.

But in 1979, Simon’s Rock was thrown a lifeline of sorts. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, proposed a merger under which the operation of Simon’s Rock would be managed by Bard’s board of trustees. Botstein, ,who had himself entered college at age 16 and who had once been known as America’s youngest college president (of New Hampshire’s now-defunct Franconia College, when he was just 23) believed in what Simon’s Rock had to offer. he and Simon’s Rock’s officials, who approved the merger, knew that an affiliation with Bard would lend the young school some much-needed credibility.

Botstein, who also assumed the presidency of Simon’s Rock, spent the next year or so creating a curriculum that gave new clarity and focus to Betty Hall’s original ideas. Among other things, he instituted a mandatory, weeklong “Writing and Thinking Workshop” for all incoming students, designed to help them adjust to the rigors of college-level academics. Botstein also formalized the school’s version of the college “major,” which, at Simon’s Rock, allowed B.A. students to design their own courses of study and thesis projects. These programs, which are still in place today, may have helped attract a new crop of creative students to the school; notable alums from the 1970s include Dean Olsher, now an executive producer for National Public Radio, Alison Bechdel, author of the popular comic book series “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and Joel and Ethan Coen, the movie writer-director team whose films include Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, and the upcoming Fargo.

Still, Despite its improvements, Simon’s Rock was hardly a household name until the events of December 14, 1992, when student Wayne Lo committed one of Massachusetts’ highest-profile shooting crimes in years. Even after Lo had been convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life terms at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Cedar Junction, without the possibility of parole, people continued to raise questions about the tragedy that were never really answered: Had Lo given off angry warning signs of what he was about to do? Was there anything administrators and staff could have done to prevent what happened?

The disaster did prompt some soul-searching among school officials. “Of course, when something like that happens, you try to think back over everything you might have done differently–and we did do that, exhaustively,” says Bernard F. Rodgers, dean of the college. “Could we have been a little less naive about a student’s ability to inflict violence? Yes. And were we extremely cautious afterward about any student who seemed to show signs of anger? Yes. But, in all honesty, Wayne was a fluke.”

There was criticism at the time, however, that warning signs might have been ignored by school officials. Most significantly, when Lo received a suspicious package in the mail–a package that wound up containing the ammunition he later used in his shooting spree–administrators decided, out of respect for Lo’s individual rights, to deliver it and allow him to open it in private. Still, Rodgers maintains that Simon’s Rock policies were in no way to blame for the disaster. There was little more he could say about it, given that the school is still facing lawsuits from several of the shooting victims’ families.

* * * * *

Simon’s Rock’s permissive reputation was one of the things targeted for an overhaul in the early 1990s. A major part of that overhaul–a review of the school’s drug policy–was partly prompted by society’s growing intolerance of recreational drug use.

“Back in the ’60s, progressive thought was associated with a lot of stylistic trappings–drugs, fashion,” says Botstein. Once that changed in society as a whole, he says, drugs and alternative lifestyles “became more symbols of laziness and failure than of dissent, or serious thought. These days, intellectual ambition and progressiveness are clothes in completely different garb than they used to be.”

But according to Pat Sharpe, Simon’s Rock’s dean of academic affairs, complaints from the students themselves also played a part in the policy changes.

“We came to the realization that even the quality of our academic program wasn’t enough to keep our best students on campus anymore,” says Sharpe. “It had to do with the social atmosphere here–they just felt like there was too much craziness.” Different kids defined “crazy” in different ways, of course; for some, the fact that their classmates sometimes held head-shaving parties in their dorm rooms was enough to make them balk. Still, Sharpe says, “there did seem to be the general sense that drugs were part of the problem.”

Although the rules have been tightened–for example, if a resident director has sufficient reason to believe that drugs or alcohol are being used in a student’s room, the RD can conduct a search of that room without the student’s permission, or without the student even being there. The major change, though, has been tougher enforcement.

“If the RDs think you have have drugs, they stay on your ass day and night,” sophomore Nick Jahr says bluntly. “I don’t know what they used to be like, but they sure don’t mess around now.”

In another recent change, Simon’s Rock has been trying to attract new students who are, by traditional standards, more academically accomplished.

“Since the beginning we’ve always enrolled bright kids here–kids who are sharp and creative and intellectually curious,” says Sharpe. “That hasn’t changed. What has changed, though, is that now we’re more likely to admit kids who have already proven themselves before they apply here–kids who don’t just show the potential to do well in school, but who have already demonstrated it.”

To attract this new breed of students, the school unveiled a program in 1991 that gives 30 entering freshmen a full two-year scholarship, as well as the option of staying on to complete their bachelor’s at Simon’s Rock for the cost of attending a public college in their home state. The college has also tightened up its admissions procedure. In the past, says Sharpe, “there tended to be lots of kids showing up on the doorstep at the last minute, two weeks before their high school terms were about to start.” No more.

The efforts of Simon’s Rock aren’t so different from moves that other “experimental” colleges have made in trying to retool their images of late. For example, Hampshire College, in Amherst, founded in 1965 as another “alternative” liberal arts school, revised all its informational materials in the early ’90s to reflect a new emphasis on its academic program. “We definitely wanted to project a different, updated idea of what the school is about ,” says Hampshire’s admission director, Audrey Smith.

In Simon’s Rock’s case, the efforts have met with some success. Applications have risen–from 230 in 1001 to 380 in 1995–allowing the school to become more selective in choosing its entering class of 125 students. Test scores are up, too: the average combined SAT score of incoming freshmen, 1,160 in 1991, had risen to 1,200 for this fall’s entering class. Ten years ago, the school wasn’t even included in most of the various top-colleges rankings. In 1991 and 1992, however, U.S. News and World Report rated Simon’s Rock the top regional liberal arts college in the Northeast. Last year, the magazine moved the college into the national liberal arts category, where it keeps company with Massachusetts colleges such as Smith and Williams.

* * * * *

“Now, what about Machiavelli’s idea of ‘rule by the masses’?” professor Peter Cocks asks the 13 students in his Introduction to Politics class on a recent Monday morning. “Can an ignorant prince do more damage to a society than an ignorant mass of people?”

After a few minutes of silence, a sophomore named Charlie Maddox begins the discussion (all academics at Simon’s Rock are built around the idea of discussion rather than lectures).

“Well,” Maddox says, “at least with a mass there has to be a consensus before anything gets done. So I think that means there’s a greater chance the majority will get fairly represented. If there’s just one guy making all the decisions, only his own idea matter.”

Cocks rubs his hands together and laughs. “Yes!” he exclaims. “But might it be possible to have an individual–just one guy–who could represent the majority better than they would themselves?”

“Only if the people are ignorant,” Maddox replies.

“No,” interrupts another student, sophomore Noah Merin. “I think we need to leave intelligence quotient out of politics. It doesn’t make sense to base leadership on intelligence–if politicians are supposed to be representative of the majority, well the majority’s intelligence probably isn’t that high.”

“Ah!” says Cocks, nodding his head vigorously. “But couldn’t there be a society where mediocrity itself is valued–precisely because the majority has mediocre values?”

“Definitely,” says freshman Emily Codispoti. “I mean, we live in a society like that. We should call it a ‘mediocracy.’ ”

“A mediocracy! Wonderful!” exclaims Cocks, writing the word on the blackboard in big, loopy script. The rest of the students laugh as they copy it down.

If you were to listen in on such a discussion, two surprising things might become evident to you. First, you might be tickled by the number of breaking, squeaking male voices in the classroom–a clear indication that those involved in he discussion are 15- and 16-year-olds. Second, you would likely be impressed by how articulate the students are–and more importantly, how involved they are in their subject matter. Such heated and interesting discussions, it seems, would be welcome in any college classroom.

These days, what makes Simon’s Rock students truly different from their peers isn’t their countercultural lifestyle, says admissions director Brian Hopewell–it’s their serious desire to learn. This passion for knowledge, and the discussion-based academics that encourage it, Hopewell says, “will remain cornerstones of the Simon’s Rock approach” from here on.

The school, now approaching its 30th year cloaked in a new sort of respectability, still faces its share of challenges, to be sure. “In the same way our students are not yet adults, we are still not a fully mature institution,” says dean Rodgers. “We still have quite a bit of growing to do.”

Some growing will almost certainly take place as the school community gets further away from the night of Wayne Lo’s rampage. . Though there are now only a handful of senior-class students on campus who were at Simon’s Rock that fateful night, their lives have been markedly changed by the tragedy. “There are kids who still have nightmares all the time, who are still really messed up about it,” says 19-year-old Dmitry Kondrashov, who witnessed the shootings firsthand. “Maybe they always will be.”

But a bigger challenge the school faces in both he short and the long terms is how to keep its admissions program selective while remaining financially secure. The school’s endowment is just $1.4 million, and its increased emphasis on academics means that it spends more than 30 percent of its operating budget on financial aid. Indeed, with yearly tuition and board approaching $25,000 for students living on campus, nearly 80 percent of Simon’s Rock students receive at least some financial assistance. And with the oldest alumni now only in their mid-40s, it likely will be years before generous donations from former students can be expected to help.

* * * * *

Like many of my classmates, I went to Simon’s Rock in the mid-1980s not because it was exactly what I was looking for, but because I wasn’t sure where else I belonged. Although it turned out to be the right place for me–I stayed three semesters before transferring to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst–there were others who drifted off from the school dissatisfied, probably because they weren’t even sure what they had come to find.

Today, Simon’s Rock students seem to have a much clearer idea of what the school has to offer them. Most have come to study, and study hard. And though many still look as unconventional as ever–there are as many tattoos, thrift-store outfits, and and crazily-dyed haircuts as there were in my day–today’s “Rockers” also apparently have much different ideas about how to spend their free time.

“Since I’ve come here, I’ve started reading a lot more–all this amazing stuff by Nietzsche and Kerouac and Freud,” says Brooke Gahan, a 17-year-old sophomore from Arizona. “It feels good to be learning so much. When I went home this summer and saw all my friends from high school, they just seemed so shallow–like all they cared about was parties and gossip. I was happy when my mom told me I’ve turned into an intellectual snob!”