Preparing for College

The Dean of Deans

I noticed with sadness last week that former Princeton University Dean of Admission, Fred Hargadon passed away. He was 80. His death has special meaning to me because of my personal experience with him back in the mid-1990s, when our son was applying to college. Princeton was our son’s clear first choice school and he applied Early Action, back when EA was a bit simpler than it is today. There was no “Single Choice” restriction and an accepted applicant’s duty was quite simple. If s/he received one of Dean Fred’s iconic and famous “Yes!” letters in mid-December, then the fortunate applicant had a simple choice: (1) enroll at Princeton immediately or (2) wait to see the outcomes of other applications and make an enrollment decision somewhere by May 1.

The odds of an accepted EA student enrolling at Princeton back then (and these days, too) were (and are) quite high. Princeton maintains from year to year one of the country’s highest enrollment percentages. As our son said to me when I asked him if he wanted to go to Princeton, “Who wouldn’t want to go to Princeton?” I suppose that my question was somewhat rhetorical. Anyway, Dean Fred was known for his absolute immersion in his applicant pool, so to speak, every year. I cannot produce documentation to prove this, but word has it that he personally reviewed and approved every accepted applicant forwarded to him from his admission staff. I can, however, personally vouch for Fred’s attention to detail and his unfailing personal touch.

Back in the mid-’90s, my wife and I did a lot of waking in our neighborhood. Our most often traveled route took us on a long, straight local street named, appropriately in our view, Princeton Road. Whoever made the designations for the streets in that neighborhood was quite collegiate, even Ivy League, minded. Walking down Princeton Road, one would see street signs for intersecting streets such as Yale Lane, Dartmouth Lane, Rutgers Lane, Colgate Lane, and–lest I forget–Harvard Lane. At one intersection, the street sign pole proclaimed boldly the connection between Harvard Lane and Princeton Road. Fortunately (and correctly, in my wife’s and my view) the Princeton Road sign was installed above that of Harvard Lane. This pleased me to no end because at the time, the U.S. News college rankings had Harvard at #1 and Princeton a close #2.


 

Well, we kept that appropriate juxtaposition in mind all during those days when our son was evaluating candidate colleges and were pleased when he chose to apply EA to Princeton’s Class of ’99. After he got his “Yes!” letter from Dean Fred on December 22, 1994 (not that I recall that day with any special fondness!), I felt duty bound to report our local road sign rankings to Dean Hargadon.

So, one day I grabbed my little 35mm camera and drove down to that hallowed road sign showing Princeton over Harvard and took a well-framed picture of it. I then wrote a brief note to Dean Fred, explaining something along the lines of “evidence of the true National University rankings” and folded my note around my snapshot and sent it to him. About a week or so later, to my great surprise, I received a small envelope emblazoned with the Princeton crest, containing a short but beautifully hand-written note from Dean Hargadon thanking me for my unique photograph and explaining how he had posted it on the admission office’s bulletin board, along with my note, to hearten his staff during ongoing their quest to be #1. Fred’s exceptional personal touch is just one of the aspects that made him so special. But there was more, much more.

Perhaps the best way to describe not only how Fred Hargadon worked his profession as Dean of Admission but also how he affected all those who he admitted through Princeton’s ivy gates, would be to cite some comments from those who knew him best–his colleagues. Here are a few excerpts from Princeton’s Web site, commenting on Dean Fred’s passing.

Hargadon, who was once called “the dean of deans” by The New York Times, was a national leader in the field of college admissions. At Princeton, he was known for the personal attention he paid to each applicant and for his active engagement in the life of the campus. His acceptance letters were legendary for beginning with the single word “YES!” — a phrase now carved in stone in front of Hargadon Hall, the Whitman College dormitory named in his honor …

… Hargadon spent more than 35 years working in college admissions. He worked to make the admission process fair and equitable, and to demystify the often-stressful experience for students and parents. While Hargadon was at Princeton, the undergraduate student body became more diverse and the University adopted its landmark 2001 no-loan financial aid policy.

“Dean Fred,” as students called him, was appreciated on campus for his wisdom, wit and energy …

… Before his retirement, Hargadon was selected to deliver the Baccalaureate address to the graduating Class of 2003.

“By no means is [a Princeton diploma] meant to certify that you are now a completely educated person,” Hargadon told seniors at the time. “Rather you should consider it as hard-earned evidence that Princeton now believes that you will be well prepared to continue to educate yourselves for decades to come.” …

… Prior to coming to Princeton, Hargadon was a senior officer at the College Board. He served as dean of admission at Stanford University from 1969 to 1984, and held the same position at Swarthmore College from 1964 to 1969.

His enthusiasm for and knowledge of college admissions made Hargadon a leader in the field. On his appointment to Princeton in 1988, he called admission “one of the most interesting jobs in a university.” A 1984 New York Times profile noted his license plate was simply “ADMITS.” …

… Lisa Dunkley, a 1983 alumna who worked in the Office of Admissionfrom 1988 to 1994, said Hargadon’s approach to admission was “all about the applicant.”

“Fred’s approach seemed right to me: 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 migrant farm workers to the offspring of royalty, both real and conferred,” said Dunkley, who now works in the Office of Development. “Our job was to render a reasoned opinion about how well each student took advantage of whatever resources were at his or her disposal.” …

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Our son met his future wife at Princeton and over the years they have presented my wife and me with two beautiful grandchildren. When I saw the notices of Dean Fred’s death last week, I couldn’t help but think that in some indirect way he was responsible for those two beautiful children. That may sound like a corny observation, but without his eyes passing over those two particular applications and saying “Yes!” to each, the lives of the two grandparents who live in this house would no doubt be completely different. So, in all sincerity, I say, “Thank you, Dean Fred.”

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Don’t forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.