The fitzwilliam conference


The Fitzwilliam Conference By Bill Mayher

Bill Mayher was a history teacher and Director of College Counseling at The Hackley School, Noble and Greenough, Rye Country Day (as an Office Temp) , and The American School in London. Recently he has worked as a Senior Consultant at Kings Academy in Jordan where he helped set up the school’s University Counseling Office as well as the school’s Arabic Year Program which brings American students to its Jordan campus for a year. He lives in Brooklin, Maine where he works as a freelance writer, a sculptor, and a founder of the new classic boat website, A Klingenstein Fellow in 1988-89, he is the author of The College Admissions Mystique.

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For the college counselor or college admission officer bound for Fitzwilliam in late May, the drive into Southern New Hampshire presents a rolling symphony of delights.  The air is warm, the grass is fresh, leaves curl forth.  If one takes time to pull over and listen, in the big oaks and sugar maples bordering a town green, a Baltimore oriole will be whistling his cheerful tune.  But for all these blessings, tarry not; a wash tub of cold beer awaits at the Fitzwilliam Inn and, if you arrive early enough, you might be able to choose the better bed in your assigned room.

For good or ill, the latest admission season has run its course.  Mt. Monadnock lies at the ready.  There is golf to play, old friends to meet, antiques to ponder, used book stores to paw about in, and the chance to wander through some of the prettiest towns in all New England.

Given a long history of providing ready access to such pleasures, you might be surprised to learn that the birth of The Fitzwilliam Conference on College Admission, an institution that has thrived for more than 50 years amid the mountains and shining lakes of Southern New Hampshire, occurred not in some prim New England village but overlooking the gritty streets of politically torn Chicago in the late sixties.  Here’s the way it happened.

In October of 1969 the National Association of College Admission Counselors held its annual meeting in the Windy City and, as it so happened, the so-called Days of Rage protesting the trial of the “Chicago Eight” were rollicking along in nearby Lincoln Park.  Ken Nourse, at the time the Director of Admission at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and that year’s President of the New England ACAC, had a suite overlooking the park.  As he and Colby College Director Harry Carroll watched the anti-war melee on the streets below, crowds of student protestors tumbled down the street breaking windows and over turning automobiles.

Carroll, a man of legendary directness turned to Ken and growled, “I didn’t come all the way from Waterville, Maine and pay $100 a night to put up with this.”

Ken felt the same way.  As Harry fumed, Ken got to thinking: why couldn’t we put together an educational retreat where professional people could talk about professional ideas in peace and quiet, free from the political strife that seemed to be tearing the apart the country?

When he returned to Worcester after NACAC, Ken set to work on the idea.  A colleague at WPI who organized alumni events suggested the Fitzwilliam Inn in nearby New Hampshire.  It was close enough to Boston’s Logan Airport, the town was lovely, the inn was historic, and Ken hoped, reasonably priced.  Without further ado he and Bill Elliott a young WPI admission staffer, plus their wives, drove up for a look at the Inn and a bite of lunch.

Not surprisingly Enoch Fuller, the innkeeper, was delighted by the proposal they presented: three nights at full capacity in the third week in May.  Late May, hotel wise, isn’t so busy in Fitzwilliam.

The program Nourse and Eliott set for the inaugural session was simple: morning meetings, afternoons free for hiking, golf, whatever suited, and then in the evenings, get-togethers called “Prayer Meetings” in which college and school people could talk frankly and openly about their work.  Once set, Fitzwilliam has stuck to this formula.   Both men believe in the power of informality, open-ended time, face-to-face interaction and friendship.  The last thing they wanted was a conference with an elaborate menu of “sessions” such as those offered at larger and more formal confabs like the NACAC, the College Board’s annual “Forum” in New York and elsewhere, and various regional ACACs and CEEB meetings.

Sessions might be good for professional preening and might appeal to budget setters back at the home office, but if people were going to be able to understand how college admission actually works, this could be best achieved by an exchange of views between talented and experienced practitioners in the field.

And then there was the Inn.  If a building’s design and décor can generate its own brand of destiny, the Fitzwilliam Inn also played a role in the way the conference evolved.  As a space to nurture informality and the spawning of friendships, the Inn proved to be architecturally perfect.   Its basic floor plan included several living rooms, a cozy bar, and a front porch along with a back dining room for late night poker and hilarity.  Add to this the Inn’s random array of Victorian furnishings that kept participants circulating (because no lumpy settee or rickety chair could be sat in for long), and you have a perfect formula for wallflower-free-interaction that kept participants coming back for more than a generation.

It seems that from the outset Bill and Ken decided to manage the affair with a light hand.  Trust the participants, wind the thing up and let it roll.  Such a laissez faire approach matched well the spirit Ken Nourse brought to the conference.  Ken is the kind of person who seems to know everybody right off, even strangers.  With his gift for welcoming people, with his ability to ask interesting questions of individuals over breakfast or later in some corner of the bar– and then with his gift for listening carefully for the answer– we all felt included, even valued for our participation.

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Beginning in 1976, the conference format changed.  The secondary school people convened morning meetings while college admission officers began meeting with Co-Founder Bill Elliott.  By that time Elliott had become Director of Admission at Carnegie Mellon and earned a PhD in which his dissertation was titled “The Management of Admission and Financial Aid: The Net Tuition Income Concept.”

Up until that point, college admission had been sort of a seat-of-the-pants undertaking in which a college’s director was most likely an old boy often recruited from its alumni office or coaching ranks.  Until Elliot and Bill Ilenfeldt of Northwestern University came along, there wasn’t a lot of analytical research, let alone mathematical application.  When Elliot noticed the nationwide 1970s dip in the number of high school aged students, his analysis and subsequent strategies about turning inquiries into actual applications gave admission a quantitative edge.

Marketing, previously a dirty word among old time admission people, was to climb into the drivers seat.  The “Admission funnel” a term applied to tracking students from their first “inquiries” all the way to their admission and paid deposits became the new mantra and Fitzwilliam, thanks to Elliott’s expertise, became a cutting edge conference for admission professionals.

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Things changed again and a succession of experienced school counselors lead the morning sessions.  It would have been easy for those of us at high-powered secondary schools, both independent and public, to see ourselves as bitter rivals in a zero sum game in which we duked–it-out over increasingly scarce spots at selective colleges.  Or, (and this was a big OR), we could see ourselves as partners in a collaborative enterprise in which we could learn from each other about how to help the kids and families we worked with get through such a challenging rite of passage.

College counseling by its very nature is an odd beast.  Parents and kids think counselors are there to give them an edge.  Counselors think we are helping students and their families navigate perilous waters toward a safe outcome in which kids will evolve into happy, successful and generative thirty-five-year-olds.  In our lifetimes college admission had morphed from a private club, with headmasters and well-connected alumni facilitating the deal, into an egalitarian undertaking.  Robbed of an inside track, counselors at elite schools needed a new language to describe the new realities to families.  We needed new schedules and chronologies to lay out in our schools, and we needed to hear from our peers about what techniques seemed to work in which situations.

It’s a lonely business, college counseling.  On a typical day in the office we have a kid defining his entire life thus far by his College List;  we have his dad trying to hold his head up around the water cooler at work when it looks like his boy is applying to eight colleges he has never heard of and three others who you have said the kid won’t be getting into; the mom is fighting anxiety and depression over the impending empty nest; the kid’s dog is on its last legs; and, finally the student’s history teacher stops by to announce the kid is a week late with the big fall term paper and he wants to write the colleges to withdraw his recommendation.

After cascading events like these have all run their courses, college counselors needed to laugh at Fitzwilliam, to hit the cold beer tub pretty hard, to scramble up Mt. Monadnock no matter the weather and, most of all, to learn to trust each other.  We could have gone up to the Inn in May and fudged the deal, smugly implying things were just peachy keen at our schools, or we could have gotten down, so to speak, and actually learned something that would do everyone in our world some good.

In this situation the openness, empathy, humility, and great kindness lit the way toward the nobler path and altered many lives.  And this goodness was hardly limited to the conference itself; it radiated far beyond. Fitzwilliam participants hung with Fitzwilliam colleagues at other meetings and continued to learn from one another.   A group of Boston independent school counselors founded an association (BISCA) that became notable for sharing data between school counselors.  Finally a group of Fitzwilliam alums led by Sarah Hecksher and Jake Dresden started the Blackberry River Conference that focused even more directly on the psychodynamic aspects of the college counseling process.  As for me, I could never have written The College Admissions Mystique without having experienced Fitzwilliam over many years.

As things at the conference changed, some things never changed, especially the famous after dinner “Prayer Meetings” in which college and school people raised issues of concern in an effort to build understanding between professionally disparate factions.  Although it was often frustrating to hear participants ramble on about what “the colleges” were doing, or “the schools,” the fact is that one came away from these evenings with a sense of what people at the other side of the desk were up against.  As high school demographics ebbed and flowed (now too many applicants, then not quite enough) veteran observers could comfort themselves with the knowledge that one decade’s buyer’s market could turn on a dime and become a seller’s market.  As the decades spooled out behind us, thanks to the Prayer Meetings, nothing would come as a surprise in the field of college admission.

A surprise did come, however, when in 2001 a guy universally known as “Peter the Bar Tender” called Bill and Ken in February to say the Inn had closed for financial reasons.  The economics of running a rickety facility on the outer edge of nowhere in particular had always been chancy.  After the death of Enoch Fuller following the first conference, Charlie Wallace, the former manager of the Wellesley College faculty club, had owned and operated the place for many years. When he died, his family continued to run for a while and then sold it to a family named Morgan.  It was the Morgans who suddenly shut the Inn down, neglecting to inform Nourse and Elliott who had sent out invitations to the 2002 addition and had a full slate of signups and deposits in hand.

In a state of considerable panic, Ken and Bill called Alan Crocker, a long time attendee who had grown up in the region, for his ideas about an alternative site.  Alan put his mother on the case and it didn’t take her long to come up with the Woodbound Inn in nearby Rindge.   With little time for further ado, Ken and Bill cut a deal with the Woodbound, and Fitzwilliam has met there ever sense.

The Woodbound Inn pretends to be much more of a resort than the Fitzwilliam Inn ever claimed to be – sort of like the place your in-laws wish you would join them at to celebrate some anniversary or other. There are lakeside cabins, a par three golf course, a spacious dining room and actual meeting spaces.

With a new venue secured it wasn’t long before another change loomed.  Some years ago Ken Nourse retired from Union College.  With Bill Elliot’s subsequent retirement from Carnegie Mellon, the question of what would happen to the conference came to the front.  Luckily Mike Steidel, Bill’s highly regarded successor at Carnegie Mellon and Greg Edleman, Mike’s successor have stepped up to take over and things go on as before.

In recent years several new conferences have come along with objectives similar to Fitzwilliam.  But in terms of honesty, learning, candor, and the sharing of crucial information gained over long careers in the field, the traditions established at Fitzwilliam so many years ago still hold sway and will continue to be treasured as the conference moves forward to address the ever-increasing complexities of the college admission profession.

May will come again as it does most years.  As another admission year rolls to a close, Mt. Monadnock will beckon, golf will be played, antiques will be pondered if not actually purchased, sawmills and other industrial remnants from another time will be visited.  But most of all, new and old friends will gather to exchange war stories from the Admission Year, to hear about who’s in and who’s out in the razzle-dazzle of admission hiring and firing, to welcome newcomers and help them get a foothold in the shifting kaleidoscope of admission, and finally to remind each other that working with kids at the cusp of their emerging adulthoods is splendid, perhaps even, noble work.


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