Old Institution; New Paths

When I began to teach at Phillips Academy, Ronald Reagan was in his first year as president. A transfer student from Occidental College, named Barack Obama, had just arrived at Columbia to start his junior year. I was excited to use an electric typewriter. And I never dreamed that I would one day own a computer. A lot changes in 33 years.

When I started teaching here in 1981, Phillips Academy had been coeducational for just eight years. The student body was (as a matter of formal policy) nearly 60 percent male. There were few students of color and even fewer faculty of color. An entire wing of the library (since demolished) was devoted to U.S. history. Gelb didn’t exist, and neither did CAMD, Tang Theater or the salad bar at Commons. You could graduate with only one year of science, and the Language Division did not offer Chinese or Japanese.

And yet the DNA of the Phillips Academy of 2014 was very much in place. After a series of sweeping changes in the ’60s and ’70s, P.A. had adopted the central commitments that guide it today. It was no longer a school where a student would sink or swim academically. Instead it was a school that offered a student-centered education. Likewise, P.A. had passed an important symbolic moment in residential life when it changed the title of dorm faculty from “House Master” to “House Counselor,” with the clear indication of adult support and nurture instead of adult command. The Academy was into its second decade of a commitment to bring more black students (to use the language of that day) to study on Andover Hill. And the merger with Abbot Academy was already fading into the past. P.A. had set itself twin goals of student-centered education and diversity.

That said, there was a stunningly long distance toward achieving those goals. Some qualified applicants were turned down simply because they needed financial aid. There was little academic counseling beyond the classroom, and the curriculum for ninth and tenth graders was often disorganized and diffuse. In fact, the school had a tendency to treat ninth graders as if they were simply little 12th graders instead of people with their own developmental needs. Dormitories in general were understaffed and students fell through the cracks too easily.

P.A. was thinking about diversity primarily in terms of numbers and not in terms of the atmosphere needed for students of color and girls to flourish here. It took a pained letter from unhappy Seniors of color one year to convince the administration that to hire a Minority Counselor. That Counselor’s office had morphed into CAMD by the end of the 1980s. The Academy was only informally aware that there were any gay or lesbian students or faculty. The creation of G.S.A. at the end of the decade brought the challenges faced by gays and lesbians to public awareness for the first time. The book-length report, “Portrait of A School,” by Kathleen Dalton, Instructor in History, pulled into focus a long series of academic, residential, athletic and extracurricular problems related to gender on campus. By 1990, Women’s Forum had come into existence.

Much else has changed since I arrived. P.A. has made a deep commitment to need-blind admission. Dorms are more fully staffed. The Academic Skills Center is a robust, busy operation. Paresky Commons features healthy, well-cooked food at every meal. The CAMD Office is the envy of other public and private secondary schools around the country. The Brace Center is the country’s only gender center at a secondary school. G.S.A. has celebrated its 25th anniversary, the first such organization at an American private school. The Academy has grown a successful community service program, and outreach programs flourish, from MS2 to Niswarth.

In all sorts of ways that make me proud of my membership in the P.A. community, this is a different place than the school that hired me in 1981. But if you were to ask me, “Has P.A. reached its goal of being a diverse school that meets the needs of each student?,” my answer would be, “Are you kidding?” These are enormous, challenging goals, and we have a long way to go to reach them, if they are in fact completely reachable. For instance, one only need to think about the controversies over race and gender that have shaken the campus in the past year to realize how far we are from reaching the goal of making this place home for people of wide-ranging backgrounds. To cite another example, we as a faculty struggle to identify and meet the individual academic needs and goals of a diversely talented student body, and we can unquestionably do a better job, especially as new technologies and the divergent experiences of our students make that job more challenging.

P.A. can only continue to be a great institution if it has great goals and then struggles to achieve them. That struggle is what makes it a worthy (if exhausting) place for all of us. I know that I am grateful to P.A. for providing me with these lofty aspirations all these years. I am also immensely thankful for the many wonderful colleagues who have shared those goals with me and provided me with so much stimulation. And I know that, no matter how terrific my retirement is, I will not be able to replace the steady stream of exciting and stimulating young people who have passed through my life these last 33 years. For these irreplaceable gifts, I will always be grateful to Phillips Academy.

_Dr. Tony Rotundo is an Instructor in History and Social Science and a Co-Director of the Brace Center for Gender Studies._