Wellesley basks in glow of 'Hillary factor'

February 12, 1993|By Boston Globe

WELLESLY, MASS — WELLESLEY, Mass. -- It's called the "Hillary factor" and it is alive and well at Wellesley College.

Although she graduated nearly 24 years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to have a major impact on her alma mater, which is now happily reaping the benefits of its close association with the new first lady.

This "Hillary factor" has taken many forms, from the intangible feel-good mood on campus to a significant increase in applicants to the small women's school.

Administrators, faculty, students and alumnae also believe the first lady's position and publicity -- be it good or bad -- will continue to elevate the reputation of Wellesley College and add an overall positive sheen to its image for at least the next four years.

"Hillary makes it very well known that she went to Wellesley and that has very positively increased our recognition factor across the country and we are very happy that is happening and we hope to use it to our best advantage," said Nancy Kolodny, dean of the college. "Even if people don't like Hillary -- and many people in the United States don't love her -- it's still good for Wellesley College because she is highly regarded as a powerful intellect and she got that foundation here."

Young women across the country apparently have been quite impressed by the first lady's intellectual beginnings, and have submitted more than 2,800 applications to the college. That's an 11 percent increase over last year, said Janet Lavin, director of admission, and the highest number of applicants in the history of the college. The school has about 2,200 students.

Ms. Lavin said although there are a few other indicators that would contribute to the increase in applicants -- such as Wellesley's having been named among the best women's colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine and that studies from the school's Center on Research on Women have made national headlines -- she readily attributes a portion of the increase to "the Hillary factor."

"The fact that this is the largest applicant pool we've ever had points to the fact that we've never had this kind of national publicity," said Ms. Lavin. "Having Hillary in the White House has made a difference to admissions and I think it's made a difference for young women who are choosing the best college for them."

One applicant, Michelle Drake, 17, a high-school senior in Edina, Minn., stated on her application that Mrs. Clinton was one of her primary reasons for applying to Wellesley.

"As I read more about Hillary and her accomplishments after college in the legal field and at Yale, I was pretty impressed and became a strong advocate," Michelle said last week in a telephone interview from her home. "I never thought of Wellesley as being in the same caliber of the Ivy Leagues, but that showed me that Wellesley is competitive with any school in the nation."

Wellesley long has enjoyed a reputation as one of the most prestigious schools in the nation, Ms. Kolodny said, and has graduated many other intelligent, successful women. But never before has the school's name and reputation been celebrated so publicly from coast-to-coast. Ms. Kolodny expects publicity to result in not only increased admissions and job possibilities for graduates but to increased attention from foundations and more funding to the college.

"The bottom line is the better known we are, the more highly respected, the better off we are in many ways," she said.

While the "Hillary factor" draws attention to the school as a whole, it also has made mini-celebrities of individual students and faculty members.

Alan Schechter is arguably the best-known political science professor and thesis adviser a first lady ever had.

Mr. Schechter, one of only three faculty members still at the college who taught Hillary Diane Rodham, has been interviewed by nearly every media outlet in the country. Reporters in Italy, Germany and Russia also have called to talk about her.

Mr. Schechter, who formed a close relationship with Mrs. Clinton during her college years, estimated he has spent hundreds of hours discussing her work, her campus activities, her idealism, her politics, her intellect and whether she had ever expressed an interest to him about becoming first lady.

Students inquire repeatedly about what courses she took, what her thesis was on, what her grades were and, he said, how they can be like her.

"I have to say, although it's been incredibly time-consuming, I've loved every minute of it," he said with a laugh. "I got to go to the inaugural ball, which was really exciting, and all along I've been trying to tell people that they shouldn't be surprised that a Wellesley College grad is in the White House. I mean, Hillary is exceptional, yes, but this is the caliber of woman who has been and will continue to come out of this institution. I'm delighted that people are finally realizing that."

The "Hillary factor" probably has had its greatest impact on the students who currently attend the school. While there hasn't been an outbreak of headbands or a movement to rename a dorm in the first lady's honor (yet), many young women say they feel enormous pride in their school and admiration of Mrs. Clinton. At least one woman said that having a Wellesley College graduate in the White House has given her a stronger sense of what a Wellesley graduate can accomplish.

"Here is an incredibly intelligent woman who came from a similar background to a lot of us, who lived in the same dorm as some of us, who had the very same professor a lot of us take classes with," said Lucy Marcus, a 21-year-old senior from Manhattan.

"And all that makes it seem so doable, so attainable, by any of us," Ms. Marcus said. "She's one of many women who have done incredible things and are amazing role models. The 'Hillary factor,' I think, has its roots in the 'Wellesley factor.' "

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