As if running college admission weren’t a big enough job, the University of Virginia recently created an even bigger one: vice provost for enrollment. The new office combines responsibility for undergraduate admission, student financial services and the registrar’s office. The new officeholder is Stephen M. Farmer (Grad ’86), recruited from a similar post at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
It’s a return trip for Farmer. After his graduate English studies here, Farmer went over to the business side of the academy, ascending the ranks of the UVA undergraduate admissions office, before making a move to Chapel Hill in 2000. There he rose to admissions director and then, in 2011, enrollment vice provost.
Farmer grew up in Rustburg, Virginia, 12 miles south of Lynchburg. He was a first-generation college student—and then some. Duke University didn’t just award him admission; it selected him as one of its A.B. Duke Scholars, similar to UVA’s elite Jefferson Scholars.
Virginia Magazine sat down with Farmer six months into the new job and at the end of an admissions cycle like no other. Standardized tests went optional, and the volume of applications went through the roof. The conversation that follows, edited and condensed, delves into those phenomena and others.
We asked Farmer about the dynamics of building an incoming class, like the role of diversity, why first-generation recruiting matters and where the children of alumni fit into the picture. As befits his big-picture job description, Farmer tends to speak in broad aspirational terms, starting with—of all admissions concepts—the notion of love.
VM: The language of admissions is often hard numbers—GPA, class rank, and then more broadly demographics and yield rate. I hear you speak a different language. You told the Board of Visitors recently, “We’re going to work hard every day to prove to students that we love them.” You told our own alumni Board of Managers, “Our job is to love students.” What do you mean by that?
Farmer: Well, first of all, thanks for paying attention to anything that I’ve said. … Students aren’t numbers. They’re not their GPAs. They’re not their test scores. They’re not the number of AP or college-level courses that they’ve taken. Where financial aid’s concerned, they’re not their estimated family contribution. They’re not a few lines on a tax form. Where the work of the registrar’s office is concerned, they’re not an academic record. They’re not data that live in the Student Information System. They’re not any of those things. They’re people first, and they’re people who deserve our respect and our care and our attention and our concern at every turn.
Why was one of your first orders of business to rework UVA’s rejection letter to applicants?
I would call the letter something a little different—we’re “declining” a student’s application. We’re delivering tough news in the most decent way we know how.
That’s the most important letter we send, because there are [38,000] young people out there this year who [unsuccessfully] threw their hat in the ring here. They worked hard to get to the point to apply for admission. You know, some of them, when they hit that Send button, they were scared. They were spreading their treasure out on the table in front of us and hoping that we saw what was good and true about them. And the truth is that we did. The people we had to decline, we saw the good in them. … And it was important that the news that we delivered bear witness to all of those truths and really honor the interest of students and help them understand that we’re still here for them, even if we had to say no to them this time.
UVA went test-optional this year. How were you able to make admissions decisions without benefit of everyone’s SAT or ACT? What’s your view on the value and future of standardized tests?
Testing is—at very best it’s a blunt tool. It’s an ax and not a scalpel. You shouldn’t try to do a lot of fine carving with a test score. Honestly, for that matter, nor should you try to do a lot of fine carving with any other particular data point in a file, because the student is the whole of everything that you see, not any one thing at all. My preference always is to know more about students rather than less. And so I think that testing properly understood … properly used, used as a blunt instrument and not as a scalpel, can be a helpful thing for an admission committee that’s trying to evaluate 48,000 different students. We’re not going to use it again next year because a lot of students hadn’t been able to sit for either test. We’ve already decided that we don’t use it the year following because we suspect that there’s still going to be a lot of turbulence in how students are able to prepare for and then take either the ACT or the SAT. We’ll use this time to try to understand what the absence of testing has meant.
Is there an admission formula, where you weight 20 different factors and come up with a likelihood of acceptance?
No, there’s no formula. The work of the admission committee involves reading applications, big applications that include a lot of information, reading those applications—in their entirety, one by one by one, and then passing them along to the next person. There’s an intellectual framework for it, if you want to think about it that way—a discipline to it, but no formula. And the point is to try to make sense of complicated people and then put them into a community where each one of them has the chance to make everyone else better.
The incoming class is incredibly diverse, 48 percent nonwhite according to preliminary figures. Why is that important?
The reporting by race and ethnicity is complicated. Students learn better when they learn alongside people who’ve traveled different paths to get to the same place. That’s the reason, really, why diversity is so important to us. It helps people do better together than they otherwise would.
Race and ethnicity aren’t the only ways of contributing to the diversity of the student body here. So there are students here who bring diverse perspectives because of the way that they’ve grown up, the places they’ve grown up, the fact that they’ve served in the military, the fact that they’ve worked jobs, the fact that they think differently from other people, the fact that they had to work to put food on the table, the fact that they took care of younger siblings. There are a million ways—and a million, million ways—in which students can contribute to the diversity of the student body.
And all of those ways are important to us. Because, again, we want students to learn and live alongside people who will … challenge them and help them see that one way of thinking of the world isn’t the only way of thinking of the world.
Why is recruiting first-generation college students a priority?
It’s important because first-generation college students are a source of talent for the University that the University hasn’t tapped into historically. It’s important also because the presence of really talented first-generation college students can make every student around them better.
More broadly, I think the University does have a role to play in strengthening democracy and in providing opportunity for people, and in our efforts to recruit people who haven’t traditionally thought of themselves as candidates for admission to the University. I hope we will be providing them a path toward a brighter future that’s going to strengthen the Commonwealth and strengthen our country and bind us together in a way that we really need to be connected.
Where does the legacy-admissions piece fit into the puzzle?
Our job really is not to think categorically about people, but to think about them in their fullness as individuals. There are legacy candidates in our pool whom we cannot understand unless we understand their relationship to the University and the difference that the University has made in their lives and in their families’ lives.
What difference can it make practically in admission? You know, it varies from candidate to candidate. So there are very few on/off switches in admission. As we were discussing earlier, there’s really no formula.
Practically, alumni children compete really effectively for admission here. The admission rates for alumni children generally run ahead of the admission rates of others. Again, I wouldn’t characterize that as a categorical or an automatic boost that people give.
Is that to say there can be a certain preference for legacies that gets factored in, even if it’s not a formulaic or set amount?
Never formulaic, never a set amount—or at least I wouldn’t know how to turn it into a formula and I wouldn’t know how to describe the amount. I think I would also maybe use a different word than “preference.” Again, we’re grateful for the interest of alumni children. We want alumni children at the University. Alumni students, legacy students, at the University make the University better. And so we have an interest. We have a real interest in making sure that we’re an attractive option for alumni children. We have an interest in understanding them fully. We have an interest in trying to welcome them when we can. Whether that can be characterized as a preference, I’ll leave it to other people to decide on the language. But we’re glad when alumni children apply. We do our very best for them.
What I would encourage students to do is to help us see them for who they are, and if their relationship with the University is something that’s formative to them, if it’s something that’s integral to their identity, don’t be afraid about sharing that with us.
What compelled you to come back to UVA?
I had a great life at my previous school. I loved the school. … I was surprised that I was interested in leaving, but here’s why: The University is an incredible place. There’s no place like UVA. … I felt that the University was trying to do some really important work. I read the 2030 [strategic] plan. I saw the vision for how the University could build on its great strengths and become an even stronger institution.
And then every senior leader I talked with—everyone—left me more excited about the possibility of joining the group here. … I came here right before the pandemic for my on-Grounds interview. It was the day before the University closed. And I got in the car, I was driving home, and I called my wife and I said, “Look, don’t tell anybody this, but if they offer me the job, I’ll take it. I don’t care about the details.” And then I said, “Even if they don’t offer me the job, if they offer me some other job, I might take that job, too.” I said, “If someone offered me a job, maybe sweeping the floor someplace, I would probably think about taking it,” because I was just really excited about the hard, good work that the University was trying to do, and I wanted to be a part of it.