New York Times Columnist Frank Bruni Visits Campus, Discusses College Mania

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 | Frank Bruni’s talk was the second lecture of the Presidential Colloquium series this semester.

Katherine Hazen '18 News Editor

Frank Bruni, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, visited Smith last week to give the second of the lectures in the Presidential Colloquium Series. Bruni’s lecture, which shares a title with his newest book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” explored the cultural and psychological origins of college admissions mania.

“I invited Frank Bruni to speak because he has focused many of his recent op-eds on higher education,” said President Kathleen McCartney, adding, “I tweeted several of his inspirational comments about college, for example, college should constantly challenge and upend our world.”

McCartney said that much of what Bruni argued about the value of a liberal arts education resonated with her.

Bruni’s suggestion for mitigating the hype of the admissions process is to dismantle the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Hampshire College’s recent move to disregard standardized testing altogether cost the school its spot in the rankings, which Bruni lauded.  However, Bruni said, for there to be real change, a college with the selectivity of Smith or other peer institutions needs to sacrifice its ranking.

In addition to his thoughts concerning college admissions mania, Bruni shared some of his experiences as chief restaurant critic for the New York Times and his analysis of the polarized political climate of the United States.

One idea that recurred throughout Bruni’s lecture was the ongoing process of the “balkanization of culture.”

Even the way in which society constructs the narratives of presidential hopefuls represents a “selective and inaccurate truth,” said Bruni, comparing the biographies of Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Bobby Jindal to those of Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Chris Christie.

Cruz and Jindal attended Princeton and Brown respectively, while Rubio attended several colleges before graduating from University of Florida. Christie graduated from University of Delaware. The educations of the former two are at the forefront in the telling of their stories of success, but not for the latter pair, according to Bruni.      

“Princeton and Brown explain [Cruz and Jindal’s] success, while the University of Florida and Delaware are incidental or in spite of [the success of Rubio and Christie],” said Bruni.

Bruni saw this trend as related to the use of technology and the Internet, a wealth of information used for “curating a narrower version of the world” and an increasingly polarized political climate.  He also asserted that colleges are not doing their part in pushing back against this polarization, and students are not stepping outside of their comfort zone.

“College should create a generation that resists polarization,” Bruni said, adding, “College should constantly challenge and upend our world.”     

Bruni also argued against the culturally-embedded idea that attending a prestigious college determines one’s path in life, suggesting instead that engagement during one’s college years is vital and dependent far more on the individual than the institution.