When government professor Ron Rapoport first surveyed a sample of the College of William and Mary’s student population, the university was very different from what it is today.
“One [difference] that goes without saying is technology,” government professor Clay Clemens ’80 said. “You guys cannot even imagine how different it was in the days before all the things you take for granted.”
Nearly 35 years ago, Rapoport had his students conduct face-to-face interviews for his survey. This year’s survey was conducted through means of a mass e-mail and Opinio, an online survey software system.
“Needless to say, no computers, no word-processing,” Clemens said. “You have amazing help in the hands of technology that students in the ’70s could only dream of. It would take two or three times as long to get materials for the same type of paper in the 1970s as it takes now.”
Government professor John McGlennon, who started teaching at the College in 1974, says that there has also been an enormous change for the faculty.
“We don’t require as many books as we used to because so many resources are available online,” McGlennon said. “The telephone was the primary means of communication outside the classroom for students trying to get ahold of you, so they would call you at different times of the day and night when papers were due. Now they just send you e-mail.”
Both McGlennon and Clemens said that while there has always been a close relationship between students and faculty at the College, its growing size has changed some of the dynamics.
“In my years as [a] student, there would’ve been probably been [a] substantial number of faculty that all students had either taken courses with or known about and you certainly didn’t have as many relatively large intro classes as you have nowadays,” Clemens said.
The City of Williamsburg itself has also substantially changed, according to Clemens.
“When I was a student, tourism was king, but the College was second,” Clemens said. “It’s very noticeable now that tourism and retirement are the kings and the college has been downscaled. We are a retirement mecca.”
This shift in the city’s priorities has led to even fewer “student-friendly options” on campus, he said, recalling how Merchant Square once consisted of a gas station, a few drug stores and a supermarket. Several student-oriented establishments that were located on Jamestown Road and Richmond Road have been pushed out.
“I get a kick when I hear fellow residents talk about how student social life has come off campus,” Clemens said. “If anything, it’s the other way around. It’s come back on campus … It never was a terribly active college town, but it’s less than it was when I was a student.”
McGlennon attributes this growth to focal points of more recent town-gown issues such as the housing policy.
“There have always been issues between the city and student body,” he said. “Students are a little bit more likely to be aware of their own rights and opportunities and, secondly, both the city and the college [have] grown. So there may have been more opportunities for clashing ideas with what ought to be going on here.”
McGlennon has also noticed a greater student involvement in the Williamsburg community.
“We’ve always had a lot of students involved in things like tutoring, but now students are likely not only to be engaged in tutoring but also lobbying the school board and local governing bodies on funding for tutoring programs or alternative school programs,” he said.
Both McGlennon and Clemens noted the growing prominence in community service, political activism and mobilization among students of the College.
“My sense is that students are more participating in policy questions today than would’ve been true 25 or 35 years ago, partly because students are interested in a lot more of those questions,” McGlennon said.
The increase in student activism is a reflection of greater diversity within the student body, McGlennon said.
“When I first came here, I would say the College overall reflected a pretty affluent, predominantly white population with pretty strong tilt toward moderate, conservative Republicanism,” McGlennon said. “Nowadays, backgrounds of students are much more varied, [there is] still [a] fairly affluent student body, but there is more diversity in range of political opinions and social ideas.”
Clemens recalls students and faculty mobilizing against the expansion of the football stadium to keep the College in Division I football.
“Compared to the big issues on college campuses in the ’60s, it was not that much,” Clemens said. “You’re talking about Vietnam and civil rights protests. This was all I can think of from the late ’70s that fits the description of a big-scaled protest.”
More recent controversial issues mobilizing students include the Gene Nichol controversy and the appointment of Henry Kissinger as chancellor. Student issues that have stayed constant across time include parking.
“Generally, it’s been a pretty fairly amicable relationship with the administration as a whole,” Clemens said. “Students are definitely smarter. But not as smart as they think.”