Fighting Above Our Weight Class
By Helen Watkins Norman
Bill Michaelcheck ’69, vice chair of the Rhodes Board of Trustees, is one of those people who can address almost any topic with ease, whether it is fly-fishing in Argentina, the pre-Columbian history of the Americas or the economic theories of Adam Smith. Few topics, however, dominate his attention like education. And few institutions tug at his heart like Rhodes.
Michaelcheck, founder of New York-based Mariner Investments, has served on the Rhodes board for 17 years and for 20 years on the Nightingale-Bamford School, a private girls’ school in Manhattan where his daughters have enrolled. He is a past board member at Landmark College, where his son attended, and he currently chairs the board of the International Honors Program, a comparative study-abroad program exposing college students to the economies and cultures of countries around the globe.
Moreover, most of his business partners at Mariner serve on the boards of America’s top colleges and universities, and conversations among them frequently turn to academe.
So as a longtime volunteer in the trenches of higher education, what does Bill Michaelcheck consider the most pressing challenge facing Rhodes as it prepares to educate the next generation?
“Student scholarships,” he answers. Being able to provide access to the students who really want to come to Rhodes but may not be able to afford it is critical to the college’s future, he explains. And doing so, he continues, will take a significantly larger endowment than Rhodes currently has.
“My mother was a public school teacher,” says Michaelcheck, who came to the college from Tiptonville, a western Tennessee town that had about 2,000 people when he arrived at Rhodes in the fall of l965. “We weren’t poor, but I certainly couldn’t afford to go to Rhodes. I ended up getting a small scholarship, but my mother took out loans on her teaching salary.
“I think the college today wants the best student body, not the richest student body,” he says, noting that a diverse cross-section of students is a major goal. “But that is very expensive,” he says.
(Currently, Rhodes meets 84 percent of students’ needs. According to college officials, fully funding the current aid budget and meeting 100 percent of need would require an additional $300 million in scholarship endowment.)
“We are now competing with the big guys: Middlebury and Williams, not to mention Emory, Vanderbilt and Davidson,” says Michaelcheck. “Rhodes is in the big leagues now. Most, if not all of these institutions have larger endowments per student and therefore more scholarships. It’s a real challenge.”
What’s more, Michaelcheck says, Rhodes must compete more vigorously with state institutions that are increasingly offering “very special scholarships for the best students.”
The college’s ultimate goal is to provide 100% of a student’s financial need which would mean “our admissions department could pick the very best class regardless of what a student can pay,” according to Michaelcheck.
“Right now we don’t have the money to do this. So we make compromises. Students have to take out giant loans. Some just can’t come,” he says. “A lot of Rhodes students today are like I was: They are middle-class students from small towns and families who don’t have very much money. So many people like that have come to Rhodes and benefited, including me.”
Michaelcheck points out that Harvard, Princeton, Davidson and a couple of other schools have already moved to providing 100% of student need, and others are moving that way.
“(To do that) Rhodes would have to offer significantly more scholarships than we’re offering right now. It would be a wonderful thing,” he says.
Among the nation’s 50 top liberal arts colleges, Rhodes ranked 38th in endowment per student in 2006, according to U.S. News and World Report.
“While Rhodes has a nice endowment, we’re way down that list. If you compare Rhodes to some schools in the region, we look great. We have a beautiful campus and buildings. We balance the budget every year. Our endowment is nice. But given our goals and objectives, we are certainly the poor relation in the liberal arts world among the colleges with which we compete.”
Throughout its history, Rhodes has outperformed its financial resources, notes Michaelcheck. “Rhodes has always been fighting above its weight class,” he claims.
In addition to providing access for worthy students to attend the college, an expanded endowment, notes Michaelcheck, would benefit the other major component in a top-tier education: faculty.
“What is a great college? It’s great students and great faculty. They go together,” he says. As Rhodes increases its emphasis on student-faculty undergraduate research, the costs escalate—for laboratories and facilities as well as faculty. “These experiences are very faculty intensive. If we expect our faculty to give the individualized attention that Rhodes is all about, we have to maintain a low student-faculty ratio. And to do that, we will have to have a relatively large group of faculty for our size.”
Another priority, he explains, is access to international study.
“I was lucky enough to spend a year abroad on a scholarship when I was at Rhodes,” he says. “I never could have afforded it on my own. In the global world we’re in, our students need that global exposure to be well-rounded, truly educated students. In the future we’d like to be able to say that every Rhodes student gets at least one semester abroad.”
While Rhodes faces some steep challenges ahead, Michaelcheck believes the college will succeed.
“Rhodes is doing so many great things that people want to help it. People want to be affiliated with a winning team. If you’re going to give a scholarship, if you’re going to build a building, you want it at a place that is doing great things, a place that you are proud of, that represents the values you have.
“There are a lot of people out there who are proud to remember they went to Rhodes,” Michaelcheck emphasizes.
By all indications, Bill Michaelcheck heads the list.