Since joining Wesleyan in 1985, Cliff Thornton, associate dean of admission at Wesleyan has been instrumental in establishing and leading the University’s historic commitment to a diverse and academically elite student body, a defining feature of the Wesleyan experience. Having served Wesleyan—now for more than 30 years, Thornton recently announced that he will retire at the end of the Spring 2019 semester. (Photos by Olivia Drake)
To listen to Cliff Thornton speak with prospective students and parents is to feel included, even if you’re eavesdropping.
Thornton is associate dean of admission at Wesleyan, covering a wide geographic and socioeconomic range: the South Central U.S. from Kentucky to Louisiana, Manhattan, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Caribbean. Having served these communities—and Wesleyan—now for more than 30 years, it makes sense that he would demonstrate an ease and fluency in his relations with so many different people from such different backgrounds. He’s had a lot of practice.
But something unique about Thornton, which by many accounts has been true from the beginning of his time at Wesleyan, is how his holistic approach impacts students. To hear him tell it:
“Alumni will often start out by saying to me, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but I graduated from Wesleyan in 1995….’ And I always remember them. That’s why I’ve continued to do this work. I’ve had the privilege to witness their growth and success,” Thornton said.
“Working in admission is good in two ways. First, it’s great to be in an educational environment and to believe in the mission. Second, if practiced correctly, it’s a lot like teaching. It might surprise some to hear this, but at the end of the day I don’t consider it my job to make sure a student comes to Wesleyan. My job is to help them make an informed decision. Particularly with underrepresented populations, this is a big challenge. As Dr. Cornel West has said of the African American community: What we often suffer from is a poverty of information. That’s a driving force for me—making sure students have the right information to make such a crucial decision.”
This approach bears itself out in Thornton’s work on a daily basis. In a recent information session with a large group of prospective students and parents, he was clear that the session should be a conversation. Hearing and helping the group talk through their questions and concerns was as important as presenting to them. Fifteen minutes in, students and parents alike were openly talking about their college search experiences (good and bad), and were responding to and assisting one another. Thornton and senior interviewer Shana Laski ’19 served more as facilitators than lecturers. By the session’s end, the prospective group left informed and enthused—well-educated on what Wesleyan had to offer, and clearer about what they wanted and had to offer in turn.
Thornton’s unique understanding and approach at least partially derives from his own educational background. Prior to joining Wesleyan in 1985, he was an adjunct professor and actively considering a PhD. While dating someone who was already enrolled in a doctorate program, he was exposed to the “torturous path” of attaining that terminal degree, and was bumped from his adjunct role by another professor with a PhD.
“I lost my taste for wanting to be a professor,” he said.
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