By Libby Sutherland
In 2007, Rupert Johnson’s donation of $100 million to Washington and Lee established the Johnson Program in Leadership and Integrity which, according to the school’s website, “supports visits by leading experts and professionals, who speak on a range of topics related to the overarching themes of leadership, integrity and honor…endows two new professorships…[and] provides stipends that support all Johnson Scholars and up to 30 additional undergraduates in various off-campus research projects and internships.” The largest portion of the endowment supports the Johnson Scholarship Program, which is “designed to attract students with exceptional academic and personal promise, regardless of their ability to afford tuition and other expenses.” The scholarship is awarded to about 10% of each entering class.
The interview process is conducted over a period of two days and involves the finalists meeting with a panel of professors, previous Johnson Scholars and an admissions representative. According to the school, W&L “weighed writing samples, teacher recommendations and records of leadership, citizenship and involvement in non-academic activities, along with their potential to contribute to the intellectual and civic life of W&L and the world at large in years to come.”
On August 30th, 2008, the first group of Johnson Scholars arrived on W&L’s campus. A press release during this time stated that award was “highly competitive and [recognized] students with outstanding academic qualifications and the promise for leadership in their chosen careers and future endeavors.” This description suggests that this scholarship is unique to those at our peer schools since it is meant to be awarded solely based on merit—both academically and in extracurricular activities as well. Robert Strong, the director of the Johnson Program at the time, stated that these first Johnson Scholars were “a group of excellent students with academic accomplishments measured against the highest national standards.”
According to the 2008 press release, this group was also very involved in activities outside of their academic work. The group included sports team captains, eagle scouts, high school leadership award winners, heads of student judicial boards, president of high school student bodies, and captains of debate teams. Almost every Johnson Scholar was active in volunteer work as well.
Sam Mott, a Johnson Scholar from the class of 2012, said that nowhere else he applied offered an all expenses paid scholarship. He said that the scholarship was also different from others in that it recognized “leadership, integrity, [and] intelligence,” above other potential qualities.
While it seems that academic success and extracurricular involvement used to be at the heart of what was required to become a Johnson Scholarship finalist, many previous Johnson Scholars feel that those qualities have now taken a backseat to diversity.
One scholar from the class of 2012 said that she felt that this was especially true in regards to diversity being held of higher importance than leadership skills. She described one interview that she helped conduct in which she and the interviewing committee asked a candidate what sorts of activities he was involved with outside of the classroom. According to the 2012 Johnson Scholar, the candidate responded that he preferred mostly to keep to himself and spend time working with computers as opposed to participating in organized groups with his peers. The candidate had a strong academic record but not one that was unusual compared to the other candidates. He was a minority and a first generation college student. The 2012 Johnson Scholar stated that she believed that the candidate was selected to be a Johnson Scholar over students with similar academic records and greater extracurricular involvement for this reason.
Other previous Johnson Scholars who assisted with conducting the interview process echoed the same sentiment also adding that often times certain candidates were disregarded because they seemed too much like “the typical W&L student.” One Johnson Scholar from the class of 2015 described an interview with a male candidate who was confident, engaging, and involved. The student was white and dressed in typically “preppy” clothing. According to the 2015 Johnson Scholar, one of the professors involved in the interview almost immediately dismissed the candidate after he left the room saying, “He’s exactly what we don’t need more of at W&L…I already know what fraternity he would be in.”
While diversity at Washington and Lee is important and is definitely something that the school should strive for, a scholarship that is meant to be solely merit-based is not the best way to do it. The Johnson Scholarship is so unique to Washington and Lee in that it is need blind and focuses instead on the success and involvement of the candidate. The value of diversity is significant but is it more significant than leadership and participation? The scholarship should either seek to award candidates that best exemplify W&L’s reputation of academic success as well as leadership and involvement on campus or change the description to more fairly represent what the scholarship is about.