What is Elite?

Based on several interactions I have had with Beach students, I have started to reflect on my understanding of the word elite and its meaning across a few categories. One thought is that some “eliteness” comes from history or even genealogy. People are born with a certain name, and that name (for example, Rockefeller) carries an elite association. Or people inherit money and are treated in special ways because we tend to honor the rich, perhaps, for self-serving reasons or just because some of us have drunk the Kool-Aid of materialism and equate “more toys” with being a winner.

Some “eliteness” comes from just lasting a long time. Stuff that might have been ordinary in its day can be seen 1,000 years later as valuable antiques, e.g., ancient pottery.

The actual root of the word elite is from the 1300-1400 Middle English and denotes someone who has been elected. So there’s a slight difference in emphasis from what I have shared thus far. Being chosen seems more important to me than just being lucky in who your parents are.

What about universities? What makes them elite? Many applicants? Ninety-five percent rejection rates? Accepting only the highest-scoring students? Charging the most tuition? Producing the most funded research? Amassing the biggest endowment? Offering many doctoral programs? Large numbers of faculty publications?

Current popular rankings use just those dimensions to convince us of university value. Interesting! So universities that admit only the best-prepared and most highly resourced students (on average), whose faculty are judged not particularly on teaching but on research and grant-writing productivity, and that already have the advantage of massive endowment resources are seen as great.

I wonder if this approach is similar to our human propensity to value what is scarce—gold, diamonds, or a freshman spot at an Ivy League school. How rational is it that our fascination with the rare should serve as the basis for a projection of elite value?

My own views reflect an appreciation of student growth and development, beating the odds, and making transformative changes in students’ lives. Perhaps that’s three ways of saying the same thing. I also look to the value faculty and staff add to students’ experiences through cutting-edge pedagogies, building on student strengths, involvement in research with students, and authentic mentoring relationships. Finally, I think if we’re elite, we create safe and supportive environments and make a difference in our surrounding communities—they are better because we’re here.

Over the next several weeks (years?), I’ll come back occasionally to this theme. I want to hear from you about what you think makes a university elite.

Let me hear from you.