The Webb Schools of Moral Clarity

October 13, 2020

By Taylor Stockdale

Like many of you, I have to admit, I have scandal fatigue. The daily headlines continue to shock and disturb, and recently hit very close to home. The college admissions debacle that rocked the world of higher education last month, also shook the world of secondary prep schools. Several editions ago, in the WEBB magazine, I referenced the selective college admission process in America as a game of sorts. Not a fun game or in any way positive, but rather as an insidious game of rankings, superficial bolstering, all with high-minded applicants hanging in the balance. Many people responded to me that they agreed: there must be a better way.

I am not writing today to pass judgment, but rather to have us all remember the importance of certain values as an educational community—values that can guide our thinking and give us a foundation to make the right choices even when they are inconvenient and difficult.

Having just returned from a series of Webb gatherings across the country and around the world, I was reminded how easy it is to refer to “the college list” in order to quantify our schools’ success. Everyone asks to see it. Everyone wants to compare our list to other national boarding schools. So, I’ll say it here once again, while we have every reason to be enormously proud of our outcomes at Webb, we still shine too bright a light on the “elite” colleges—especially when we know that achieving real success is about finding the right fit.

By finding the right fit, I am NOT ONLY talking about finding a place where a student can develop their passions, but more importantly, where he or she can find a professor or coach who will inspire and challenge that student. It’s not about where you go, but what you make happen when you get there. The research on college outcomes is clear on this—it is far better to stand out in a college community that represents your best fit than to be mediocre (and largely unhappy) in the wrong place. Frank Bruni writing in the New York Times summed up the research this way:“The game changers include establishing a deep connection with a mentor, taking on a sustained academic project and playing a significant part in a campus organization.” 

When sitting with alumnus Louis Mayberg ’80 in Washington D.C. last month, we were reflecting on the recent college admission scandal. As he spoke he used the term moral clarity, and told me how important he believed it was in today’s world.  When Louis was leaving Webb for college, he had a number of good choices. He ultimately decided on George Washington University, which back then was a lesser-known DC neighbor to Georgetown. Louis chose George Washington because he felt a connection. He went there, thrived, and when he graduated pursued a career in the financial services industry. Actually, he did more than that. He innovated the staid world of mutual fund companies by creating an alternative—he started and nurtured the industry—co-founding ProShares/ ProFunds, the global leader of leveraged and inverse funds. He also hired several of his GW professors to work with him in building his company. The net result is he has a George Washington degree on his wall, and a lifetime full of professional, personal and philanthropic achievements.

Louis is one of many examples of a Webb alumni and alumnae who have chosen well, adhered to their values, and achieved moral clarity along the way. As Louis reminded me, there are many opportunities in life to take short cuts, to make a wrong turn. What he learned at Webb, and through his devotion to and practice of his religious faith, is to avoid the short cut—to do the right thing whether anyone is watching or not. For me, Louis himself embodies moral clarity.

As I say to the Webb community often, we are by no means a perfect place. We have our own history, our own flaws, our own faults. We work on them every day. With all that said though, let me close with this. First, I wholeheartedly agree with Frank Bruni when he says, “where you go to college is NOT ultimately who you are.” Fit over prestige makes for a happier and better experience. And second, of course, we are proud of our graduates’ college achievements, but our goal at Webb is to impart the honor code, our “North Star,” into each of them so that they will succeed the right way over a lifetime regardless of where they spent their fleeting college years.