Diversity in Admissions: A Chat With Christian Donovan

Reid Covin, Co-Web-Editor-in-Chief

“Our first essential question that we consider in an admissions committee meeting is, ‘Do we believe that this student can succeed at Head-Royce?’ and if the answer is no, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what race and ethnicity you are, it doesn’t matter if your parents have given millions of dollars to the school, and it doesn’t matter if you’re the best athlete in the world. If we don’t think you can have success here, we are not going to offer you a spot.” – Christian Donovan

I became a member of the School’s family less than two years ago and in less than a month, I will be leaving for college. Over the course of my short but eventful 18 years, I have switched schools seven times. The 8th switch will come later in August. I have attended a montessori school, a catholic school, a charter school, a boarding school, a private for profit, and private non-profits. Collectively, they represent a wide range of admissions processes. But of all the schools my admissions profile has passed through, the School’s administration and student body as a whole placed the highest value on diversity. Diversity, along with citizenship and scholarship, is even on the school crest. Any school’s diversity can be traced back to one place: its Admissions office.

I first met Christian Donovan, the head of Admissions at the School, two years ago when I first came to campus for an interview and tour. Mr. Donovan, like me, is originally from the east coast. He was the head of Admissions for the George School in Newtown, PA before leaving for the School a few years ago. I have been fortunate enough to have had him as my advisor as a student.

Donovan and his Admissions team are essentially student curators. Beyond the quick facts on the school website’s about page, how does the School’s admissions team approach diversity?

I first wanted to know what he would say to a parent or prospective student about diversity. Donovan loves the fact that diversity is such an integral part of each student’s experience. He noted that because the School is in Oakland, it already has diversity built into its applicant pool, which consists of students who represent varying family styles, races, religions, and learning styles.

We also had the chance to talk about his old job at the George School. The George School had a large push in the 70s for socioeconomic diversity. Despite having only about half as many students as the School does, George School has nearly double our five million dollar financial aid budget. Donovan was quick to point out that the School still has the largest financial aid budget in the Bay Area. He noted, “It’s hard to compare. In some ways I think Head-Royce is ahead of some of those schools I saw, including George School, and in some ways not.” Donovan continued, “Purely from a numbers point of view, Head Royce’s diversity, in terms of race and ethnicity, is much higher than George School’s was even though George made a huge commitment to diversity race and ethnicity. That to me has everything to do with geographic location.” Donovan also mentioned how excited he was to be involved in the school’s strategic plan. Assessing the the financial model of the school is giving him and other administrative officers the chance to air ideas of what an ideal socioeconomic balance of the School would look like.

I wanted to know why he personally valued having a diverse school. Acknowledging the fact that every member of the School’s community could value diversity differently, Donovan offered his personal opinion“Having a diverse community of people just makes life more interesting, and I want to work at a place that is interesting…creating a community where you experience diversity before they go off to college or into the workforce is super valuable for our students.”

Donovan, like me, is still relatively new to the community. Before Donovan came to the School, Kathy Epstein was Head of Admissions. Although Donovan has been at the School for almost three years, his brief time as Head means that many current students were not vetted by an admissions office under his control. So, was there a change in admissions styles that affected the community, especially with regards to diversity? Donovan immediately admitted to having made some changes since he arrived and made it abundantly clear he thought Kathy Epstein did, “a great job and that the School is in large part as successful as it is because of her and a number of other people’s very hard work.” He went on to reveal that, “One of the things [He] discovered about coming to Head Royce was there’s this perception in the community that we’re sorta only for the rich and elite of Oakland and the bay area. As a result of that, people scrutinize us in a certain way. They count how many teslas are driving up and down Lincoln avenue; they look for ways to reaffirm that stereotype…One of the things we have tried to do in the past two-and-a-half years is make the admissions process as welcoming as possible to literally any family.” Donovan noted that the admissions process for applicants who have parents who attended independent schools and colleges is usually not that difficult. However, Donovan expressed, “There are lots of families that call Berkeley and Oakland home that don’t know the first thing about how to put together an application that might lead them to gain entry to Head-Royce.” Before Donovan came to the School, applicants alone were responsible for figuring out the application process. In an effort to ease their burden, the admissions office helps applicants overcome certain obstacles, such as language barriers. Many of the world language teachers and even some parents have volunteered to help applicants and their families do so (most often Spanish and Mandarin). “We don’t have any fewer requirements than we did under my predecessor, but we did make the way you submit those requirements easier for families,” Donovan said. The admissions office cannot reduce or tailor their requirements according to each applicant’s circumstances, but they are “very willing to work with families.”

Donovan gave me an example of this commitment to applicants in action. Every year, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) refuses to let their teachers write letters of recommendation for kids applying to private schools. They cannot do so mainly because of teachers unions that object to the unpaid extra time teachers would have to spend working on recommendations. The OUSD administration annually sends private school admissions offices a statement reminding them of this policy. However, this policy does not mean OUSD kids cannot apply. Instead of barring them from applying all together, Donovan and his admissions team tell OUSD students to ask their teachers for recommendations anyways or to try to get one from someone else. If all else fails, the admissions office may end up waving the recommendation requirement altogether.

But what about the selection process? Will the School’s Admissions team ever ‘target’ a certain race, ethnicity, or other demographic? It turns out that other than trying to maintain 50/50 balance of gender, the Admissions team never ‘targets’ a specific demographic. Donovan reveals that every applicant has to stand up to a crucial piece of scrutiny: “Our first essential question that we consider in an admissions committee meeting is, ‘Do we believe that this student can succeed at Head-Royce?’ and if the answer is no, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what race and ethnicity you are, it doesn’t matter if your parents have given millions of dollars to the school, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best athlete in the world. If we don’t think you can have success here, we are not going to offer you a spot.”

When he said that to me, I quickly responded by asking him to define success. “I don’t think it does anybody any good to have a student come here and get straight Ds.” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to bring someone here who won’t do well socially either… For lower school in particular, we are looking for ability to transition.” Some of this sort of success analysis requires the admissions committee to read into applications or draw upon information gleaned in interviews. Donovan jokingly said, “There aren’t metrics that we look at to see whether or not a student is going to be sitting alone at lunch all the time.”

One of my last questions was about the endowment and whether or not the admissions team ever finds themselves limited by it. Donovan told me that there are different challenges related to recruitment for each division. He claimed, “At the Upper School in particular, I would say we don’t lack the resources. It’s not as though we run out of financial aid, or at least we haven’t in the two years I’ve been here. To me, the bigger issue for us, for high school in particular –and it’s less of an issue for lower and middle school– is attracting a pool of applicants that’s socioeconomically diverse. I think that of the three divisions, the Upper School is the least socioeconomically diverse, which is sorta interesting. I think people don’t necessarily expect that.”

Donovan has demonstrated in his first few years at the School that diversity is paramount when creating a well- rounded student body. He and his team are clearly working diligently to improve the applicant experience and rework the School’s image as a privileged private school. Ease of access is key to keeping a diverse student body.