It was July 2005, and then-Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Richard Shaw had just announced he was leaving New Haven to become dean of admissions at Stanford University. The News didn’t really faze Jeff Brenzel ’75, director of the Association of Yale Alumni.
“Tough job,” he thought to himself. “Hope they get somebody good for that.”
Fast-forward two months, and Brenzel — a Yale grad without a professional admissions background — was walking into the corner office at 38 Hillhouse Ave.
With a Ph.D. in philosophy, two years as a Jesuit novice and two decades of management experience, the soft-spoken Brenzel was not exactly the typical candidate to oversee the 20,000-odd applications that come through the Yale admissions office every year. In fact, some in the admissions office were outright skeptical that someone who had read only one college application — his son’s — could master, much less direct, the intricacies of one of the most selective admissions processes in the country.
But by all accounts, Brenzel proved the skeptics wrong. In fact, his love of grappling with big philosophical questions has pushed him to consider the moral, along with the strategic, implications of Yale’s admissions policies — sometimes forcing him to take controversial stands. In the past three years, Brenzel has publicly spoken out against the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, refused to drive up application numbers and stood firm when pressured to eliminate Yale’s early-action program.
Some critics wonder, however, whether Brenzel’s academic background will translate into any more substantive policy stances — or at least ones that don’t follow in the footsteps of other big-name institutions.
For Brenzel, ever the philosopher, the position is an amalgamation of all the intellectual challenges he has been seeking since he arrived in New Haven as a freshman in 1971.
“This is one of those eternal-conflict jobs,” he mused one September afternoon in his Eli-blue office. “It’s never going to get resolved and not everyone is going to be happy. But for someone who’s got a philosophical orientation, what could be better? Questions that never get answered.”
‘Student of human behavior’
Just as Brenzel did not have the typical admissions dean background, his was not the typical Yale resume, either.
Brenzel spent his childhood in the blue-collar German immigrant neighborhoods of Louisville, Kentucky, the son of an Air Force pilot and a bookkeeper, neither of whom graduated from college.
The Jesuit brothers at St. Xavier High School — or “St. X” — encouraged Brenzel to shoot for the Ivy League, something practically unheard of at the time.
Brenzel’s father, on the other hand, desperately wanted him to attend the Catholic University of Notre Dame, the traditional destination for top students from St. X. But Brenzel had a secret: For several months, he yearned after Harvard University with all his heart, mainly because of its presence in William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.”
And then one day as he was sitting at the kitchen table filling out applications, he and his father made a deal: Brenzel would throw out the application for the school he least wanted to go to, and his father would do the same.
Brenzel chose Notre Dame. His father chose Harvard.
It was then that Yale came into the picture, and after a visit to New Haven, the die was cast: Brenzel would become a member of the Timothy Dwight class of 1975.
Once at Yale, Brenzel threw himself headfirst into the Directed Studies program, where he fell in love with philosophy, and into the a cappella group the Spizzwinks.
The tune “Smackwater Jack,” in which Jack buys a shotgun, shoots the congregation and is hunted down by the town posse, was one of Brenzel’s most memorable solos with the Spizzwinks, said Mark Dollhopf ’77, current AYA director and a fellow Spizzwink.
“I don’t think anyone has sung it since,” Dollhopf added.
As a senior, Brenzel became a Whiffenpoof — and his tight-knit group still gathers from time to time, such as during a “guys-only” weekend retreat in a cabin in Pennsylvania last month.
A dedicated member of Timothy Dwight, Brenzel also participated in then-traditional games of naked volleyball in the courtyard, a subject he is loath to discuss today.
Though his college experience shared many elements with those of current students, Brenzel also encountered a University transitioning from a white, male “Old Yale” to a more modern, diverse Yale.
His roommate, Tyrell Hennings, a fullback from the south side of Chicago, had grown up without a single white friend; Brenzel had grown up without a single black friend. The two became inseparable, and Brenzel ended up spending a significant amount of time in the Afro-American Cultural Center, as well as with the Chicano community, of which his girlfriend at the time was a member.
In a time fraught with significant racial tensions, following on the heels of the Black Panther trials in 1970, Brenzel was by choice the only white student in an entirely black entryway his sophomore year.
But amid academics and activities, Brenzel still found time to cultivate some of the lifelong friendships still important to him today.
Bob Kennedy ’75, who like Brenzel had a Southern, middle-class upbringing, said he and Brenzel formed a bond over their love of learning and the outdoors — in addition to membership in the Spizzwinks.
“The glue that has held our relationship together for almost 40 years is our constant search for the humor in any situation,” Kennedy said in a lengthy e-mail. “Both of us are students of human behavior and what we call the vicissitudes of life. Life can become ponderous, only if you let it.”
From business to philosophy, and back again
Brenzel’s post-graduate career followed a meandering path, veering back and forth from the chaotic business world to the comparative quiet of academics.
Following graduation, Brenzel worked for a tutoring and educational test preparation service in New Haven, followed by the National Association of Securities Dealers.
But while in the District of Columbia with NASD, Brenzel took an abrupt tack, electing to join the Jesuits — a Catholic religious order — as a novice for two years of work, study, service and reflection.
Participation in the Jesuit community, it turns out, is not unheard of for admissions deans: Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons taught with the Jesuits for four years at Holy Cross College.
Brenzel saw the novitiate as a “haven of sorts,” where academically inclined men served the world in an environment free from material possessions. Kennedy said.
After the two years of working in New York with a program for runaways, teaching at Georgetown Preparatory School, and working in an emergency room in a Philadelphia hospital, Brenzel wrestled with the idea of joining the order permanently. Ultimately, however, he returned to the nonprofit business world.
“It was probably one of the best-informed decisions he has ever made,” Kennedy wrote. “If only we could all say we had considered our career options that thoroughly!”
In 1989, Brenzel once again turned to academics, beginning doctoral work in moral philosophy at Notre Dame. He surprised his father with the news by sending him tickets for the first home football game.
Brenzel, who eventually wrote his dissertation on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, says he is most intrigued by one of the oldest questions in moral philosophy: What is the relationship between the individual good and the common good?
Then, the thrill of entrepreneurship lured him back from philosophy. After developing an independent speaking and training business, Brenzel created a for-profit education venture, InterLearn Inc., which produced university lecture courses on videotape.
One of the professors being filmed was then-psychology professor Peter Salovey — now soon to become the next University provost — and thus began the friendship between Brenzel and Salovey.
A scene was filmed in Chicago in “the most beautiful fake office that any of us had ever seen,” Salovey recalled. “We had a good laugh over the working fireplace, the traditional furniture and the beautiful view out the windows. It was all completely manufactured.”
In 1997, Brenzel came back to Yale to take the helm of the AYA, where he helped launch new connections with Undergraduate Career Services, expand the Yale Alumni Magazine and organize the 2001 Tercentennial Celebration. He also initiated AYA conferences for female graduates and for minority alumni groups.
After finishing his dissertation, Brenzel began to teach the philosophy component of Directed Studies, the same course he had loved while at Yale. In an odd coincidence, the room in Linsley-Chittenden Hall where he met with his first section was the same one in which he had been a student himself.
“I was absolutely thrilled,” said Brenzel in his characteristically deliberate diction that rarely betrays a hint of Kentucky.
Two of the students in Brenzel’s first section — Jesse Wolfson ’08 and Nate Loewentheil ’07, co-founders of the Roosevelt Institution — describe him as an inspiring teacher who led interactive, passionate classes. But what they perhaps most valued, they said in interviews, was his dedication to being a mentor: Both have continued to discuss academics, jobs and life with him even after graduation.
“No matter how busy he is, he’ll make time if you need to have a really serious, long conversation,” said Loewentheil, who with Wolfson and others worked with the admissions office to plan the 2006 “Seat at the Table” conference on socioeconomic access and diversity issues.
But even though Brenzel enjoyed teaching DS and his work at the alumni association, he was beginning to long for the intellectual engagement he had returned to again and again over the years.
‘The Applied Philosopher’
Still, when Brenzel heard the Yale admissions dean post was vacant, he wasn’t exactly jumping at the chance to fill it. After being contacted by the search committee to assess his interest in the position, Brenzel thought long and hard about the move, fearing the “contentious discourse” that pervades the admissions world.
But eventually, the chance to become more involved with Yale College and to confront big-picture questions about education and society proved to be too tempting, and Brenzel threw his hat into the ring.
Brenzel won the position on the strength of his communication skills, his management style and his thoughtfulness, said Salovey, who was part of the search committee. But his admissions experience at that point was still limited to his interactions with the admissions office as AYA director, a stint as an alumni interviewer and a supporting role in his son’s recent college application process.
In other words, Brenzel’s background was not exactly typical, said Henry “Sam” Chauncey Jr. ’57, who led Yale’s effort to co-educate as special assistant to President Kingman Brewster and later served as University secretary and the director of undergraduate admissions and financial aid.
Though each admissions dean brought a unique set of experiences and skills to the position, Brenzel was the only one in recent memory who was not either a career admissions officer or someone with an extensive background in education, Chauncey said.
In addition to — and perhaps because of — the unusual background, his colleagues identified him as a different breed of admissions dean.
In a room with all of the Ivy League deans and others, Brenzel immediately stood out as someone who was not very familiar with the “protocols and behaviors of this elite group,” recalled Lloyd Thacker, founder of the anti-rankings Education Conservancy.
“I didn’t know who he was, and yet he was remarkably articulate and thoughtful,” Thacker said. “He seemed like a real intellectual concerned with education and students.”
Brenzel also impressed college guidance counselors by seeking their opinions on matters such as whether Yale should eliminate early admissions, an unusual phenomenon in the hierarchical admissions world, said Jon Reider, college-counseling director at San Francisco’s private University High School.
The conversations that ensued demonstrated Brenzel’s considerable brainpower, Reider said.
“Admissions does not usually have people who think at that level,” he explained. “The people who do this are very smart, but Jeff is a cut above. It’s just his background, and how he wrestles with problems.”
Some former admissions officers write tell-all guides detailing how to get into selective colleges. Brenzel is not one of those.
His book, if it ever makes it to print, will be about how to successfully engage the opportunities in college: The oft-forgotten ultimate goal of the complicated, stressful admissions process.
And the lack of admissions background doesn’t seem to have hurt him. Though some in the office nursed private worries when he initially arrived, his willingness to take a step back and question various procedures was “very healthy” for the organization, Admissions Director Margit Dahl said.
Dahl, who has spent 33 years in the Yale admissions office, described Brenzel as a “quick study” who leaned on senior admissions staff for expertise during his first year, then engaged on his own level.
Brenzel — known in the office as the “Applied Philosopher” for his tendency to philosophize during staff meetings — was responsible for introducing a new team-based management model into the office, encouraging collaboration and allowing staff to take ownership of issues, Dahl said.
In fact, so many superlatives get tossed Brenzel’s way that it inspires a bit of skepticism in the listener — which his colleagues fully realize.
“Dean Brenzel’s integrity informs every single thing he does, every decision he makes, every policy issue he engages, every philosophic issue he encounters,” wrote Penelope Laurans, an associate dean of Yale College who has worked with the admissions office in various capacities since 1975. “It’s hard to believe this, but the most important point I can make about him is that his thinking always goes beyond the strategic to what is right.”
But apart from this imposing record of achievement exists an engaging, funny man with a close-cropped curly beard, one who has a weakness for candy, reads poetry and rows crew in his very limited spare time, and once wore a stunning ’70s outfit to a themed office holiday party.
On this occasion, Brenzel — having donned “original Brenzel” bellbottoms and a peace medallion from his Yale days, along with a head scarf and a brocaded vest — performed “Please Don’t Bury Me (Down in That Cold, Cold Ground)” for the staff while accompanying himself on his guitar.
No photographic records were preserved for posterity, according to Brenzel.
From philosophy to policy
The new policy changes implemented by Brenzel, in accordance with his philosophical orientation, have ranged from the widely applauded to the somewhat unorthodox.
In the latter category, Brenzel has taken a firm stand against the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, criticizing them for spreading the “false notion” that the college you attend is a measure of personal worth and potential.
To this end, Brenzel has supported the anti-rankings Education Conservancy both verbally and financially. Yale hosted the “Beyond the Rankings” conference last September, and the admissions office has donated $30,000 to help the organization develop a Web-based alternative to the current rankings system.
At the unveiling of the new prototype at a conference last month, Brenzel spoke sharply about the evil effects of commercialized rankings, in what one news organization described as an “attack” on U.S. News, though Brenzel disputes this characterization.
Though the Yale administration supports Brenzel’s stance, according to Salovey, some in the admissions community are not exactly pleased — most notably, U.S. News.
“I completely disagree with [Brenzel’s position],” said Robert Morse, the director of data research for U.S. News, in an interview, adding that he thinks the Education Conservancy’s endeavor to create a new paradigm for rankings is overly ambitious.
Another slightly unusual stance is Brenzel’s refusal to engage in the competition among the selective schools to rack up the most applications and the lowest acceptance rate. Ever worried about the mental health of applicants and creating unnecessary competition, Brenzel publicly encourages students to find the “best fit” for them, which may not necessarily be Yale.
Yale, perhaps unlike Harvard, is trying to “dial down” the application competition between the two schools, college counselor Reider said.
“Harvard’s very proud that they got 27,000 applications,” Reider said. “Yale doesn’t think that’s something to brag about, that it’s not a good thing.”
University President Richard Levin said he fully supports Brenzel’s anti-competitive attitude with respect to quantity of applications, he said in an interview.
“The real goal is to get the best possible class,” Levin said. “[The number of] applications, per se, is not a good measure of that. We want the highest-quality applicants applying, but we don’t necessarily want 50,000 people applying.”
Brenzel, a bursary student when he was at Yale, has made increasing access to higher education for lower-income students a priority, hosting the “Seat at the Table” conference with the Roosevelt Institution a year after he became dean. He also initiated Yale’s partnership with the nonprofit QuestBridge to recruit high-achieving, low-income students.
Though the decision to overhaul Yale’s financial aid policy last year was not his alone, Brenzel has played a key role in the debates about increasing aid.
Some, however, have criticized Yale — and Brenzel — for moving too slowly on aid reform and acting merely to catch up to Harvard, which announced its revamped aid plan a month before Yale’s.
Andrew Williamson ’09, a member of Yale Students for Financial Aid Reform, said that after lobbying the University for about a year, he was led to believe administrators including Brenzel were not considering any major reforms. Then Harvard announced sweeping aid changes last December, and Yale, he said, felt the need to keep up.
Another area where Harvard took the lead was in eliminating its early-action program last year, a move followed by Princeton University. Some in the admissions community have tried to persuade Brenzel to follow in their footsteps, but Yale held firm and retained the early option.
Thacker of the Education Conservancy argues that students might be better served by a simpler and more uniform admissions process, with only a regular admissions option. Brenzel, after careful research and contemplation, decided that early programs did not have the negative consequences attributed to them, Thacker said — and although Thacker disagrees, he respects Brenzel’s thoughtful approach.
At the end of the day, any major admissions policy decisions are made in collaboration with the rest of the administration, including Salovey and Levin. Rather than being a constraint, this dialogue is one of the best parts of the job, Brenzel said.
The collaborative aspect of policy-making extends down even to the selection process itself.
“It’s on my authority that a student is admitted or rejected from Yale,” he said. “But I would be nuts to sit in my office alone and say, ‘You live, you die.’ We admit students only with the discussion and vote of a committee.”
Something old, or something new?
But with all these initiatives under his belt, is Brenzel really doing anything radically different from his predecessors?
Longtime Yale administrator Chauncey thinks perhaps not. What Brenzel has been working on, he said, is implementing administrative polices rather than coming up with substantive policies. In other words, the Yale admissions office uses nearly identical criteria to select students as it did 50 years ago.
Deciding to admit women, to admit applicants on a need-blind basis, and to seek racial and economic diversity were all substantive policy changes in Yale’s history, he said. These policies “show how the institution is trying to direct itself,” Chauncey explained.
Pointing to the 1967 Muyskens letter, in which then-University President Kingman Brewster reiterated the criteria for acceptance to Yale College, Chancey contended that from the time he became associated with Yale admissions in the 1950s, “there hasn’t been anything new in terms of how you actually choose people.”
Some in the admissions field are trying to change that.
Robert Sternberg ’72, a former Yale psychology professor and the dean of the school of arts and sciences at Tufts University, has introduced a new test, “Kaleidoscope,” to explicitly measure creative and practical skills and wisdom. These attributes don’t always come through on standardized tests such as the SAT, he said.
The test, which consists of short essays, is now optional for applicants to Tufts. The test has helped increase the number of under-represented minority students admitted, Sternberg said.
The admissions office is watching Sternberg’s experiment closely, Brenzel said, but has no plans to adopt the test.
Brenzel also contended that two substantive policies, as Chauncey classifies them, are now underway. The first is the admissions office’s efforts to broaden diversity to include socioeconomic class regardless of race, paired with efforts to increase this diversity through aggressive recruitment programs.
The second involves changing the way science and engineering are perceived in the College, with a combination of recruiting top aspiring scientists and improving the University’s research facilities.
But amid the chaos of the day-to-day office routine, it is sometimes difficult ever for a philosopher to take a step back and think about the big issues, Brenzel conceded.
“You’re accelerated 10Gs every September,” he said. “You can’t stop the applications from coming. And whatever thinking you’re going to do, you have to do it while fielding all those ground balls.”
For the time being, the Applied Philosopher is here to stay at Yale. Now that he and his wife, Sally, are empty nesters — his daughter Sarah started at Notre Dame this fall, and his son Paul just graduated from the University of Delaware — they will move into Timothy Dwight as resident fellows this winter.
After bouncing back between business and philosophy throughout his life, Brenzel has finally found the position that unites the two.
“This is the combination of a very complicated equation of organizational and management challenges, with some of the deepest philosophical and strategic considerations in higher education,” Brenzel said one afternoon. “At least for me, this ended up being in many respects the perfect job.”