Shooting for national status. After a 15-year effort, Washington University is shedding its reputation as a good regional school, say a number of observers: now it's a national institution

When Dr. J. H. Hexter retired from the history department at Yale University in 1983, he was delighted to accept a part-time fellowship at the school he had reluctantly said goodbye to 20 years earlier. ``I'll be back at Washington University,'' he said when colleagues asked about his next step. ``Where?'' they quite often asked. ``Washington University,'' he repeated, ``in St. Louis, you know.'' ``Oh yes, of course.''

It's a story WU faculty know all too well. For many years, this mid-size private school founded in 1853 by William Greenleaf Eliot (T. S. Eliot's grandfather) and transplanted to 170 leafy, residential acres by Albert Brookings (as in ``Brookings Institution'') in 1904, has existed in relative obscurity. In fact, though, it has been a leading research university ($80 million worth last year) since World War II, and home to about 16 Nobel laureates (many of whom promptly moved away after winning the prize).

In less rarified college circles, ``Wash U.'' -- as it is often called -- is known widely as an ``excellent Midwestern university.'' Even that is a reputation the school wants to outgrow. After 15 years of effort in this direction -- steady improvements in faculty, students, and campus -- it may be doing so. An increasing number of observers say that Washington University is emerging from a regional to a national school.

Edward B. Fiske, education editor of the New York Times and author of an annual 600-page catalog of the nation's leading colleges, says that for years WU was ``a sleeper -- one of the least known of the country's great schools.'' Now, however, it is becoming known as ``a major university -- a lot more people are talking about it in the East.''

More students from around the country are attending Washington University as well. In recent years, the number attending from more than a thousand miles away has climbed to an unheard-of 50 percent of the 5,000-member undergraduate student body. Only Notre Dame claims a greater percentage.

In talking with students, what they say they like about Wash U. is the demanding academic workload leavened by the settled, easygoing atmosphere of St. Louis. The campus itself is filled with Gothic, red-Missouri-granite structures set between a golf course and the second-largest city park in the country. Over the past four years, the school has spent $100 million on renovations and new buildings, including the largest Division III athletic complex in the country and a new $14.5 million business school, which opened April 4. [See story.]

The student body appears to take itself seriously: At a time of declining SAT scores, WU is one of the few schools in America whose cumulative scores have risen. Pre-law and medicine are popular majors with the student body; a full two-thirds of all students go on to graduate work. WU has also been seeking out National Merit Scholars, especially in the sciences, and giving them full scholarships.

``Actually, we've been a national school for a long time,'' says Chancellor William Danforth, ``but now the reputation is beginning to catch up with the place.''

Dr. Danforth, an heir to the Ralston-Purina fortune and brother of Missouri Sen. John Danforth, is a tall, quiet, exceptionally nonassertive man who is scrupuous about giving the credit for WU's success to his deans.

His deans, in turn, laugh. ``Danforth is the silent force behind most of our progress,'' said one. Those who work with Danforth say that his secret has been in decentralizing the power structure at WU -- giving nearly total autonomy to each of the deans of the 11 colleges.

``I don't feel that sitting in this office I can create a great school,'' Danforth says. ``So we ask the deans to be responsible for faculty and scholarship. They are almost like the president of a college.''

Money is of critical importance for any growing college. So far, that has not been a problem for Wash U. The school is heavily endowed -- more than $700 million at last count. Currently two years into a three-year, $300-million fund drive, the school has already raised $290 million. This is a result of strong local business and alumni support, as well as the resurgence of St. Louis itself.

A massive outside evaluation of each department at WU -- lasting from 1979 through 1982 -- has also been instrumental in keeping the school up-to-date.

One consequence, and a good example of how the college is pursuing national status, is its total overhaul of the business school. Business used to receive six-tenths of one percent of the college's operating budget, or $5 million. Today, the school receives $12 million a year, and the number of faculty now housed in the new building has more than doubled. ``We want to make it one of the top schools in the country,'' Danforth says.

True to a certain conservative, Midwestern ethos, the college has been innovative without being flashy. In 1979, for example, when college costs began to rise steeply, WU pioneered a ``Cost Stabilization Plan,'' allowing parents to borrow from WU and, in effect, pay all four years at the first-year tuition level. Schools across the land copied the idea.

``FOCUS'' -- a freshman program for students uncertain about what field they should follow -- is another Wash U. original. For a semester, the student chooses a contemporary issue -- say, war and peace -- and looks at it in-depth through an interdisciplinary course of study: war and peace in political science, psychology and sociology, in history, and in literature.

WU has also received national attention for its cooperative research agreements with industry. Several weeks ago, the school signed the largest such agreement in collegiate history, in which Monsanto Corporation will give WU $62 million for research over the next six years. Monsanto gets dibs on new ideas; it also incurs less research costs. Washington University keeps the patents for any new ideas, and professors may freely publish their results.

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