Recently retired Vice President for Enrollment Bill Elliott reflected on his 38 years at Carnegie Mellon Monday in McConomy Auditorium.
Vice Provost of Education Indira Nair opened the lecture with a few words about Elliott, expressing how “no other single person has touched Carnegie Mellon more than Bill — he’s done just about everything.”
She listed the many occupations of Elliott in his years with the university, ranging from handling various administrative duties to teaching calculus.
After a round of applause, Elliott approached the audience, thanked everyone for coming, and began talking about his life before Carnegie Mellon.
Growing up, Elliott moved around to many schools until he landed at a British private school in Massachusetts. He then went on to attend Kimball Union Academy, a prep school where classes were held Monday through Saturday and students attended church every Sunday. Sports were required, and Elliott became active in hockey and lacrosse.
In preparation for college, Elliott remarked on how different his experience was from today’s standards where current high school seniors will research colleges, check with advisers, and consult top-100 lists.
“I applied to two schools: Lehigh and Worcester Polytechnic Institute,” Elliott said.
He was not a stellar student transitioning into college.
“The bell never rang in college, and back at school we did everything by the bell,” he said. “Once I had flexibility, I couldn’t handle it.”
He mentions that one way he starts conversation with students is to remark, “You’re talking to the most unsuccessful college sophomore.”
His first three semesters resulted in GPAs all lower than 2.0, which Elliott recalled with distinction. He explained how he felt at that time in college.
“I thought to myself ‘what’re you gonna do?’ I had hit a brick wall, but it was to show me how hard it was going to be [to continue],” he said.
Elliott then stated one of his principles that he believes helps to inspire people: When the journey becomes difficult, “You have to remember: It’s not can you do the work, but will you do it?” Elliott said.
He feels this insight is applied daily at the university in relation to the character of the students here.
“There are very few people at Carnegie Mellon that have never failed at anything. Failure is an important lesson in life,” he said.
The end of Elliott’s college years left him with the opportunity to work for IBM; he was also offered a position in college admission. This decision marked the point in Elliott’s life when he began helping colleges invest in students.
Elliott recalled a time when Carnegie Mellon used to send out an application and a complete course catalog to students who submitted an inquiry. Elliott laughed about it, saying, “That probably wasn’t the best method to attract students to our school.”
He wanted to start customizing a package for students, which is how the Carnegie Mellon Viewbook came about.
“We have to make students want to apply to our school first,” Elliott said, noting that “the decision to apply is different than the decision to enroll.”
At the time that Elliott joined the enrollment staff at Carnegie Mellon, the Office of Admissions used to send out counselors for eight weeks at a time visiting high schools. “Those trips stopped and we came up with area programs,” Elliott said.
Then the staff began thinking about how to get students on campus and produced the famous Sleeping Bag Weekend. The University Center was also built under Elliott’s career, as Elliott wanted to make sure there was a central gathering place for students to get away from class and dormitory life.
Elliott’s relationship with people defined his work and he still maintains that “students are number one.”
Damian Canetti-Rios (Tepper ’07), a business analyst, was very impressed when he first met Elliott.
“He asked me my name [then] proceeded to point at me with a stern look and say, ‘You are from Houston, Texas, Booker T Washington High School,” Canetti-Rios said.
As Canetti-Rios grew closer to Elliott, he recalled in that first meeting feeling “shocked ... but soon [I] learned that one of Dr. Elliot’s hobbies was learning the high schools of his students like we learned the capitals of the United States in third grade.”
These relationships are what Elliott said he feels are most important when he expressed another insight during the lecture, saying, “We must find ourselves a mentor and be willing to be a mentor to others.”
Canetti-Rios certainly felt Elliott was a mentor, speaking of him as a constant source of support.
Robert Patterson, alum, spoke of his relationship with Elliott as filled with trust. As a student, Patterson was on the football team traveling to an away game in St. Louis, Mo. After the game, “I walked up to him and extended my hand. He shook it and I said, ‘Thank you Dr. Elliott. We are having a really good time.’” From then on, Patterson recalls developing a “warm and comfortable” relationship.
The interaction with students is another lesson Elliott discussed, stressing that it is vital in getting the most out of his former role in enrollment.
Canetti-Rios can attest to this principle. “We were temporarily racquetball partners ... one day he invited me to play racquetball the next morning ... at 5:30 a.m.,” Canetti-Rios said. “I arrived at the UC and proceeded to receive the worst butt-whipping in racquetball ever.”
After 38 years of relationships, friendships, and being an “opportunity broker” for all, Elliott’s lecture on his journey was an intimate insight into the life of a man who served Carnegie Mellon from classroom to boardroom during his tenure.