Lee Coffin to leave Tufts after 13 years as Dean of Undergraduate Admissions

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin makes a snow angel on Friday, Feb. 12. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin will leave his position of 13 years to become the new Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth College on July 1. His successor will be chosen before Coffin officially leaves Tufts.

Coffin’s transition was announced in a Feb. 4 statement to the Tufts community, written by Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser and Dean of the School of Engineering Jianmin Qu. 

“We know that we speak for our entire community when we say that Lee has made an indelible mark on Tufts,” the statement read. “The impact of his work can be felt far beyond his office in Bendetson Hall where he has led and nurtured a professional team of admissions officers for the past 13 years.”

Glaser said that during Coffin’s tenure at Tufts, there have been vast improvements to the transparency of its admissions process and student financial accessibility to Tufts, among other things.

According to Glaser, he and Qu will assemble a search committee to find the next Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, who will either be a candidate from Tufts or an outside hire. In the statement, Glaser added that before he leaves, Coffin will establish the infrastructure needed to incorporate the admissions process of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) into the Tufts process, in light of Tufts’ pending acquisition of the SMFA.

Commitment to “Voice and Data”

According to the Feb. 4 statement, under Coffin’s leadership, Tufts rose to become the 15th most selective school in the nation. However, Coffin said he prefers to define the success of his office not from the metric of selectivity but from more qualitative methods of evaluation, such as whether professors feel that their classroom experience has enhanced over the years.

“It’s possible to both create a community that has a high degree of intellectual engagement [and] stay true to our core values,” he said. “What’s for me been very satisfying is that those numbers have paralleled that more qualitative goal.”

Glaser said that both the size and the quality of the university’s applicant pool have increased because of Coffin’s strategic thinking.

“We’ve always had fantastic students, but [Coffin] really has increased the size of the extraordinary students on campus, not just in terms of their intellectual prowess but in terms of many other talents and qualities,” Glaser said.

Jeffrey Taliaferro, associate professor of political science and co-chair of the Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Committee, said that creating a more intellectual community has been a longstanding goal for Tufts.

“[When Coffin was hired, Former University President] Larry Bacow told him quite explicitly: ‘I want you to recruit and admit more intellectual students,’ and we have certainly seen that over the years,” Taliaferro said.

2/12/16 – Medford/Somerville, MA –Current Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin has accepted a job as Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth College which will begin July 1. He poses in Bendetson on Feb. 12, 2016. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily) (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily)

Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily

Many administrators and students have said that part of Coffin’s success is from his understanding of young people in general and of the Tufts community in particular.

“This is a job that requires somebody who has their fingers on the pulse of young people and how they’re thinking and what they care about and how to appeal to them, and he has that,” Glaser said.

Sophomore Melissa Adler said that she also thinks that Coffin’s personality reflects that of the student body.

“Hopefully [his successor will be] somebody who understands Tufts people and is able to accurately describe the campus vibe like he did,” Adler said.

Operating Bendetson Hall

Coffin said that one of his most important goals at Tufts was to make the application process more transparent to applicants. This open approach is unique among colleges and universities, he said.

“Over the years, we’ve worked really hard to be admission officers as well as counselors broadly…to try to help make college admissions less opaque and more user-friendly,” Coffin said.

Admissions Officer Kim Kembel said Coffin’s distinctive method of transparency has allowed Tufts to reach a larger audience of students.

“He encourages staff and students to blog, and even just the admissions website in general is accessible, relatable, [and] both counselors and students feel connected to us,” Kembel said.

Coffin explained that the Office of Undergraduate Admissions’ more open communication with high schools and its large online presence have made Tufts more attractive to students living across the country and abroad. He said that sharing more information about the admissions process allows prospective students to produce more effective applications.

“My ability to read your file and make a decision is only going to be enhanced by your ability to tell your story,” Coffin said. “It’s kind of symbiotic.”

Assistant Director of Admissions Yulia Korovikov explained that this transparency is a large part of why Coffin is well-respected throughout the college admissions field — a domain she said is normally thought of as shrouded in secrecy.

“What I’d really like to see in our next dean is somebody who has a similar respect for opening the door,” Korovikov said. “[Coffin] has really shown that the work that we do is not random.”

University President Anthony Monaco echoed this sentiment, saying that Coffin was always cognizant of the implications of the work done within his office.

“[Coffin] never lost sight of the people behind [the] numbers or Tufts’ essential values,” Monaco told the Daily in an email. “He often spoke about the need to lift the curtain that cloaked college admissions.”

Glaser said that Coffin has also had great success leading and mentoring his staff. According to Coffin, four of his former staff members are now deans of admission at other universities. Members of his admissions office have nicknamed Coffin “the dean-maker,” Korovikov said.

Additionally, Coffin established a unique and diverse admissions staff, according to Kembel and Korovikov.

“He’s not just looking for [admissions officers] who are going to agree with him,” Korovikov said. “He’s looking for people who are going to push him and challenge him.”

Working to Increase Access

Coffin was the first person in his family to graduate from college, and he believes that his background is inseparable from his career in admissions. Every institution for which he has worked, including Tufts, has been committed to providing a transformative experience for students, he said.

“I start with that because it’s in my DNA as a person, and…as an admission officer, what drew me to Tufts initially was the very egalitarian mission of the institution,” Coffin said.

The Tufts statement about Coffin’s departure also described Coffin as a persistent and powerful advocate for increasing financial aid. Coffin said he continually lobbies administrators to expand the aid budget. Glaser said that Tufts has responded to Coffin’s call for more aid.

“The university has committed evermore resources to financial aid in part because we knew that, in Dean Coffin’s hands, if he has the right resources, we should be able to improve the quality of our students,” Glaser said.

In particular, Coffin has overseen changes to Tufts’ admissions policy for undocumented students. According to an April 13, 2015 Daily article, the admissions office now admits students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status and treats them like all other U.S. residents.

However, students say Tufts still has a long way to go in terms of making Tufts a more diverse and affordable community.

Last semester, about 200 students marched with #TheThreePercent movement to demand that Tufts increase the number of Black students on campus and increase its financial support of Black students, among other demands. According to the 2013 Diversity Report, the numbers of American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American and Hispanic students on campus have decreased since 2003.

Despite Coffin’s commitment to admitting a diverse range of students, he said he is limited by Tufts’ financial aid resources.

“As fast as they raise the resources, I will happily spend them,” Coffin said. “Will is not the issue. You can’t spend what you don’t have.”

Glaser said that while Tufts is proud to meet all demonstrated need for admitted students, it does not have the resources to return to following a need-blind admissions policy. Tufts previously maintained a need-blind policy for two years before returning to the current system in 2009, as the Daily reported in an April 2, 2009 article.

Taliaferro explained that Tufts was able to offer need-blind admissions for two years back then because of a one-time gift that was designated for immediate use, but since then, the university has been forced to consider some applicants’ financial need during the admissions process.

“Every year, in March and April, these tough decisions have to be made, and it pains [Coffin],” Taliaferro said. “But that’s unfortunately the world in which we live.”

Coffin said Tufts’ policy of extending full financial aid offers to all accepted students is ultimately more important than a need-blind policy.

“If someone said to…pick which one is more sacrosanct, there’s no question,” Coffin said. “You can shape a class with a need-sensitive lens without abandoning your priorities. You just have to make choices.”

2/12/16 – Medford/Somerville, MA –Current Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin has accepted a job as Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth College which will begin July 1. He poses in Bendetson on Feb. 12, 2016. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily) (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily)

Current Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin has accepted a job as Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth College which will begin July 1. He poses with his dog Logan in Bendetson on Feb. 12. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily)

New Challenges at Dartmouth

Coffin explained that he was first recruited by Dartmouth last fall, and he received a formal job offer several weeks ago. He said he senses that an exciting new challenge awaits him there and that he is excited to build a narrative for their school.

“It reinvigorates me to learn a new story, to look under the hood again,” Coffin said.  “I’m eager to learn [Dartmouth’s] story and tell it, to garner the resources to help the campus meet its goals.”

Coffin said it is healthy to bring in new people to fill administrative positions like the one he currently holds at Tufts from time to time. Nevertheless, he said he will miss the Tufts community immensely.

“I didn’t go to Tufts, but over the 13 years I feel very much like I’m a Jumbo,” Coffin said, with a tear in his eye. “I will leave at the end of the semester with this indelible connection to this place.”

Coffin joked about the emotion that he felt while speaking about his time at Tufts, calling himself the “John Boehner of college admissions.”

Glaser said that he and Coffin entered the Tufts administration on the same day, and that he will miss Coffin’s insight and humor.

“I’m proud to be associated with him, and I think he’s ready for the next challenge,” Glaser said. “[The next Dean of Admissions] will be coming trying to fill very big shoes.”

Kembel said the admissions staff found out that Coffin was leaving the same week that the university made the formal announcement. She said the staff was shocked and somewhat devastated at first.

“[Coffin] is a master—he’s able to keep a lot of the Tufts vision in mind as he’s building the class with so many moving parts,” Kembel said.

First-year Gillian Davis feels that Coffin is responsible for the strength of the Tufts community.

“He’s like this mythical figure that you always knew was different from other college admissions officers, and he [is] down-to-earth and funny,” Davis said.

Taliaferro is similarly thankful for Coffin’s work, and said that Tufts has undeniably risen in intellectual tenor since Coffin arrived.

“All of us…owe Lee Coffin a tremendous ‘thank you’ for the hard work that he has done,” Taliaferro said. “We are a much better community for his hard work.”