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Farmer’s work is driven by a quest for excellence and fairness

Steve Farmer
Steve Farmer

Stephen Farmer is a storyteller.

He believes a big part of the Carolina story reveals – and renews – itself each fall when a new class of undergraduates arrives on campus.

As the director of undergraduate admissions since 2004, Farmer regularly tells students’ stories to the Board of Trustees. In a few days, he will talk about the Class of 2014.

It is a story filled with impressive numbers, soaring SAT scores and ever-higher grade-point averages. In a sense, those statistics are a reflection of the job Farmer and the admissions staff have done recruiting some of the smartest students not only in North Carolina, but also across the country and around the world.

But Farmer likes to make people look beyond the numbers. Numbers can measure something of a person’s head, but reveal nothing of the heart. And it is these intangible qualities that Farmer and the admissions staff painstakingly look for each year sifting through some 24,000 applications to forge a class of 3,960.

Making a good decision about a prospective student requires taking into account the person’s background, opportunities he or she enjoyed and any obstacles that were overcome.

“We can’t use a formula to make our decisions, because people are people, not numbers,” Farmer said. “That can be frustrating for our candidates, because it can make it hard for them to predict their chances.  But the truth is, in order to treat everybody fairly, we can’t treat them quite the same.

“There are just so many individual circumstances that factor into how well students have done so far, and how well they’re likely to do from this point forward. Taking those things into account in a humane way, not in a rote or formulaic way, but in a supple way, a nuanced way – that’s the way you’re fair to people,” Farmer said.

There is no antagonism between being a great university and being diverse, welcoming and inclusive, he said. “Everybody here, I think, learns better when they learn in a community that’s as rich and diverse as the state we serve.”

Farmer’s story

If there is one story Farmer is reluctant to tell, it is his own.

His story is really the story of his parents, their opportunities and the opportunities they gave him. Both grew up in large farm families in the rolling hills of north central Virginia.

His mother graduated at the very top of her high school gradation class of 23 students. She wanted to be a teacher, Farmer said, but she didn’t think it was possible, so after high school she went to work in the county office building, where she stayed for 42 years.

His father was a machinist in a factory working 10-hour days Monday through Friday and a half-day on Saturday to make ends meet.

“I sort of assumed I would go to college, but my parents didn’t because they didn’t know whether they could afford it,” Farmer said. “They didn’t have a lot of money and had no experience with financial aid.  But they always encouraged me, and they supported me every way they knew how.”

He was accepted at Duke University and received a merit scholarship that allowed him to graduate without any debt. After graduating in 1984 with a degree in English, Farmer entered graduate school at the University of Virginia with thoughts of becoming a professor.

But in 1993, he got his first professional job working in Virginia’s admissions office, where for the next seven years he led efforts to recruit students for the honors program.

His work changed when he came to Carolina in 2000 as associate director of undergraduate admissions, and in a way he did not fully understand at the time, Farmer said, so did he.

Service to the state

A fundamental part of the Carolina story is its long-standing commitment to the state, Farmer said. It is a story that reflects the University’s special relationship with the people of North Carolina.

“The University has a lot of things to do, and there’s no doubt that the best thing we can do for the state and the people here is to be a great research university.

“But beyond that, our trying to find ways to be a force for good, our using what we know for the good of all instead of the good of a few, I think those are things that a great public research university can do. I don’t know of any that does those things better than this one.”

You can see evidence of that commitment, he said, in programs such as the Carolina Covenant, which for the past seven years has enabled talented students from underprivileged backgrounds to graduate from Carolina debt-free.

And with the C-STEP program, which serves as a bridge for high-achieving students from community colleges to transfer to Carolina at the start of their junior years.

And with the Carolina College Advising Corps, which has helped students and parents in the far reaches of the state learn how to apply for admission to college and how to get financial aid.

“I don’t think there is any other university in the country that would let an admissions office do the kinds of things we’re encouraged to do, which is to strive for excellence, and at the same time, encourage all high school students throughout the state to go to college,” Farmer said.

Farmer’s commitment to the students he recruits, and the state he serves, helped him earn a 2010 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

“I was telling somebody a few months ago that I’m really lucky because the job I have here is unlike the job that any other admissions director has anywhere,” Farmer said. “It’s much more fun to serve a university that people really care about. I’m convinced that one reason they love it so much is that Carolina has always been a university that cares about people.

“That says nothing about me at all,” he added, “but it says everything about this place.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 15, 2010

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