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Kinnally plunges into life at Stanford

When Robert Kinnally was applying to graduate schools in English 15 years ago, he pulled out a map and drew a circle around Palo Alto.

"Stanford was my dream school," recalls the new dean of admission and financial aid. Kinnally (pronounced Kin-AY-lee) succeeds James Montoya, who was promoted to vice provost of student affairs last spring. "I hadn't visited the campus, but I had read everything I could get my hands on about it. I paid for the bulletin and read it from cover to cover. I didn't even know where Palo Alto was, I was so 'East Coast.' But I wanted to come here so badly."

Kinnally was accepted to Stanford, but he reluctantly declined the offer of admission for financial reasons. Instead, he opted for New York University, where he was able to keep a part-time job that he held at the time.

While attending NYU, a friend told Kinnally about an admissions job at a local university. He was quick to submit an application. "It sounded great: travel, an academic setting, the chance to meet lots of interesting people. It was a wonderful opportunity. I mean, here I was, a starving graduate student dressed in a suit, driving a spiffy rental car and sporting an expense account. Life was good."

He soon discovered that what he loved best about the job was the chance to make a difference in the lives of young people. "When I saw that perfect match between student and college, there was nothing else like it," says Kinnally, who describes his own undergraduate experience at Manhattan College, his father's alma mater, as "life-changing."

"College gave me a voice," says Kinnally, who earned his bachelor's degree in 1982 and his master's degree in English and American literature in 1987. "It gave me a reason to read lots of books and get credit for it. It taught me another language, how to be a better musician [he plays the organ], how to think critically and how to contribute to the world around me. College taught me to learn for the rest of my life."

Working in college admissions, in turn, has given Kinnally the opportunity to "spread this kind of good news about college" to thousands of high school students each year. "If I can get them truly excited about that next step, then I've done a good job," he says.

His 14 years of admissions experience include three years as dean of admission at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. During his tenure as dean of the small liberal arts school, the number of applications received by the school nearly doubled, from 1,000 to 1,700.

"We re-examined virtually everything we did," says Kinnally. "We re-did every publication, for example, not to sell the place, but to be more up-front about what we had to offer. We used language that was clearer. It was a no-brainer." Other initiatives his office undertook to strengthen its applicant pool included working more with alumni, current students and faculty.

Stanford's admission office, under Montoya's leadership, has taken similar steps in recent years to improve the annual admission and selection process.

"What is so stunning about Stanford is that we get so many applications from so many of the best students in the country, yet, at the same time, there is always a constant movement toward betterment," observes Kinnally. "People are always asking themselves, 'How can we make a Stanford education better?' and 'How can we make it feel like a slightly smaller place?' "

Last year, Stanford received roughly 15,000 more applications than Sarah Lawrence did. But the difference in scale doesn't seem to faze Kinnally. "So many of the concepts in admissions are the same," he says. "What is different is the nature of the place. And what I know here is that there is an incredibly strong staff that knows how to get it done."

The task at hand is to attract the widest range of the nation's most accomplished students to apply to Stanford, Kinnally says.

"We want to make this place available to a wide number of students because that makes this campus a much more interesting place ­ a place that is much more like the world," he says. "We want a diversity of ideas, of experiences, that makes an education rich. And we want the best students who are going to make the most significant contributions in a number of different areas, in the classroom and in the community. I think that's an incredibly noble goal."

To become an exceptional dean, Kinnally believes that he must "live and breathe" Stanford. To that end, he has attended orientation events and Reunion Homecoming Weekend, met with faculty and put in long hours at his office, overlooking the Old Union courtyard. "I really do want to be here a lot to get as many different perspectives as possible," he says.

A few weeks ago, Kinnally's father found the old map on which his son had drawn a circle around Palo Alto. Kinnally asked his father to send it to him so he can hang it up in his office.

If the new dean has his way, he will put Stanford and Palo Alto on the map for high school seniors who are getting ready to apply to college.


By Marisa Cigarroa

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