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Where Leadership Counts More Than SAT Scores

by Mar. 11, 2008, 11:09 AM

Michael-Ainslie

Fifteen years ago Michael Ainslie, then president and CEO of Sotheby’s Holdings, learned about an effort to help inner-city kids succeed in college. “It was so simple and so beautiful and so obvious,” he remembers thinking. “Young people coming from some of the worst high schools to some of the best universities in the country need support to succeed.”

The fledgling program was the brainchild of Deborah Bial, “a bright, idealistic young social entrepreneur with a big idea but no experience building a board or setting up a nonprofit,” Ainslie says. Bial, president and founder of the Posse Foundation, was inspired to do something after she watched too many promising inner-city students drop out of college–including one who said he would have succeeded if only he’d had his “posse” with him for support.

With Bial as president and founder and Ainslie, BA’65, as board chair for the past 15 years, the Posse Foundation has become the leading college access program in the country, sending more than 1,800 inner-city students to college. Posse Scholars enter with SAT scores typically below the norm of the rest of the class, yet more than 90 percent complete college. And 75 percent of Posse Scholars serve as presidents of at least one organization on their campuses.

Vanderbilt was the first university to partner with Posse, beginning in 1989 when it brought five students from New York City to Nashville on full-tuition scholarships. Today Posse has 28 university and college partners and draws students from Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.

“We want to look ahead in a few years and see a country where the people sitting in the CEO’s chairs and heading our hospitals and universities are as diverse as the rest of the country,” says Ainslie. “We’re not looking for the obvious kids who got 1400 on their SATs. We’re looking for the kid who’s got real spark, real leadership ability.”

“We’re not looking for the obvious kids who got 1400 on their SATs. We’re looking for the kid who’s got real spark, real leadership ability.”

~Michael Ainslie

Posse students are selected in groups of 10 from the same city, and all attend the same university together. After they are chosen in the fall of their senior year of high school, they go through a 36-week curriculum that helps them polish study and writing skills, discuss race and gender issues, and work on being leaders.

“By the time they start college, they have probably spent 100 hours with their ‘posse.’ They know each other, trust each other, and in some cases have had fights with each other just like a family,” says Ainslie. “They come to college with the advantage of a really tight bond.”

At college, Posse students stay in touch with their trainers by e-mail, phone, and through trainer visits to the campus. Each university with a Posse program also funds a mentor. Potential academic or social problems are identified early, while they’re still fixable.

What does the university get in return? Whether the school is a research university like Vanderbilt or Brandeis, or a liberal arts college like the University of the South or Grinnell College, “they probably have a homogeneity problem,” Ainslie says. Bringing in student leaders from diverse backgrounds helps attract other students.

“One of the training elements we provide Posse kids is in intercultural communication to get people to open up and talk about important issues.”

A president of the student body while he was at Vanderbilt, Ainslie draws deep satisfaction in the fact that two of Vanderbilt’s Posse Scholars also have been student presidents.

“I was a small-town East Tennessee kid,” he says. “We did not have a lot of money, and I came to Vanderbilt only because of scholarships.” Now chair of Ainslie Ventures Inc. and a member of Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust since 1991, he is stepping down as Posse chair, “purely because I’ve been chair for too long,” he says. “I’m going to continue on the board.”

“I don’t know where the Posse Foundation would be today were it not for Michael. He’s been an incredible steward of the organization,” says Bial. “Because of his inspired leadership, Posse has been able to develop strong roots and will continue to serve deserving students well into the future.”

Nowadays, the organization frequently turns away universities that would like to be a part of Posse. Ainslie takes particular pride in the fact that Vanderbilt helped start it all.

“Vanderbilt has made huge progress in diversity during the last 15 years,” Ainslie says. “And having a university of Vanderbilt’s stature sign on as a partner was absolutely pivotal to the success of Posse. Other universities look at our list to see who our partners are. Vanderbilt has been there from Day One, starting with [former Chancellor] Joe B. Wyatt, and remains as a partner. That’s been an enormously valuable calling card.”

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