Obituary: Former VP, Admission Director Was Visionary Architect of Change at CMU

Bill Elliott was a friend, mentor, "wise shepherd” to thousands of students, faculty and staff

Bill Elliott, a former longtime vice president for enrollment at Carnegie Mellon University who played a key role in the university’s rise to global prominence, died Wednesday, Dec. 4, in Florida. He was 77.

Elliott was a 38-year veteran at CMU, serving more than three decades as director of admission and vice president for enrollment. Always in the office before sunrise and still there after sunset, many remember him for his tireless work ethic, his green felt-tip pens, his office chock-full of CMU memorabilia, his khakis and penny loafers, and his soft-top red jeep. But it was his loyalty and devotion to the university and its students, and his endearing friendships that stand out most.

"Bill will be remembered for so many things: his fierce passion for CMU and especially its students, a ’roll up your sleeves’ data-driven approach which was characteristic of those who built CMU in the beginning and as it transitioned to an internationally known powerhouse, his sense of justice and doing the right thing, and limitless willingness to listen and help,” said Mary Jo Dively, vice president and general counsel.  

"He was a wise shepherd to the thousands of students, faculty and staff who came to CMU during his extraordinary tenure (including me),” Dively said. "Even when he retired, we knew we would see him several times a year as he continued to provide service to the university he loved, and we looked forward to that. It is difficult to accept that we will not again hear his laugh, enjoy his ready smile, receive his compassion, or be grilled, Elliott-fashion, on the issue of the day. Long before we were saying it, Bill was ’so CMU.’

Gina Casalegno, vice president and dean of students, called Elliott a giant in his field and a consummate innovator who epitomized the "Carnegie Mellon way.”

"Bill challenged us to face change head on with one of his maxims: ’we’ve got to do old jobs new ways,’” she said. "I’m grateful I had the opportunity to learn from Bill’s leadership, experience and wisdom. Although Bill retired years ago, he remained an ardent champion of the Tartan student experience.”

Elliott joined Carnegie Mellon as associate director of admission in 1970 from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and by April 1971 took over the reigns as admission director. During that decade, he saw a decline in high school graduates in the state, which at that time made up the majority of Carnegie Mellon’s recruiting base.

Elliott brought a marketing approach to the Admission Office and initiated new activities to recruit students, such as regional area recruiting programs and sleeping bag weekends, which allowed students to experience life on campus. He also led the effort to include students’ parents in the recruiting process and extended the reach of student recruiting trips across the U.S. 

Dean of Admission and alumnus Mike Steidel said Elliott is considered a "visionary” and "one of the greats” in the college admission profession for his innovations.

"He challenged us to think that a student’s college enrollment choice was largely a function of market position and net price, which ultimately formed the foundation for what is now known as financial aid leveraging,” Steidel said. "While many colleges did their best to minimize risk, Bill created an environment that encouraged us to take risks that could lead to tremendous competitive advantage by being creative with the resources we had. 

"Bill had the special ability to draw out the absolute best in those around him. I’m forever grateful for the impact he made on campus and in my life,” Steidel said.

Eric Grotzinger, professor emeritus of biological sciences, praised Elliott for being an "architect of change.”

Bill Elliott (left) and Eric Grotzinger share a laugh at Elliott’s retirement party in 2008.

"Bill helped advance CMU from a regional technical school to a global power that attracted students from around the world,” Grotzinger said. "He understood college admissions and financial aid better than anyone I have ever met. 

"He was an amazing colleague, mentor and friend not only to me but to many people on our campus. He taught me how to be a leader, how to recruit good people and how to build a team. He was a force of nature,” Grotzinger said.  

The enhanced recruiting efforts, combined with Carnegie Mellon’s rise in stature as a top 25 international university has led to more than 22,000 applications for less than 1,400 first-year spots annually - a far cry from an average of about 3,500 applications a year in the 1970s.

Elizabeth Yazemboski, senior director of strategy for event and program development, served as Elliott’s assistant for seven years.

"He connected with everyone on campus and poured his heart out for the school,” she said.

Elliott was the founder of CMU’s Summer Academy for Math and Science (SAMS), an enrichment program for underrepresented minority high school students. The program builds the talent pool for colleges and universities by allowing students to develop deeper understanding in areas such as mathematics, biology, physics and computer programming. He also was instrumental in establishing the Carnegie Mellon Academic Resource Center, an academic support center for students.

"Bill was a true pioneer in his commitment to diversity and to leveraging financial aid to create access to the university for those who would have otherwise been unable to afford it,” said Michael Murphy, distinguished service professor in the College of Engineering. "Bill loved Carnegie Mellon and he had a special connection to our students and alumni. He was passionate about getting the finest people through the door, and keeping them here, while ensuring the CMU experience grew in depth and breadth in and out of the classroom.

"Bill was my mentor and friend, as he was to countless others whose professional and personal lives were deeply influenced by the opportunities he afforded us,” said Murphy, a former dean of student affairs who succeeded Elliott as vice president before moving to the faculty. "He was selfless in a way that is quite extraordinary for someone of such talent, and that made him an especially powerful force in the life of this university.”  

Provost Jim Garrett has stayed in touch with Elliott over the years and recently had dinner at Elliott’s home in Maine, where they discussed enhancing the student experience and increasing diversity among the student community.

"Bill never stopped thinking about how to make Carnegie Mellon a better place,” said Garrett, who was admitted to CMU during Elliott’s tenure as admission director. "Bill was an amazing force for good at CMU. He cared deeply about CMU and had an amazing understanding of what made CMU tick and made it a great place to be. CMU is a much better place because of Bill Elliott. I will miss him.”

Elliott played an integral part in the university’s decision-making process under three university presidents - Richard Cyert, Robert Mehrabian and Jared L. Cohon - directing myriad departments and divisions under his purview as vice president. 

"When I think of Bill, I think of his commitment to and love for the university and its people - students, staff and faculty alike,” Cohon said. "His office was a veritable museum of CMU memorabilia - and a collection of red jeeps, of course. We relied on Bill for his leadership of everything from all aspects of student affairs to campus police. He was a great colleague. We were sorry to see him go when he decided to retire, and now we are deeply saddened that we’ve lost him.”

Elliott was very much involved in the growth of the university’s Pittsburgh campus. He was among the decision-makers driving CMU’s East Campus Project, which included the University Center, the West Wing and Resnik residence halls, Gesling Stadium and the parking garage. He also is recognized for his efforts in establishing CMU’s campus in Qatar. Chuck Thorpe, the first dean of CMU-Q , called him the "driving force in getting the Qatar campus up and running.” 

Elliott was a recipient of Carnegie Mellon’s Robert E. Doherty Prize for Sustained Contributions to Excellence in Education. When he retired in 2008, the undergraduate admission lounge in Warner Hall was renamed for him and a scholarship was created in his name for deserving SAMS students. At his retirement party, President Cohon presented him with a special Andy Award for Exemplary Service, representing his excellence in all five staff award categories: dedication, innovation, commitment to students, citizenship and culture.

Elliott earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1966, a master’s degree in psychology from Clark University in 1969, and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh.

He is survived by his wife Cathy Rispoli and daughters Penny (Sandy Hays) and Jennifer, and granddaughter Ava. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Joan. A memorial service will be planned in the future.  

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