Gaston Caperton overcame dyslexia to become a millionaire and rise to West Virginia’s highest office. Now he leads the venerable College Board into a new century – and, he hopes, a new relevancy – on the Web.
Published in Carolina Alumni Review, November/December 2000
He is needlessly narrow for a man of such wide ambitions. Gaston Caperton has a tall, thin frame, but he does not possess it the way most of us accept our builds and carry them with us for the lot of our days. He lives outside the boundaries of his trunk’s long, straight, economic lines, propelled by a mind restless for accomplishment. Meanwhile, his limbs are left to catch up, discombobulated and noodly – a leg crooked at the knee and propped on a table here, a stray hand probing the fleece of gray hair as though by accident. His brown eyes are stubbornly squinty. Even the ashy circles and lines on his 60-year-old face contend with his tinny voice like a haggard pugilist backed into yesterday’s corner.
Cross currents, and crosses to bear. So strong that they make it both possible and impossible to believe Caperton has been a two-term governor of West Virginia and a millionaire. Now, as president of the College Board – the nonprofit organization that has long struck fear in the hearts of high schoolers with its SAT and Advanced Placement tests – he confronts the opposing ebbs and flows of his life story most poignantly, sitting before a table of books in his Lincoln Square office in New York.
Just the thought of reading in a spotlight challenges his nerves like nothing else.
“If somebody came in here today and pulled one of these books off this table, and asked you to read it, you would do that with great confidence and it would sound great,” says Caperton, who was diagnosed with a “reversal reading” problem in the fourth grade. “But I would be scared when you gave me the book, and I’d be scared when I read it aloud. Still today.”
The disorder has been both his bane and his blessing.
“I have never thought of myself as very smart,” Caperton wrote in an essay for his high school alumni magazine in 1996. “My dad…taught me to read, word by word. We got up early every morning, and I sat at the foot of his bed and learned how to hear the words, see the words, spell the words, read the words, and understand what they mean. Ten new words every day.”
“A lot of things were very difficult for me,” Caperton says today. “But I worked very hard, and when you’re able to overcome those things, you develop traits that help you throughout life. And those are advantages to you.”
Of course, the poetic irony nearly drips from the story line. The College Board – a creation of Ivy League universities that once were populated only by graduates of New England’s boarding schools, chooses a man who battled dyslexia – attended a public university and became a popular education governor in a state that often is known solely by its economic bleak holes, to lead it into its 100th year. When you add to the scenario the recurring controversies over the SAT – pick your peccadillo: relevancy, racial discrimination, economic bias, disability unfairness – the choice of the first College Board president not to come from academia becomes even more interesting.
But Caperton’s selection in July 1999 wasn’t about poetry or poster-boys for over-achievement, or even perfecting the SAT’s mechanics. It was about the bottom line.
“The College Board was thriving; there were escalating numbers of SAT takers, escalating numbers of students taking AP [Advanced Placement] courses, and never a deficit,” said John Hamill, a board spokesman. “But [Caperton] thought that if the College Board didn’t look forward it eventually would be endangered. Hence, the dot-com plan and a very aggressive AP expansion.”
At the College Board, it was once sufficient activity for the nonprofit to accept its registration fees for the SAT and quietly advertise its test-preparation materials within cheaply made booklets. No more. With the explosion of the Web, for-profit services such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review were running away with the test-prep market. And when parents weren’t paying $300 to $5,400 to help students as early as the ninth grade to polish their test scores, applications and interviews, they were seeking the services of independent SAT tutors whose weekly conferences with students have cost some families up to $25,000 – easily the price of tuition of at some universities.
The system of college preparation was changing, and the very organization that represents admissions officers was getting beat at its own game.
Enter Caperton. Before he was a politician, he turned his father’s company, McDonough Caperton Insurance Group, into a million-dollar venture. Before he’d even hung his first piece of colorful artwork on his office walls at the College Board, he axed four vice presidents who were earning in excess of $100,000 a year. In 18 months, he’s given at least 11 executives their walking papers. The force with which he is transforming a once-deliberative, academically entrenched nonprofit into an efficient operation with broad vision is so swift that Caperton has not made the time to find a permanent home in New York, instead choosing to sublet a tiny apartment on the Upper West Side.
He is a man impatient for improvement. Always.
“I came in here to strengthen this organization. I had to reorganize and bring in new leadership,” Caperton says “One of the hardest things in restructuring any organization is oftentimes people don’t fit in the new structure. No one likes those kinds of heart-wrenching changes.”
He says that he isn’t troubled by College Board members who were rankled at first by his quick, non-consultative actions because “there are always doubters and cynics, and even a few people who just don’t want you to succeed. I’ve had to fight that battle most of my life, and the only way you win that battle is to prove yourself….When they see they can benefit by it, the doubters become your greatest supporters. We’re seeing that happen now.”
The most visible of Caperton’s new ventures is collegeboard.com, a for-profit spin-off of the organization’s members-oriented Web site, which was launched this fall. Through it, the College Board intends to promote its test-prep services in a flashier fashion and to hook college-bound kids early onto its brand name and off such behemoth competitors as Kaplan and the Princeton Review.
“We’re the people who do the test,” says Caperton, “so we should be able to better prepare students for the test than anyone else. We’re able to take test-prep courses to students for a very low cost now for those who want to prepare for it.”
The Web site, once rather sullen for 14-year-old eyes, is now as teen connected and teen targeted as a Backstreet Boys commercial for Burger King aired on MTV. Students (and their parents) can patch into the site to investigate and, in some cases, even apply to colleges as well as scan a list of well-known entertainers and their alma maters. Much space is devoted to relieving fears about finances and trumpeting the value of a college degree. Included among its features is a “SAT Question and Word of the Day” link – the sort of daily routine maker that could turn into a hit parade for the site while generating profits for its test-preparation products.
“Basically kids can come to us just to learn about college early on, and then later to register to take the SAT and to sign up for tutoring and then to apply to colleges,” he says. “As early as the eighth grade, collegeboard.com can be their home to do everything you need to prepare for college.”
The dot-com, as Caperton calls it, won’t draw its funds from the SAT’s profits. That’s left many College Board members and other observers questioning how the commercial Web site can court advertisers and investors without compromising the integrity of its products or exploiting impressionable students who, according to one advertisement in the Village Voice, already are offered such candy apples as the opportunity to win free rent for a year from the Princeton Review just for signing up for its prep courses.
Caperton assures that he is committed to carefully promoting the College Board’s services through the dot-com.
“Colleges and universities with athletic programs have various places where they can display advertising, in arenas, so the standard we adhere to is the standard of 3,800 institutions that we represent,” says Caperton. “Dot-com has to have just as high standards as we do at the College Board. Our missions are very similar. And we can’t let one or the other hurt the overall image, because we’re so connected.”
But the real question may be whether the dot-com can compete with the two largest for-profit college prep companies and their sites, Kaplan and the Princeton Review. While all three organizations clearly benefit from the SAT’s existence, John Katzman, president of the Princeton Review, often has been its harshest critic and admitted in a New York Times article that his prep courses are aimed at outsmarting the test, rather than improving test-taking skills. Katzman’s strategy feeds the sentiment that often prevails among students and their parents in today’s climate: The way to get into college is to beat the test and the admissions office.
It’s a culture of fear that rankles Caperton. He believes collegeboard.com will defeat its competitors by taking the high road and offering “a trusted source” for prep services.
“There are some SAT testing services that have sort of promoted [going around the system] as a way of building their business,” he says. “They say, ‘These people are trying to keep you out, they’re trying to beat you and we’ll help you overcome the system. That is not the truth. It’s being very cynical to think that…it isn’t a fair process.”
But while Caperton may face an uphill battle with students who see the College Board as the enemy, he brings an ally to his position that any nonprofit would envy: political connections. Previous College Board presidents might not have been savvy enough to know how to get things done; but Caperton, a former chair of the National Governor’s Conference, has an expansive Rolodex that includes the likes of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who has said he will spend $1.6 million to fortify the number of PSAT-takers and wants to make AP studies a core part of Florida classrooms. Florida also will be among the target areas for launching the College Board System – an evolving idea “where we can work within the school system to enrich it…to take every student in the eighth grade and tell them what they have to do to go to college.” Caperton isn’t interested solely in research and abstracts: “I’m a good dreamer and a I’m a good doer,” he says. “And I think the world today requires people to do a little leaping and learning.”
For all his ambition, it is clear that Caperton has spent most of his life in an almost force-fed defiance of his own shortcomings. As a child, he recalls, he and the other children on his street often would gather at someone’s house after an afternoon playing football. They would pull out comic books, and while his friends soaked in the stories, Caperton sat unabsorbed, and uninitiated. “I couldn’t understand why people enjoyed that because all I could do was look at the pictures,” he says. “One of the most difficult things about being dyslexic is that, because you have a hard time reading when you’re really young and you have these other problems as a result, it’s hard for you to think you’re really smart. But you’re smart in a lot of ways many other people aren’t.”
Caperton has learned, he says, to compensate for the absence of advanced degrees on his resume by surrounding himself with natural academicians, who have helped hold the ladders he determinedly climbs. “I always have a lot smarter people working for me than I am,” he says. “I respect that, and I expect that. When I was a little kid I always thought everyone was smarter than me so I was always comfortable around them. I want smart people, I want the best, most aggressive and progressive people I can get. And I’m very comfortable with that. A lot of people aren’t. I admire that in people. I do everything I can to encourage and be a part of that kind of atmosphere.”
Still, even the mightiest tyrannies-over-self suffer abortions of strength. In the public eye, Caperton’s regime sometimes falters in the form of nervous mannerisms, which often twitter tentatively into his speech as well. As governor, he spent enormous amounts of time studying speeches, such as the State of the State Address, training his mind to see the words in the correct order while he read them. His staff at the College Board has learned how to put his puzzles together efficiently: Facts and bulletins are presented to him in point-by-point fashion so they are processed more quickly.
But he also has, says Hamill, an uncanny ability to pick out the soul of a problem and direct its solution, the quality of a cunning politician, one you’ll often hear assigned to his fellow former governor, Bill Clinton. It is not the only similarity between the two. In 1996, a Time magazine article called him a “chip off the Clinton block,” as a governor from a poor state who created his success by concentrating on the everybody’s-for-it issue of education.
When Caperton shocked state politics in 1988 by winning the Democratic gubernatorial primary as an unknown, his competition’s pollster attributed it to his millionaire ranking.
“People here don’t read,” the Beltway consultant told the Charleston Daily Mail. “Demographically, if you look at the adult population of West Virginia, they would probably not be regarded as the most educated in the country.”
In fact, when Caperton took office, where he served from 1988 to 1996, the state’s SAT scores were far higher than many other Southern states including North Carolina’s. But the perception that education was lagging behind the nation in his home state and the lessons he learned from studying Terry Sanford’s theories about unifying education with job creation troubled Caperton enough that he focused his office on it.
“I’m not surprised that he’s made education his life work,” said Paul Owens, who covered Caperton for six years as political editor of the Daily Mail. “Education by far was the area with the greatest successes.”
Owens said Caperton is comfortable with tough decisions but that as governor there were political ramifications and a Legislature with which to contend. “He said in his re-election in 1992 that he planned to cut the state payroll by 10 percent,” Owens said. “He made a few attempts but was rebuffed by the Legislature. He was never able to cut state government the way he promised….It’s interesting to me that at the College Board he did not have to worry about going through a legislative branch.”
After a statewide and rancorous teachers strike, Caperton found the budget to raise salaries from 49th in the country to 31st. He built and renovated schools across the state. And by the time he finished office, oft-scoffed-at West Virginia boasted more computers in classrooms than any other state in the nation.
Unlike Clinton in Arkansas, however, Caperton did not grow up poor. He attended West Virginia’s public schools through the ninth grade, when he transferred to the private Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va. His family owned a successful insurance business in the capital city of Charleston that Caperton joined after his time at UNC and from which he eventually made himself a millionaire – a rare thing in the Mountain State, which consistently ranks among the lowest in per capita income and highest in unemployment.
He has always lived beyond the limitations of his circumstances, always battled the cross currents with aplomb.
Caperton, who says he never had to interview for a job until the College Board presidency, (and says he wouldn’t have won the position if his own SAT scores had counted in the hiring process) doesn’t deny his privileged background. He chose UNC after his older sister, Cary Caperton Owen ’56, turned him onto Chapel Hill and after a football injury took away his chances of playing quarterback for a smaller college. Good schools and a good family helped him overcome dyslexia. And it would be difficult to deny that he enjoys surrounding himself with items and people of prestige, from the Calder print in his office and his mansion in Shepherdstown, W.Va., to the two women with whom he shared his life: ex-wives Dee Caperton Kessel, a former Miss West Virginia and state representative whom he divorced shortly after gaining office and who died of cancer in September; and Rachael Worby, a respected conductor who runs the children’s orchestra at Carnegie Hall and who brought great color, if controversy, to her role as first lady of the state.
But Caperton’s penchant for privilege has gotten him into trouble in the past. In 1994, while hosting the National Governors’ Conference at the five-star resort The Greenbrier, about 100 miles east of Charleston, he was asked how attendees might get a more realistic picture of the poor, rural side of West Virginia. In the Charleston Gazette, Caperton remarked that he wanted to showcase his state, that if the meeting “was being held in New York City, I suspect that it would be held in one of the downtown hotels, not in the middle of Harlem.” Needless to say, Harlem officials were less than pleased and name-calling ensued, with Caperton quickly issuing an apology and a nod to the borough for its revitalization efforts.
Now that he is a sometime-resident of New York, Caperton is fond of telling, and retelling, the story of his visit to a Harlem school during a recent six-city tour to promote the College Board’s initiatives. At the Frederick Douglas Academy, a mostly black public school where all 134 of last year’s graduates headed to college, strong curriculum and intense nightly study are the norm. Caperton walked into an assembly, sat down and encountered a student sitting next to him who introduced himself as “Mr. Math.”
The student had explained: “I had Mr. Nixon in the eighth grade and I learned math. I just got it.” By the 10th grade, he was tutoring seniors in math.
“I believe there are a lot of Mr. Maths,” says Caperton. Those Mr. Maths “need to get the opportunity to meet their potential.”
The College Board’s biggest thrust at equity under Caperton will be its push to double the number of students taking AP courses, from 1.2 million to 2.4 million, and to increase the percentage of schools that offer the courses from its current 67 percent to include all high schools. It’s an idea U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, whom Caperton lists as a reference on his College Board biography, also has championed.
Where the SAT is left in all this talk of a bold new College Board is unsure. The public clamors, the researchers research, and the board steadfastly stands by the test’s relevancy even while admitting that it’s not an all-inclusive measure of a student’s collegiate worthiness. All of which leaves the 74-year-old test, like Caperton’s jittery energy, gesturing at times without defined purpose. At least, in the eyes of 10 schools that have dropped it as an admissions requirement over the past 30 years.
Caperton says that he remains confident in the SAT’s future, that such a minor percentage is not an impressive argument for the test’s withering. And while that seems a reasonable assessment, he nonetheless spends a good portion of his time proactively chiding the SAT’s critics, firing off letters to the editor whenever the test’s efficacy is discussed. Yesterday, The New York Times; today, Time magazine.
And you can bet those are letters that make it into print. The weight Caperton’s name carries in policy circles plays nicely into the College Board’s current battles with Kaplan and the Princeton Review for high school students’ souls, as well as its own historical fiefdom over higher-ed testing. It’s a dominance and, some might say, arrogance, that dates to the mid-1900s. Back then, as Nicholas Lemann wrote in his recent book The Big Test, the board’s common reaction to any new testing organization that came along was “a surge of indignation over its temerity in coming into the world, followed by all-out competition.”
Some things don’t change. Caperton has been a one-man protection agency for each group or constituency he’s touched. Like the sign above his desk that proclaims “Angel on Guard,” he successfully plays defender for whatever he lends his name to, be it a business, a state, a cause or a man’s self-worth.
“Am I an educator?” he asks. “Well, some people would not classify me that way, not having been a person that has a degree in education or a Ph.D. But I certainly do consider myself a leader in education. The wonderful thing about this job is that everything that I’ve ever done in my life prepared me for it. It’s just luck.
“Actually,” he recants, giving a short nod seemingly to himself, seeing the currents of his mind and his life flow together at last, “I’d rather say grace than luck.”