Princeton vs. Yale: Post-Frenzy Boredom in Admissions?

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, August 16, 2002

Last summer, the big news was Enron — and the president of the United States falling down and bonking his head after choking on a pretzel. This summer, it’s still Enron, plus WorldCom and AOL Time Warner and Martha Stewart — but no snack food has threatened our national security. There have been, however, at least a couple of great news stories.

Take the invasion of the snakehead, an immigrant fish from China that can grow up to three feet long, walk on its pectoral fins, and spend as much as three days on land, eating everything in sight, including, maybe, small children and dogs. How could you possibly find a story that tops the snakehead for banner-headline giggles?

Easy. By discovering that, for no apparent reason, Princeton trespassed on Yale’s admissions efforts. In April, an associate dean and director of admissions at Princeton used his office computer to read confidential information about applicants posted on Yale’s admissions-office Web site. There was apparently nothing to be gained — all decisions had already been made — and it wasn’t exactly high-tech espionage. More like low-tech peeping. Yes, unquestionably it was ethically troubling, but move over, Martha? Make room, WorldCom? This belongs on the front page of The New York Times?

Is the interest by the news media merely a case of Ivy-Leaguenfreude, an irresistible and collective joy in seeing the elite shattered, laid low by either arrogance or stupidity? Is it because, after so many stories about the white-knuckle anxiety that surrounds admission to highly selective colleges — the pressure, the competition, the cutthroat, sometimes hinky tactics on the part of applicants — the focus has now shifted to those doing the admitting and their own world of pressure, competition, and cutthroat, sometimes hinky tactics?

Or is it simply the case that folks are figuring out that, like Big Business, the Roman Catholic Church, and Martha, the Ivory Tower might be less than pure? The news this spring that one of the Ivies, no name needed, was considering allowing kids to enroll who had broken a binding commitment to another among the august group of institutions only heightened the sense of outrage. Is this what we’ve come to? Is this college admissions in the age of Enron?

Then there’s the secrecy. The work of the admissions office is shrouded in darkness — even faculty members rarely know who staffs it or how it works. Which one of us doesn’t want to lift the veil and do a little peeping of our own? Especially those parents among the reading public who have a very real fear — there’s no other word for it — of the whole process.

I’ve worked in admissions, and I don’t believe that, as a business, it is corrupt. It just lacks imagination. No one grows up wanting to be a college-admissions dean. It’s a profession that people fall into, people who like to be around universities but don’t really have the desire, or perhaps the knack, for scholarly work. And it allows you to sit in judgment without ever exposing yourself, sort of like being a psychiatrist.

A few years ago, the Journal of College Admission started a column asking admissions deans to contribute essays answering the questions on their own applications. They asked me to write one. “I’m not a dean,” I said. “Ask a dean.” “I have,” said the dean who began the column. “No one will do it.” That response, he said, bespoke a silence more embarrassing than any essay written by an applicant.

When I worked at Duke, there was talk of having admissions-staff members take the SAT, to remember what the test was like and perhaps be more sympathetic to students who had to endure it. You would have thought, from the reaction, that it was a proposal for each person to take a 75-percent pay cut.

Even if they don’t take a lot of intellectual risks, however, admissions professionals do have that pressure. Gotta get better and better classes, gotta keep an eye on those rankings. With trustees and alumni and administrators looking over their shoulders, they scramble to get more applications. More applications, same number of acceptances — you do the math. U.S. News & World Report certainly does.

There’s another factor. You spend the fall traveling to high schools around the country, giving the same talk five times a day to students who look interchangeable and ask identical questions. Then you spend a couple of months at home, buried to your elbows in applications that are mind-numbingly similar. You read the same insipid essay over and over. Your eyes glaze over at the predictable lists of extracurricular activities. The teachers’ recommendations come out of the teachers’ computers year after year; sometimes you recognize not only the sentence constructions but also the sentences.

Then there’s the frenzy of activity in early spring, making the decisions, selecting the class. Each year, you make a small number of people very happy. And a larger number very mad, including the coaches, trustees, and professors who are all pushing their applicants. The development office reminds you about those buildings that need rebuilding and the state of the endowment.

At last, every application has a decision. It gets entered into the computer, the mail goes out. You relax. You clean your house, walk the dog, see your family again.

You have to show up at work. But now, when you go in, your desk is pristine. You play endless games of FreeCell. You take long lunches, walk around beautiful grounds on lovely spring days. More FreeCell.

Perhaps an analogy would help. A bunch of you kids are home alone. School’s out. Your parents are at work. Nothing to do. Tired of swimming and playing kick the can, you get an idea.

The wealthy and intimidating neighbors down the street have gone away. They left the keys to their house in plain view (OK, hidden under a rock behind a shrub, but still not hard to find). “Let’s just go in and snoop around a little,” you say to your friends.

You walk right in through the front door, marvel at the expensive furniture, even recognize some of the fine art on the walls. Tread on carpets older than your own country. Then you go into the kitchen. Behind the jars of fancy mustard, shoved behind the brie and portobello mushrooms, way in the back of the refrigerator, you see a brick of Velveeta and a can of Spam. Someone else checks out the medicine cabinet. Jackpot! A prescription for Viagra! And in the drawer by the bed — oh, my. Oh, my!

You have done no harm, you tell yourself and each other. You’ve just looked, touched not a thing. When the neighbors come home, you sidle up to them and make Velveeta and Viagra jokes. You can’t understand why they get so upset.

Don’t get me wrong. The Princeton snooping is a serious issue, a breach of not only ethics and confidentiality, but also plain good sense. One of the most important questions asked on any college application concerns disciplinary violations. Applicants are expected to come clean about any lapses in integrity. The notion that the people sitting in judgment of them might not feel the need to abide by similar standards does not sit well, nor should it.

But we’re talking FBI investigations here of someone who makes a whole lot less than the CEO of some huge corporation. Someone not motivated by greed, but maybe just boredom.

And, let’s face it, the snakehead is also a serious issue. Those suckers could disrupt the environment, especially if they start marching on their little pectoral fins toward Washington, eating everything in sight. On a hot summer day, in a year filled with real tragedy, it is kind of fun to read about such things.