Tuesday, March 26, 2013


My favorite time of the year as a sports fan is March Madness.  I find college basketball far more interesting than the NBA, and the NCAA tournament, especially the opening weekend, is unsurpassed for drama and the unexpected (all those who picked Florida Gulf Coast to make the Sweet Sixteen, raise your hand).

I never fill out a bracket because I don’t want my betting interests conflicting with my rooting interests.  I like underdogs, and am particularly drawn to good academic schools with competitive teams like Davidson, Butler, and Bucknell.  Like everyone in Richmond, I follow Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams, and this year I am enjoying the success of Wichita State.  Their coach, Gregg Marshall, played at Randolph-Macon when I taught there, and I think (but may be imagining) that I had him in class.

One of the big stories from the first weekend of the tournament was that a university both older and better known than Florida Gulf Coast won its first-ever NCAA tournament game.  On Thursday night 14th-seeded Harvard, the champions of the Ivy League (which doesn’t give athletic scholarships) upset New Mexico 68-62.  An article in the on-line magazine Slate, though, questions whether Harvard’s success is a victory for the forces of athletic purity or a sign that it has gone to the dark side when it comes to big-time athletics. 

Under coach Tommy Amaker, former star at Duke and head coach at Seton Hall and Michigan, Harvard has become a player in recruiting the kind of talent that hasn’t historically gone to the Ivy League, including two players who had to withdraw from school last spring after their involvement in the cheating scandal that rocked Harvard Yard.  Harvard’s rise in the college basketball world has led to concerns about recruiting tactics and admissions standards, but the biggest cause other than Amaker’s hiring is Harvard’s financial aid policy enabling students from low-income families to attend without having to pay.  If those students are athletes, they receive need-based financial aid comparable to receiving a full athletic scholarship.

It is clear that whatever issues Harvard may have with its basketball program pale when viewed against the landscape of Division 1 athletics, a world where madness isn’t limited to March.

The NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice identifies athletic recruiting as a “recognized exception,” but it increasingly seems that athletics has become a recognized exception to the values that otherwise guide higher education. Last month the University of Alabama offered a football scholarship to an 8th grader.  Last spring the University of Kentucky won the NCAA basketball championship with a lineup treating “college” basketball as a warmup for the NBA and no intention of getting a college education.  The Penn State scandal had its roots in the powerful hold that the football program has on the University community, and one consequence of the fraud in one academic department at the University of North Carolina was keeping athletes eligible.  I don’t for a minute believe that those are isolated incidents.

The challenges extend to the secondary side, where athletes change schools, sometimes annually, in search of playing time and a college scholarship.  A growing concern is the number of students who “reclassify” in order to play an extra year in high school.  That is a topic for a separate post, and there are legitimate developmental and educational reasons for students to do an extra year, but the widespread nature of the practice is troubling.  A year ago the top athlete at a rival school, a rising senior with a strong academic record, transferred to a league rival, reclassified as a junior, and shortly afterward verbally committed to play football at Stanford.

My college advisor was a Philosophy professor who also served as chair of the faculty committee on athletics.  I share with him the belief that athletics have educational value, that the playing field is its own classroom, as well as the belief that athletics aspires to physical excellence in the way that philosophy aspires to the excellence of the mind.

Ethics is about ideals, and it is hard to square educational ideals with the reality of big-time college sports.  Athletic programs long ago became powerful avenues for marketing and institutional branding rather than education, and there is too much money at stake for that genie to return to the bottle.  It is probably time to end the student-athlete myth and pay athletes as university public relations employees.  That would not end the abuses, just the hypocrisy.

Years ago the President of the University of Oklahoma stated that he was trying to build a university the football program could be proud of.  That would be funny if it were only a joke.  Athletics should support the educational mission of a college and not the other way around.  Unfortunately in 2013 that view looks more and more like madness.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

By Popular Demand

Is there proper etiquette for colleges to announce that they are extending their application deadline? (Is “proper etiquette” redundant?  Is “improper etiquette” even possible?)

I found myself pondering that question after a single week in February when I received e-mails from at least five institutions announcing that their application deadlines, already passed, had been extended.  The problem with setting a deadline, it seems, is that once it passes with less-than-desired response, the one who’s dead (in the water, that is), is you.

I haven’t done extensive research on the semantics of deadline extension, which of course does not prevent me from commenting.  The most common justification seems to be weather or natural disasters.  A couple of announcements tied the extension to the major snowstorm that had just hit the Northeast, at least one may have referred to Hurricane Sandy, and I kept waiting for an announcement that a college or university was extending its deadline because of the meteor that exploded over Siberia or the near-miss from Asteroid 2012 DA14.  I would hope that colleges and universities would always extend understanding and consideration to students impacted by weather events and other disasters that may impact their ability to meet an application deadline.  I just don’t like institutions using those events as pretense for extending deadlines because the applicant pool needs more water.  By the way, the least common justification is transparency, admitting that more applications are needed or desired.  

One particular announcement caught my eye—and my ire:

            “Due to overwhelming demand (italics mine) from students who have not yet completed the Common Application…we have extended the February 1 application deadline on a space-available basis.”

The two phrases I found interesting in the announcement were “overwhelming demand” and “space-available basis.”  What amount of demand qualifies as “overwhelming” rather than just “whelming”?  Is there a demand threshold that sounds the alarm to trigger a deadline extension? What does “space-available” mean? One would assume that space is available given that the deadline is extended, so is “space-available basis” a euphemism for “operators are standing by” or “if you order now”?

What raised my ire was not the announcement itself, but the backstory.  Less than two months before, the President of the very same university had announced both at a meeting of counselors and later in front of prospective students and parents that the institution would be admitting no one who didn’t apply either Early Decision or Early Action.  That created panic, given that both early deadlines had already passed.  The admissions office went into damage control, announcing that the Early Action had been extended, due to Hurricane Sandy.  I’m guessing, however, that a number of students who had begun filling out a Common Application for that university figured why bother after hearing the President’s message.  The broader question is, If an institution is only going to admit students who apply Early Action, then why have regular decision at all, or why not rebrand “Early Action” as “regular admission”?

The announcement of the deadline extension said to feel free to contact the Office of Admission with any questions or concerns, and being in a particularly (but not that unusual) curmudgeonly mood, I did.  I shot off an e-mail to the generic e-mail address provided pointing out my surprise given the President’s comments.  I added that “I hope this reflects a change in that policy (no one admitted not applying E.D. or E.A.) and not an attempt to pad application numbers when you have no intention of admitting any of them.”

In retrospect, that last statement was a bit strong and perhaps unwarranted, although I think it accurately reflects concern for some of the gaming that is becoming prevalent in the college admission industry.  The good news is that within an hour I received a long, thoughtful, informative e-mail from the Dean of Admission explaining in detail the reasons for extending the deadline and the circumstances related to Common Application submission that has led them to do so.  It was the kind of honest communication I always appreciate from colleges and fear I receive less and less.

Is there a proper, face-saving way to announce that you are still accepting applications even though the deadline has passed?  I’d be interested to know what others think.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Last week I stumbled upon an interesting conversation in a website devoted to sports and culture.  Why has there never been a great television series, either drama or comedy, about college?  There have been good shows about high school (Mr. Novak, Room 222, My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Friday Night Lights) and about law school (The Paper Chase) and medical residency (St. Elsewhere, ER), but nothing memorable (or at least that I remember) about college itself.  The consensus in the discussion was that high school offers more character archetypes, and that it is too hard to show the balance of serious study and social silliness that are intertwined in most people’s college experience.

That evening I saw an ad for an upcoming movie starring Tina Fey as an admissions officer at Princeton.  The two experiences on the same day triggered memories of a more innocent time, regrets about opportunities lost, and another reminder of why I ended up in a non-profit career.

Thirty years ago I had an idea for what I still think could have been the classic show about college.  The twist is that it would be a workplace ensemble sitcom along the lines of Cheers, only set in the Admissions Office of a small liberal-arts college.  The admissions setting provided an interesting intersection between academia and the “real world,” the main character would have been (like me) a recent grad navigating between being a student and being an adult, and the pilot episode would have featured a celebrity visiting the college with his or her child.  Like most of my great ideas, it didn’t pan out, but I thought there was lots of humor to be found in all aspects of college admissions.

I’m hoping that same recognition, that the admissions world offers a treasure trove of laughs, is what led a University of Pennsylvania admissions officer to share and mock excerpts from applicants’ essays on her personal Facebook page.  I’m hoping it’s a feeble attempt at humor rather than meanness and condescension.  The former is a serious lapse in judgment; the latter, a character flaw.

There is little to add regarding the infraction itself.  Under no circumstances is it appropriate for an admissions professional to share information from an application outside the office.  It is both invasion of privacy and theft of intellectual property.

The larger, more interesting, question is whether admissions officers understand and empathize with the young people whose lives they are judging and impacting.  A number of years ago, an Admissions Dean friend of mine vented that she would scream if she read another essay about the “three D’s”—death, drugs, and divorce.  (Not long after a fourth “D” was added—the DaVinci Code.)  I understood her sentiments, but told her that she was being unfair.  For teenagers with limited life experience and who experience emotions more intensely than at any other point in life (which is why first love is so powerful), any of those D’s is traumatic and life-changing.  Do admissions officers understand what it’s like to be in high school?

I suspect the “empathy gap” is more pronounced in young admissions officers.  I don’t know if that’s a developmental issue or a training issue, but I have talked with a number of secondary counselors who comment that young admissions officers today are too busy giving their admissions presentation to engage in conversation and see applicants as numbers rather than as human beings.  It might be especially pronounced in young admissions officers working at their alma maters.  It wasn’t until leaving admissions that I realized the school I was marketing was an idealized version of the actual institution.  I wasn’t trying to be misleading or unethical, but I was a true believer, and I knew that attracting good students was one way to make the college better.

I also think the “empathy gap” is more prevalent at highly selective institutions like Penn.  When you deal with thousands of applicants, almost all of whom have superb credentials, it is easy to become spoiled and lose sight of the fact that teenagers are “works in progress,” going through an odyssey of self-discovery.  The application process is a snapshot of an individual’s accomplishments, growth, and potential, and the picture that is most complex and interesting may not be the one that initially catches your eye.  At its worst the highly-selective admissions process looks to admit alumni who are already successful rather than students who will grow most from the college experience.

Thirty years ago, my boss, the Admissions Dean, talked about teaming up and becoming comedy writers.  He realized even then where the admissions profession might be heading, that writing comedy might be both a more fun and more sane way to make a living than trying to fill a freshman class.  I’m happy with how things played out. As much as I like the cheap laugh (which I rarely ever get), watching young people grow up and figure out who they are meant to be is far more satisfying.