Thursday, August 29, 2013

Justice and Mercy

I used to give my mother-in-law a hard time because the first part of the newspaper she looked at every morning was the obituaries.  I haven’t adopted that habit, but now that I have reached the stage in life where being referred to as middle-aged is a compliment, it doesn’t seem quite as amusing.

Recently I saw that the father of a former student had passed away.  A classical guitarist who had immigrated to the United States to receive a kidney transplant, he seemed to be on death’s doorstep 20 years ago, so I was surprised that he had lived this long. 

Seeing his obituary made me recall my proudest counseling moment. His son was bright, strong-willed, and rebellious, and his junior year could have inspired a soap opera or reality show.  He chafed under rules and expectations that were minimal, scored high enough on the PSAT to be a National Merit Semifinalist but didn’t have grades to match, shaved his head for shock effect, and in late January disappeared for a week.  It turned out he was visiting a girl at a college in the Midwest.

During the last month of school he was convicted of back-to-back honor offenses.  Both could be categorized as stupid rather than deceitful, but at St. Christopher’s the Honor System is the foundation underpinning everything that happens at the School, the line you don’t cross, and an upperclassman with multiple offenses is in deep trouble.  Both the faculty and his peers were at the end of their ropes, and the Honor Council recommended expulsion.

The Headmaster consulted me before acting on the recommendation.  We agreed that the boy wasn’t a bad kid, just immature and stuck in a bad home situation.  At the same time, it wasn’t in his or the community’s best interest to remain.  We finally arrived at a creative solution—either expel him or get him into college early.

And that’s what happened.  A good liberal-arts college (the same one he had visited for a week in January) was willing to offer him admission without a high-school diploma.  We didn’t expel him, he was accepted to college early, and four years later he graduated with honors, after which he wrote me the kind of thank-you note I’ve received only rarely in my career.  It meant even more because of the back story.

A guiding principle in ethics is “Treat like cases alike.”  The challenge, of course, is that rarely are two cases alike.  Every ethical dilemma brings with it a unique combination of circumstances and considerations and requires its own calculus.  That calculus must balance the interests of the individual with those of the community, as well as balancing justice with mercy.  Rarely is it possible to find a solution that accomplishes both, which is what made the previous case so satisfying.  

I have been thinking about the interplay between justice and mercy recently thanks to one of last year’s seniors.  He was an excellent student and school citizen who early last fall came down with a mysterious malady that ended up taking away most of his senior year.  He couldn’t sleep or hold down food and quickly fell way behind academically.  He went to numerous doctors and received numerous diagnoses and treatments, but none made him better.

By the end of September it was clear that the best case scenario was a significant drop in grades, and he decided to apply Early Decision to college so that senior year grades would not come into play.  I was okay with that approach, given that he was a strong candidate for a school he wanted to attend, but I cautioned him and his family that the college would need to be made aware of his situation eventually.

The challenge of the school year, and especially the senior year, is that you can’t call time out and stop the clock.  Christmas break offers one of the only concentrated periods of time when a student might catch up after falling behind.  When January arrived, the student’s health issues remained serious and undiagnosed, it was clear that he would only be able to complete two of his first semester classes, and we knew that we had to, in the words of my GPS, “Recalculate.”  The good news was that he was in college.

As a school we were trying to be sensitive and supportive of the boy and his family, but the situation raised some difficult practical and philosophical questions.  What should we do about the courses he wasn’t physically able to complete?  Is earning a high school diploma about earning a minimal number of credits or about a certain quality of experience?  What was our duty to the student, and what was our responsibility to the college he wanted to attend?  If Woody Allen is correct that 90% of life is showing up, what happens when you can’t even do that on a regular basis?

I struggled to sort out my ethical obligations.  In any ethical dilemma, there are multiple duties involved.  The philosopher W.D. Ross argued that ethical duties arise from relationships, and that every relationship carries with it what he calls a prima facie (or first glance) duty.  In this case I had a duty to the student.  I also had a duty to my school, I had a duty to the college, I had a duty to the profession, and I had a duty to my core values as an individual.  Unfortunately Ross only tells you how to identify possible duties, not how to choose among them.

It wasn’t until March that doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed the student as having postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).  Having a diagnosis and knowing that it was treatable and not chronic was a relief for everyone, but finding the right combination and dosage levels of medications remained a challenge, and hopes for being able to come to school on a regular basis proved overly optimistic.   

As a school we were trying to do the right thing, balancing mercy and justice.  The family didn’t want to consider a repeat senior year.  The college said they would allow him to come if I/we certified that he was ready.  How could I do that, when he wasn’t healthy enough to come to school more than a period a day and would finish his senior year with 1.5 credits?  At the same time, he hadn’t chosen to get sick, and an important moral principle is that you can’t judge or punish someone for things they haven’t chosen.

He finished the school year one-half credit shy of the minimum number required to graduate.  We allowed him to walk at graduation, and gave him two options for earning a diploma.  He could take an on-line course during the summer to get the final credit or we would give him a diploma at the end of his first semester in college.  Of course the family didn’t like either option, and asked us to give him academic credit for therapy he did at the Mayo Clinic during the month of July.

The student started college a week ago.  He seems healthy and ready, but he has also essentially missed a year of school.  I don’t know that we achieved either mercy or justice, and I don’t know that we came up with the “right” answer.  Sometimes an okay answer has to be good enough.    

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Nearly a quarter century ago I took a three-year hiatus from my college counseling career to take a job as admissions director at an independent school.  I left college counseling reluctantly, because I loved the school and the kids I worked with, but I was commuting 160 miles round-trip daily and my wife told me I could consider any job I wanted as long as it was in Richmond.

I realized quickly that the school was struggling, far more than I had been told.  I attended a Board meeting before I started the job, and while casually reading the minutes of the previous meeting discovered that just a month before a motion had been made and defeated to fire the Headmaster, the person who had just hired me.  I began my first day on the job, a month before the opening of school, counting up all the returning and prospective students and discovered that the best possible scenario was 40 students shy of the minimum budget number.  The Headmaster had no clue.  Perhaps most telling was that when I went to the business office to get paper clips, they asked me how many I needed.  The school couldn’t afford to give me a whole box.

Less than two weeks before school started, I attended an emergency evening meeting with the Headmaster and the Executive Committee of the Board. They wanted me to make cold calls to try to recruit last minute enrollments.  I refused, telling them that if word got out on the street that we were desperate, the school would never recover.  The school might need that approach or that kind of admissions director, but I wasn’t willing to do that.  I stood there waiting to be fired, but one trustee spoke up and backed me, and the rest of the group backed down.

But what happens when you really are desperate? A recent New York Times article about falling college enrollments mentioned two institutions, Loyola University in New Orleans and St. Mary’s College of Maryland, that have fallen far short of their enrollment goals this spring, forcing them to cut their budgets by millions of dollars.

One paragraph in the article raised eyebrows among those of us in the profession.  Loyola was reported to have called students who had been accepted but not enrolled, including sweetening financial-aid offers.  The Times article stated that recipients of the calls included students who had already deposited elsewhere, a violation of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.

Loyola officials responded both to the NACAC Exchange and to InsideHigherEd (which did a follow-up piece) that they had been misunderstood, that the school had made the calls and financial aid offers only to accepted students who hadn’t informed Loyola that they were going elsewhere.  I appreciate the clarification from Loyola, but am also glad to know that the NACAC Admission Practices Committee will apparently investigate based on complaints made by NACAC members after the Times article appeared.

I am more intrigued by the larger questions raised by the articles. 

The most obvious has to do with May 1.  What are the ethical imperatives implied by the May 1 National Candidates Reply date?  Is May 1 the “end” of the admissions process, such that it is improper for institutions to recruit after that date? Should institutions like St. Mary’s and Loyola get a “pass,” given that financial stewardship, saving employees’ jobs, and staying in business are all in some sense ethical objectives? Are we about to see new attempts to erode the May 1 deadline?

Let me answer the last question first.  I certainly hope the answer is no.  I consider May 1 the most important convention for preserving sanity and ethical practice in the college admissions world.  The May 1 date clearly provides protection for students to ensure they receive all decisions before making a final choice, but I would also argue that it provides protection for colleges, both as a benchmark for judging where enrollment stands and also as a guard against deterioration into a Wild West mentality.

It is also clear that the admissions cycle continues past May 1 for many institutions, including rolling admissions schools, those utilizing Wait Lists, and schools that have to deal with considerable summer melt.  There is nothing wrong with recruiting students after May 1, IF those students haven’t deposited at another institution.  It is appropriate to contact accepted students who have not deposited or informed you that they are going elsewhere, but conversations must stop once it is clear that a student has committed to another school, and financial exigency does not change that.

Are the shortfalls faced by Loyola and St. Mary’s anomalies, unique to those institutions, or canaries in the enrollment management coalmine? In the past week I have heard about two other institutions with freshman classes smaller than expected, although nowhere near the same degree as the two institutions named above.  At least one tried to cut back on its discount rate, only to find a corresponding drop in deposits. This spring I found that economic considerations seemed to drive college decisions for my students far more than I have ever seen before, choosing public over private and in-state over out-of-state.  I’m not sure if the decisions are driven by ability to pay or unwillingness to pay, but if it’s happening with my families, it has to be a wider phenomenon.  Will college admissions officers need to rethink fundamental assumptions? 

The ultimate question is whether college admissions can walk the fine line between being an industry and being a profession.  What distinguishes the two is the degree of commitment to the public interest as well as self-interest. Can we continue to agree on a set of principles that serve all of us well even when they might not always serve me well?  I hope so.  As Benjamin Franklin said about signing the Declaration of independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”