Monday, February 18, 2008

Divided loyalty

I spent the bulk of my work time today trying to figure out how to manage admissions for our program for fall 2008. Last year we instituted a wildly successful new procedure that set an application deadline for the first time, and grouped applicants who made it past the first cut into several on-campus all-day information and interview sessions. Because it was brand new, we had no idea how it would affect our application numbers or quality, or whether we should admit a percentage of the freshman class after each session rather than wait until all candidates were interviewed.

We learned a few things flying by the seat of our pants last year, but here we are smack dab in the middle of year 2, and we've changed the variables such that we can't really use the lessons we learned -- moving the deadline up, changing the spacing of the interview days around the deadline. Here we are with a group of interviewed students, and another big stack of applications of those yet to be interviewed who met the deadline. How many of the first group should we admit? If we don't admit any (in the name of fairness, letting everybody compete against the entire pool), we risk losing highly desirable students as they continue to shop around -- a scholarship offer in hand, as you may remember from your own college admission, counts for a lot as you're weighing other possibilities.

The question becomes even more difficult when you're looking at students you've met and spent time with -- and in many cases developed an affection for that leads to advocacy on their behalf -- versus a stack of paper applications that have not yet been attached to a face and an enthusiastic attitude. It's natural to want to secure a spot for the former group, even as you are aware that every spot taken leads to increased competition for a reduced number of seats among the group still to come. Should folks who completed their applications before the deadline be given preference, even though no policy about early admissions was published? How should we draw the line between the students we want so much we will make immediate offers to, and the students we know are good material for our program but who should wait for a final decision until the entire pool of applicants is in view as context?

Much of the issue revolves around where one's loyalty should lie -- to the individual applicant (advocacy) or to the fairness of the system (justice). It seems right that there should be a place for both stances in a selective admissions environment. Representatives of the institution who interacted with the student should be expected to advocate for them. Those who oversee the entire process can take such advocacy into account, but reserve their loyalty for the process as a whole.

That realization helps me understand what administration is about, and why it's so problematic. It seems the height of bureaucratic inhumanity to pledge loyalty to a system rather than to human beings. Yet the administrator must build as fair a system as possible and avoid circumventing it for the benefit of select individuals, in the belief that a fair process will allow more of the deserving to attain the goods they seek.

The administrator building and overseeing the process will not always do what the advocates want -- nor will the process always come out in the best interests of the individual. That's what's painful about it. But will more deserving interests be served than would be possible if each decision were made ad hoc? We trust this is so. And so we administer the process, with fear and trembling, with an eye on the big picture and a dread of forever losing sight of the human scale.

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