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I spent the latter part of last week in Salt Lake City with 7,000 of my closest friends. For three days Salt Lake City was Mecca for all of us in the college admission and college counseling profession, attending the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, usually referred to as NACAC.

The NACAC conference is a staple of my fall, a time to reconnect with colleagues and recharge in preparation for the cascading waves of application deadlines that will hit as soon as I return to the office. I have missed only two conferences in the past 30 years, one of them the 2001 conference that fell two weeks after Sept. 11. My children, then 13 and 15, called a family meeting and told me they didn’t want me to go, and my loyalty to family won out over my loyalty to the profession and a close friend who was running for president-elect of NACAC that fall.

NACAC was previously in Salt Lake City in 2003, when the conference was much smaller, and I left with a better sense of the city this time. SLC certainly bears the stamp of the Mormon Church headquartered there, and I have to believe that the NACAC meeting is among the largest gatherings in the city not related to the church.

Salt Lake City needs to hire a street-naming consultant. The friends I rode with from the airport were staying at a hotel located on Temple, and so was I. But their hotel turned out to be located on S. West Temple, whereas mine was on W. South Temple. The two streets intersect at Temple Square.

In most years the conference becomes a world of its own, but this year it was hard to block out events on the national stage. The opening day, Thursday, happened to be the same day that Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I have several friends and colleagues who know well the independent school world around the D.C. Beltway where both Kavanaugh and Ford went to high school, and for them the hearing was personal -- hometown, even neighborhood, news.

Before the conference started, the Department of Justice announced that it would investigate Yale University’s treatment of Asian American applicants, mirroring its existing investigation of Harvard University’s admission policies. NACAC has had its own DOJ inquiry during the past year, with the antitrust division looking at some of the provisions of NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice aimed at protecting students at the end of the process but also limiting colleges in recruiting students who have already committed to enroll at another institution. That probe apparently predates both the new version of the SPGP, the Code of Ethics and Professional Practices, but also the Trump administration.

There was a rumor several weeks ago that representatives of the DOJ might attend the conference as observers or even go undercover, leading to speculation that one of the Sessions at the conference might be Jeff. On Wednesday a conference attendee overheard someone checking in at one of the downtown hotels identify himself as being with the DOJ, but his business in Salt Lake City was most likely at the federal courthouse rather than the convention center.

I have always felt that NACAC is a force for encouraging sanity and student-centered practices in admission and counseling. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m hardly objective as a former president of the organization.) I am a member of both NACAC and the College Board, but membership is not the same thing in the two organizations. Membership in NACAC feels like ownership, whereas College Board membership feels akin to membership in my local public radio station, interested in my money but not my opinions.

As a professional organization, NACAC faces challenges as college admission and college admission practitioners change. Bringing more members into the tent means more clout but less agreement about NACAC’s core values and direction. As the nation’s demographics and the population of those going to college change, how will the profession encourage access to higher education? Can the profession diversify to reflect and respond to the diversity of our students? And how do we reach those, both students and college counseling first responders, who most need the expertise found in NACAC but may not even know the organization exists?

The ongoing battle within NACAC is whether it should focus its time and attention looking within or looking without. This conference seemed devoted more to governance than outreach. Some of that is influenced by the DOJ probe, which has drained both financial and psychic resources.

The big topic in the Assembly (NACAC’s legislative body) and the membership meeting was bylaw changes regarding membership categories. NACAC’s membership structure clearly needs simplifying, but the proposal put forth by the board and staff included a philosophical decision that NACAC is an organization of institutions rather than individuals. That produced unintended consequences of potentially disenfranchising current members whose institutions do not pay for their membership in the organization along with retired members. To its credit, NACAC heard the depth of dissatisfaction with the new proposal and is revisiting it.

I think NACAC is at its best when it directs its focus outward, and I would like to see the organization look for ways to address the larger issues that challenge the college admissions process. How can we find new ways to share knowledge and wisdom to empower young people to make life-changing decisions about their futures? Is the college admission process too unwieldy, and does it measure the right qualities? Can NACAC be a voice of reason and ethical authority regarding standardized testing issues and abuses, and can NACAC work with the financial aid profession to develop award letters that are easy for families to decipher and compare?

The ultimate ethical dilemma for college admission has always been whether it is a business or a profession, whether all of us will pursue institutional interest or the public interest. NACAC’s emphasis on ethical admission practices has always called us to follow our better angels and work together for the students who need our help and support. Hopefully neither external forces nor internal divisions will take that away.

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