Ethical College Admissions: Yearbook Photos

The ethical issues raised by the Wake Forest controversy are complicated, writes Jim Jump.

March 4, 2019

“What’s in your wallet?”

That is the iconic tagline in advertisements for Capital One, the bank holding company originally founded in my hometown of Richmond, Va. The Capital One ads, featuring celebrities such as Jennifer Garner and Samuel L. Jackson, have earned induction into the Advertising Walk of Fame along with other famous slogans ranging from “Virginia is for lovers” to “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” to “Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t.”

Now a different Richmond-based institution is responsible for a question that is a knockoff of Capital One’s tagline.

“What’s in your yearbook?” follows revelations that a photo on Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s personal page from his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook included a student in blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam initially apologized, making it seem that he was admitting being one of the students in the photo, then a day later denied any knowledge of the photo or how it ended up on his yearbook page. He did, however, admit to wearing blackface for a talent show where he impersonated Michael Jackson, and in fact came close to showing off his moonwalk during the press conference before his wife intervened.

Northam has thus far resisted calls to step down, benefiting from the fact that his Democratic ticket mates, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, have also been embroiled in controversy. Fairfax has been accused of sexually assaulting two women, one while in college at Duke University and the other during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Herring, who was among the first calling for Northam to resign, was also forced to admit that he had worn blackface at a party in college.

Virginia Republicans haven’t been able to claim innocence or moral superiority on the issue. The majority leader in the State Senate, Tommy Norment, served as one of the yearbook editors while at Virginia Military Institute, and that yearbook included at least one photo of blackface and others including racially insensitive language.

So what does this have to do with college admission? The Virginia revelations have led to a new fascination with old college yearbooks. USA Today recently reviewed 900 college yearbooks in 25 states from the 1970s and 1980s and found that racist images were widespread and not confined to Southern institutions. Several colleges and universities have conducted a systematic search of past editions.

One of those universities is Wake Forest University. Last week it was revealed that two members of the Wake admissions staff, one of them, longtime Dean of Admissions Martha Allman, had been found in old yearbook pictures from their student days posing in front of the Confederate flag. Both pictures were associated with the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity, known for its reverence of the Old South.

Both Allman and the other admissions officer have issued apologies and expressions of regret for the photos. In a statement Allman acknowledged, “That flag was a symbol of pain and racism then just as it is now, and I understand that much differently in 2019 than I did in 1982. Thirty-seven years of life, experiences, relationships and education have made a difference in my way of understanding the world and my ability to empathize with those who are different from me. Throughout my career in admissions, one of my goals has been to create a more diverse and inclusive Wake Forest. It is my hope that I will be judged by my professional dedication to Wake Forest, my faith and civic involvement, and by my future work with the Wake Forest community.”

That hasn’t kept others, both in and outside the Wake Forest community, from calling for her to resign her post. In a forum held by minority students at Wake Forest to discuss their experiences with racism, several students suggested that the photo of Allman indicated racism that should disqualify her from her job.

How does one make sense of this issue? Should we be penalized or forgiven for our youthful indiscretions? Should admissions officials be held to the same standards as elected officials?

I don’t pretend to have the answers. My judgment is certainly influenced by the fact that I know Allman to be a decent person. I am aware that my background and experiences as a white male may prevent me from fully appreciating at an emotional level just how insulting and hurtful certain symbols and actions are. I am also saddened that in 2019, just 11 years electing our first African American president, tensions with regard to race seems to be resurfacing and attitudes regressing.

Is there an ethical framework that will help us sort through the issues?

First of all, I think there’s a danger in assigning moral equivalence to a variety of actions. It’s impossible to defend any of these things, but being photographed in front of the Confederate flag is not the same thing as dressing in blackface or appearing at a white supremacist rally.

The most important consideration in placing moral judgment on an action is intent. An action may be equally hurtful, but there is a difference between those motivated by hate and those motivated by ignorance. Lack of harmful intent is not by itself a defense, but it helps distinguish the ethical seriousness of an action.

The second consideration is evidence of remorse or reflection. Does the individual in question understand how his or her actions impacted others, and do they have a different perspective now?

The third issue is how long ago the act occurred, and what has transpired in the interim. Is there a statute of limitations on stupidity? If an embarrassing photo was taken 35 or 40 years ago, should an individual pay for it now if it is not characteristic of the person’s subsequent life, or are some actions so egregious that discovery even years later has consequences? Are those who appeared in racially insensitive photos on the 1970s or 1980s obligated to volunteer that information? This dimension of the issue is not going away. Those who have grown up in the age of social media will have far more serious relics waiting to be discovered than yearbook photos.

The other question is what is the impact of cases for the college admissions profession. We have a obligation to model empathy for every student and promote an educational environment that is truly inclusive and welcoming to all. Perhaps the most troubling thing about the Wake Forest story is the reports from students that they feel treated differently on and off campus. Access to education is the starting point, but we also need to promote success for the students we recruit and admit.

Those of us who work in glass admission offices shouldn’t throw stones, but we also have a special responsibility to make racially offensive images a thing of the past.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top