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When Not to Share
A former University of Pennsylvania admissions officer’s habit of mocking prospective students online has led to renewed calls for stricter guidelines on how university employees should conduct themselves on social media websites.
According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s independent student newspaper, Nadirah Farah Foley shared snippets from application essays on her Facebook page -- often alongside sarcastic comments. The information was obtained from screenshots sent anonymously last December to the newspaper and Eric J. Furda, Penn’s dean of admissions. The Daily Pennsylvanian agreed to share copies of the screenshots with Inside Higher Ed.
Foley, who joined Penn in 2011, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. She is no longer affiliated with the institution.
In the Facebook posts, Foley revealed intimate details about several applicants. After quoting from an essay by a student explaining his fear of relieving himself outdoors -- which Foley described as "another gem" -- she went on to say, "17-year-olds are strange creatures. [B]ut seriously, couldn't make this up if [I] tried. [K]ids say the darndest things." Foley also commented, "[S]top the madness" in response to one essay in which an applicant claimed to have a connection with Penn because he was circumcised there. The post had attracted 19 "likes" and over a dozen comments at the time of the screenshot.
Other screenshots show Foley describing a jar of organic honey she received from an applicant as one of the "perks of being an [admissions officer]" and recalling a conversation with a student who claimed Penn was close to the beach. "[P]enn being 'close' to the beach: a selling point [I] never expected to use. [G]otta love recruiting in [K]ansas!"
The screenshots also show Foley's Facebook friends egging her on to share more excerpts from the application essays. Foley said she would "if it weren't such a professional risk/liability." She then referred people to a Tumblr blog called "Admissions Problems" dedicated to admissions officer inside humor. That site also includes insults of applicants, but it isn't clear which institutions' would-be students are being mocked.
Penn officials have been tight-lipped about the incident, declining to comment on what they have classified as a personnel matter. Stephen J. MacCarthy, the institution’s vice president for university communications, did confirm admissions counselors are obligated to treat application materials confidentially.
Still, Penn’s admissions officers do not have specific guidelines on how -- or even if -- they can use social media. The university almanac was last fall updated to include a section on social media, but it only asks those conducting official business to follow the institution’s policies, whether that business occurs online or offline.
At meetings of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, speakers regularly talk about the ethical importance of treating applications confidentially and respectfully.
Colin Gruenwald, the director of college admissions programs for Kaplan’s test preparation division, said the lack of formal guidelines is the current norm among institutions.
According to Kaplan’s surveys of admissions offices, only 15 percent of institutions have mandated social media rules for admissions officers -- but among those that have, more than two-thirds enforce an outright ban on using social media networks to gather information on applicants.
“It used to be that the relationship between social media and college admissions was a fairly separate thing, but it has become ubiquitous because it’s a really good way to get in touch with people,” Gruenwald said. He described the current landscape of social media guidelines at colleges and universities as a “Wild West environment.”
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