Where Is the Faculty in the Admissions Debates?

On questions of early decision, the SAT, merit scholarships and more, professors need to get educated and involved, writes Andrew Delbanco.

October 12, 2006

Over 40 years ago, in his well-known book The Uses of the University, University of California President Clark Kerr remarked that “faculties ... have achieved authority over admissions, approval of courses, examinations, and granting of degrees.”

Authority over admissions? Really? I wonder -- at least if recent debates over college admissions are any indication.

Take the response to Harvard University’s and Princeton University’s decisions a few weeks ago to eliminate their early admissions programs. So far, the debate has been carried out between presidents, provosts, and some admissions deans -- with barely a peep from professors. Even in the letters-to-the-editor columns that followed the first news reports and op-ed pieces, few faculty voices joined the mix. And in the broader national debate over admissions policy, positions have been staked out from above the faculty by deans and presidents, and, from below, by advocates for secondary-school students (led by former high-school counselor Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, an organization devoted to reconciling admissions practices with educational values), while the people who actually teach the admitted students are pretty much absent from the discussion.

What does this mean? Has faculty “authority over admissions” declined since Kerr wrote in the early 1960s, or is it faculty interest that has waned? I suspect it’s both -- and the reasons are worth considering.

Some of the reasons are structural and systemic. The huge changes that have swept over academic life since Kerr’s day have mostly favored faculty disengagement from undergraduates. First, and perhaps foremost, there is the growing premium on research as opposed to teaching as a measure of institutional and personal prestige. There has been a shift away from local loyalties that once entailed collaboration with faculty colleagues on matters of curriculum and governance toward a diffused system of national and international organizations, conferences, symposia, etc. in which reputations are made and displayed. As Stanley Katz puts the matter in a recent article, “What has Happened to the Professoriate?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Since we have so little loyalty to our particular universities, we are less likely to serve them well, either in the classroom or in the performance of other necessary functions.”

Virtually all incentives (salary improvements, leave enhancements, teaching reductions) push faculty members to seek recognition outside their home institution, partly, at least, in the hope that they will consequently be better treated at home. With the exception of a few modest teaching prizes and recognition ceremonies, nothing beyond a sense of duty encourages faculty, especially in research universities, to pay much attention to undergraduates before or after they are admitted. And when they do pay attention, they tend to grumble about too many athletes, or students who don’t write well, or who lack proficiency in science -- and to blame the admissions office.

But what role do faculty play in developing the policies on which the admissions office acts? At most, a minor one -- which is particularly disturbing when it comes to tenured faculty, whose job security should encourage frank participation in university governance without fear of demotion or reprisal. Yes, the scale of the admissions process has become daunting. In some cases, tens of thousands of applications must be evaluated, so it would be hardly more than symbolic for faculty to read -- as we once did at Columbia -- a few distinctive folders. And yes, some administrators regard faculty as potential meddlers and prefer using catch-words such as “diversity” and “excellence” to asking hard questions about what these terms actually mean.

But, if admissions policy has been reduced to slogans, blaming the administrators is finally an evasion of faculty responsibility. Most faculty are simply not interested and therefore uninformed. Any discussion of, say, the distinction between need-based aid and merit aid, or about principle versus practice in “need-blind” admissions, or the correlation between SAT scores and family income, or about the case for or against increasing the numbers of international students, is likely to elicit a perplexed stare even from those who hold confident opinions about many other matters outside their field of expertise. Faculty who normally regard all authorities with suspicion, and who are quick to proclaim the sanctity of such values as academic freedom, are strangely inert and indifferent with regard to how their own institutions decide whom to let in and whom to keep out.

Some of this detachment is understandable, since college admissions have become a large-scale business whose intricacies require specialized knowledge. But the cost of disengagement is high. Faculty testimonials of devotion to the values of equity and democracy in America and the world can smell of hypocrisy when we ignore the attrition of these values on our own campuses. (Sometimes one hears muttering about too many “legacy” admits, but I haven’t heard much complaining about preferential treatment for faculty children.) Some of the very colleges where faculties tend to be most vehement on behalf of left-liberal causes are slipping out of reach for students from families with modest means.

Over the last decade, for example, the percentage of students admitted early in the Ivy League has risen to roughly half the entering class -- even in the face of studies suggesting that early applicants tend to be academically weaker and economically stronger than students who apply later in the year. Since most early applicants must promise to attend if admitted, they have to be willing to forgo the chance to compare financial aid offers from multiple colleges, and they come disproportionately from private or affluent suburban schools with savvy college counselors. Yet how many faculty have paid attention to what James Fallows, writing five years ago in The Atlantic, called “the early decision racket”?

It’s not that the issues are simple. Even the case of early admissions, on which Harvard has now reversed itself, is not entirely straightforward. Pros and cons vary from institution to institution. Although the negative effects of early admissions are increasingly clear, there are positive arguments, some better than others, in favor of such programs, on which some colleges have come to depend. Students accepted early tend to arrive on campus pleased to be attending their first (and only) choice. Early admissions programs allow admissions officers to lock in much of the class -- notably the athletes needed to field competitive teams -- before Christmas, and then to use the regular applicant pool and waiting lists to balance and refine the composition of the full class.  And, lamentably enough, early admissions allow institutions to inflate their yield rate, which figures in the widely-read rankings published in U.S. News & World Report.

These issues should be debated with both idealism and realism not just by administrators in closed-door meetings but by informed faculty in open session. Yet in watching and commenting on all the maneuvering and grandstanding, students have been more alert to the nuances than faculty -- as in a recent Harvard Crimson article pointing out that despite Harvard’s announcement, up to 100 athlete-applicants will still receive “likely admit” letters each year as early as October 1.

In short, admissions policies have consequences for students, for society, and for the functionality of the college or university that enacts them. They certainly have effects on faculty. Since most institutions depend heavily on tuition revenue, the “discount rate” -- the amount of financial aid subsidy offered to students -- affects the availability of funds for other purposes, including faculty salary increments and new or substitutional hiring lines. Abandoning early admissions would strain the operating budget on many campuses -- though not at Harvard or Princeton, where yield rates will remain high and income from their huge endowments will meet the increased demand for financial aid that will likely follow their recent actions. At some institutions, a cut in the rate of “legacy” admits might even jeopardize the institution’s long-term financial viability.

These matters pose difficult questions. But such questions are supposed to be what education prepares us to think and care about. Among the most difficult are those where public interest and self-interest collide. Where, with respect to college admissions, is our teaching and learning impulse when we need it?

There are signs that faculties are beginning to re-awaken to their obligation to undergraduate students, and it is high time to reclaim our role in determining the policies and practices by which these students are admitted in the first place. Professors, after all, have never lost interest in the admission of graduate students, whom they see as their protégées and professional successors. As for undergraduates, their education begins before the first classes of freshman year and even before orientation week. It begins with the messages our colleges and universities send to prospective students about what they must do in order to get in. Surely these are matters with which faculty should be concerned.

We are not likely any time soon to return “authority over admissions” to the faculty, at least not as it existed in the days when professors worked with admissions officers on selection and recruitment. But perhaps it is not too much to hope that faculty will re-enter the discussion at the level of policy, and thereby take a role in determining  how their home institutions choose the students who populate their classes. Such re-engagement could help restore public respect for the professoriate, which is one of our most precious and fragile assets.


Andrew Delbanco is Levi Professor in the Humanities and director of American studies at Columbia University. In 2008, he will deliver the Stafford Little lectures at Princeton, on the theme of "College: What it Was, What it Is, and What it Should Be." His most recent book is Melville: His World and Work, just published in paperback by Vintage.


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