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Admissions of Guilt

Should information about applicants found on the Web but not submitted by them be used in admissions decisions?

One of the discussions I have been in for the last week or two has been about the growing use within academia of MySpace information for what verges on "official" purposes. Apparently one of the newer issues for those who manage first-year students is an increase in requests for changes in residence hall assignments based on information students are finding out about each other in MySpace.

One campus professional shared: "The bigger issue on the admission side is people wanting to shuffle room assignments because of the info they learn about new roommates before meeting them. It's not so much about taking the adventure out of living on campus, but about intolerance for the big issues like race & religion."

This is not something that suits the professional perspective of many of us. Helping students avoid some of the growth experiences that we consider essential to the college experience feels uncomfortable.

But getting to know something about people before you know them, or even after you know them a little bit, can be useful--and also fun. Last week at my employer's annual conference, I received a call to come up to the ballroom level of the Chicago Sheraton and meet a member who had an idea for me. I happened to be at my computer when the call came in, so I Googled the member instantly, before I headed up the escalator.

When I arrived, we shook hands, and even before we introduced each other I stood back a bit, stroked my chin and looked thoughtful and said: "Let me see ... architecture ... Princeton ... '82, right?" It was a fun ice breaker, and we had a good chat. It turned out to be a very good idea, one I hope we can implement for our 2008 conference in Montreal.

But that was relatively harmless. Another story I was recently told was about a law student at a respected southern school who, upon his return to school in the fall after a summer internship, dissed one of the law firm's partners on his MySpace page. The attorney discovered this, then wrote the law school and asked that his letter of recommendation be rescinded. The law school complied with the request.

And, again, that is sort of harmless, in terms of risks to the school. It happens that writers of letters of recommendation rescind them from time to time, and it's no skin off the school's nose as to why, really.

Many have admitted that they do, informally, check out certain students--student leaders, potential student staffers, and so forth--in MySpace.

But back to the "official" stuff: This recent discussion started about a student's request to have a new roommate assignment after learning more about their assigned roommate. This was not a case of religious or racial bias, however. It was more serious than that. It was the kind of stuff that, in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings, sends shudders though parents' and administrators' bodies. As the writer put it, "some sort of paean to automatic weapons, explosives, violence, and destruction."

Now, as I write this, I remember when I was a kid and owned a bag of black gunpowder and went around blowing things up. Really. I didn't destroy nature or things that mattered to people and wasn't into damaging living things. I just had this bag of gun powder--don't remember where I got it--and enjoyed using it up and having fun with it. Of course, that was in the days when, during the summer, I would be out the back door in the morning and home for dinner, with no one knowing or being concerned about where I was or what I was doing in the meantime. Times are different.

So the issue arose for the school: "Is this the kind of student we even want to matriculate here?" "Can we rescind an acceptance?" "What are the consequences if we do?" "Should we check out all students this way?"


And our faculty are involved with this, too. One of the stories I heard recently was about a professor who was waiting to meet a student who had requested a "drop" from her class. The student had claimed all sorts of chronic illness issues and hard luck. When the student was late, the professor did a little Googling and discovered that by his own accounts the student in question was one of the hardest partiers on campus and, in fact, was probably late owing to hard partying described as recently as the night before. When the student showed up, all the professor had to do was mention that she had spent the time Googling him. The request was withdrawn.

Wait, it gets more complicated. Someone else shared that they learned at a recent conference that the kind of person who does the Virginia Tech killing kind of thing almost always feels as though hey "have no choice," that events brought their violence about. Would a rescinded acceptance become a catalyst for violence? Check out Threat Assessment and the Campus Environment (RealAudio).

One discussion participant wrote:
Maybe someone would write a Web app that takes all the applicants' names for the semester, run[s] them through the most popular social sites and google, match[es] key phrases like "bomb," "joint," "AK-47," and return a list sorted by threat level ... then e-mail[s] the applicant saying, "Sorry, we cannot accept your application; we really like you a lot and wish you the best of luck in your educational career."

This, of course, would be done on Fridays because there is less of a chance of incident when these notifications are made on a Friday. [Editor's note: This quote has been cleaned up for grammar and punctuation.]
That was tongue in cheek, obviously, and, as people pointed out, there are so many legal liability issues raised. (How do you know that you have the correct Terry Calhoun, for example?)

And then a senior webmaster at a school in the Midwest pointed out PeekYou, which sorta, kinda, is creating a cross-social-network finding capacity. And a couple of graduate students at UNC have created ClaimID, a way to centralize who you are--your identity--on all aspects of the Web.

So, damned if you do and damned if you don't? My advice in July 2007 is don't. But be sure to be asking your attorneys if maybe you should, next year.
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