Friday, August 31, 2007

Virgina Tech, Fallout

The report from the panel appointed by the Governor in Virginia was released and called "scathing" by the New York Times reporter in the Globe of August 31. At issue, as predicted in this blog months ago, was the failure of the administration to cancel classes after the first two shootings. The President, however, now in the hot seat, is defending himself. Probably the first step toward eventual resignation. He still believes he did the right thing, "based on what [we] knew at the time. You have to understand how fast things were occurring"

I think the panel did understand how fast events were occurring and further understood that when two students are shot dead no matter what else is occurring you do not conduct business as usual. You freeze the moment in as many ways as you can to contain the unknown.

I appreciate that Virginia Tech administrators thought all the damage was done and that the perpetrator was off campus. But they were wrong. The campus police didn't have anyone in custody or admitting to the crimes; they had two dead people. It was the time to think the worst. It was the time for the director of communications to speak up and bring truth to power. It was the time for the director of public safety to speak up. It was the time for extreme caution. But instead there a hope for the best. Thishas been seen as a lapse in judgment because it was a career-moment judgment call.

So President Steger would be better served saying that in hindsight, yes, he should have closed the school. He should graciously see it the other way. And if the confidence of the trustees and faculty in him as a result of this incorrect call is so severely undermined that he will, with regret, step aside.

President Steger says the assailant, Cho, was solely to blame. Other reports have called for better systems to monitor the behavior of the mentally ill on campus. Invariably there are discussions about rights to privacy versus the role of the college in loco parentis. This is all well and good for future planning. But the President is simply not on safe ground here. It comes back to this. Would lives have been spared if classes had been cancelled? What would have happened if Cho had been frustrated in his ability to get into Norris Hall or found no one there when he arrived? The panel seems to think there could have been a better outcome; at the least the President's behavior would have passed muster. It is not that the President is to blame for the murders. It is that perhaps something, rather than no thing, should have been done.

The article continues with a comment by Larry Hincker, a university spokesperson, who says, in response to a suggestion in the report that the institution adopt key cards for most of the buildings, that the school would have to "think carefully" about such a change because it would influence the way people interact on campus. I can only hope this comment was taken out of context. Mr. Hincker needed to express his gratitude to the panel for highlighting those areas that would make his campus a safer place. He needs to acknowledge that while such changes might feel uncomfortable he has no doubt that they would make Virginia Tech a more secure campus. Which, by the way, right now, for Virginia Tech administrators, is Job #1.

A Cruel Time For College Applicants

I wish I could have more sympathy for Webster T. Trenchard's sympathy for the college applicant. In his August 23 op-ed in the Boston Globe he takes on one inconsistency in the college application process that he finds particularly problematic. Of all the issues there are, I'm afraid Mr. Trenchard's point is just not that strong and can be easily explained away.

He describes a common situation. Prospective students who visit college campuses or read the literature are told that SAT scores fall in a range and that institutions are looking for diversity and a complex suite of attributes that are indescribable by simply looking at grades and scores. Students are encouraged to apply because "you'll never know." Cynicism is put aside, and students and parents may pin their hopes often on a dream and not on their reality. Then comes the acceptances, when it appears as if grades and scores matter very much. Expansive welcomes turn into explanations of how students just weren't competitive in the pool.

Mr. Trenchard wisely understands that the admissions officers operate in a competitive environment themselves and are more than encouraged to bring in the most number of applicants as possible. After all, the more applicants who apply and are rejected, the more selective the institution appears in the all-important college ranking systems. He just doesn't want parents and students to get their hopes up and he feels their pain. He feels there is a discrepancy between the position of the admissions officers when they are selling and when they are accepting.

I would suggest to Mr. Trenchard that the admissions staff feel no such discrepancy and not only to do they believe that anything is possible during the admissions process but they have acceptances to back it up. College admissions offices are still reading individual applications and giving individual consideration to applicants. It is true that a student whose SATs and grades are radically below those required of an institution's stated standards cannot expect an offer of admission just because he or she has won an Olympic medal or brought peace to the Middle East. But where the student is within range or at the low end, such a student has a chance for consideration. And that is what the admissions officers mean: that kids have a chance. Maybe not your kid, but some kid. Further, no student is accepted in a vaccum. Each is indeed part of a cohort of applications against which he or she is compared. Admissions officers are creating a class. That is why a student with identical scores and grades from different coasts will get a different response to an Eastern school. Yet both sets of parents heard the same marketing pitch and both students had the same "chance." I'm not saying it is fair. I'm not sure the admissions staff is saying it is fair either.

So it has always made sense for students to apply to some schools from which acceptance seems likely, the proverbial "safety" schools and some which are a reach. It is imperative for parents and guidance counselors to understand that the process is fraught with uncertainly now precisely because the pool is so competitive and students are being encouraged to set their sights higher. But I have to say: you just never know. My cousin was accepted to Tufts University, notoriously high-faluting in its admission policy, and Oberlin and rejected from Wesleyan. Why? In another case, a male student from California was admitted to Wesleyan; a similar female student with superior grades from Massachusetts was rejected. We found out it it was a demographic decision: Wesleyan wanted men from California.

So parents can take the admissions officers at their word while understanding that it might not work that way for their child at that particular moment in time.