An Ethics Question

Crooked Timber, You Can be The Ethicist:

Graduate Admissions Committee for the department in question is deciding whom to admit. For said discipline, as for several others, there is a website on which potential students gossip share information about the departments to which they are applying, and many do so anonymously. However, many such students say enough about themselves that if you are in possession of their file (as graduate admissions committee is) you can identify them with near, and in some cases absolute, certainty. One applicant to said department behaves on the website (under the supposed cloak of anonymity) like… well, very badly, saying malicious things about departments he has visited, raising doubts about whether he is honest and the kind of person it would be reasonable to want other students to deal with, and generally revealing himself to be utterly unpleasant.

Question: is it wrong for the GAC to take this information about the applicant into account when making a decision? Secondary question: does it make a difference to your answer that the department is in a private, not a public, university?

My knee-jerk reaction was that one better be pretty darn sure one has the right person before making a major decision about them based on something posted on a web site.

This reaction was reinforced by one of the many very interesting comments at Crooked Timber, which asks how the committee can be sure that this wasn't a joe-job. Indeed, if it became known that this sort of attack was possible, what a way to do down one's rivals and ex-inamoratas!

I can imagine a world in which a committee might ask for further information in light of something like this, but depending on what amounts to hearsay without some sort of confirmation is, I think, a dangerous road to tread. It might even be a denial of due process in a public process.

Here's a slightly different hypothetical that may serve to test my intuition: suppose instead of a web posting that seems to be by the applicant, the committee received an unsigned letter accusing the applicant of the same bad behavior. What result, and why?

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2 Responses to An Ethics Question

  1. joblessUMLAWGrad says:

    As an aside, I think the Florida Bar is presently facing a similar dillema. I submit for your perusal the comments left by lawyers about judges on the Broward blog http://jaablog.jaablaw.com/

    “is it wrong for the GAC to take this information about the applicant into account when making a decision?”

    I think that drawing inferences as to one’s character based solely upon online postings is a dubious excercise. Many people adopt an online persona to make a point, release stress, play devil’s advocate, etc. They are often quite different in person.

    “the committee received an unsigned letter accusing the applicant of the same bad behavior. What result, and why?”

    Reliable and corroborated? I think that is crucial, and is also the general principle governing search and siezure via anonymous tips.

  2. Emily says:

    I worked in the Graduate Admissions Office of a big, public university for 30 years. I didn’t work in an academic department. We were more of a clearing-house, coordinating with the departments who made the actual recommendations to admit or deny. I remember only one anonymous letter of non-recommendation. The author wanted us to know that some applicant had run off from his wife, taken up with a floozie, and wasn’t supporting his children. We didn’t forward this info over to the applicant’s department because it was ananymous.

    Another time, I got a call from someone who identified himself as Colonel Somebody at the US Military Academy. He wanted us to know that a female applicant had somehow faked her transcript, so that the transcript we received was a phony. I told him that we required official transcritps with the seal of the school sent from the university’s Registrar’s Office in a sealed envelope and it was very difficut to fake ’em. He immediatedly came back with some way that this woman had managed to fake it anyway. I thought to myself, “this is her ex-boyfriend, and the relationship ended badly.” After he hung up, I wished I’d reconfirmed his name and the office he claimed he was calling from, so I could tell him I’d call back if I had any questions.

    I talked to my boss and we quickly decided that we wouldn’t mention this to the applicant or her academic department.

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