THE BLOG
01/13/2014 04:54 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

No, She Didn't! Affirmative Action and Alumni Admissions Reps

I am in a coffee shop in New York City sitting next to an alumni admissions rep interviewing high school senior applicants. For anyone who has any doubts about the necessity of affirmative action in college admissions, please keep reading. The first applicant is a black woman. The rep is very polite and cordial but took each opportunity to respond to her by schooling her about the importance of office hours, how to pick a major, and developing relationships with her professors. All of this is fine if paternalistic advice. The second applicant is a white nerdy guy with a tight grey suit and a fresh haircut, the admission rep was impressed with his knowledge of "urban landscapes and poverty." She asked him questions that allowed him to demonstrate his smart insights. The third applicant: a white woman who looked like she just fell out of bed and has not seen a brush since 2012, is apparently a snowboarder and an artist. The conversation, however, turned to be all about the admissions rep, how she failed at snowboarding, how she literally saw "stars" each time she landed on her behind. "Hahaha!" They both laugh and the conversation continues on this course. They rap about where they vacation during the winter, and the applicant gets in how she mastered "mad crazy" jumps. They then discuss their mutual interest in art. More laughing ensues.

So, needless to say, this is the way that privilege replicates itself -- the admission rep's approach and tone changes with each applicant. The more the applicant looked and acted like the rep, the more amenable and welcoming she became. While it remains unclear how any of this will be translated to the actual admissions committee, I can't help but imagine what the experience for each student was -- the white guy walks away feeling smart, the white girl walks away feeling like college includes people just like who share her interests, and the black girl walks away trying to remember all the advice she got.

As a college professor, I have serious doubts about the very purpose of these alumni ambassadors who in the grand scheme have little to do with the actual educational experience, but who nevertheless might be unintentionally spraying napalm over the admissions and college process. These admissions reps frame the entire interaction around themselves: they share anecdotal and often outdated advice from their experiences from 20 or more years ago; they use their experience and opinion as the centerpiece of the conversation; and as a result, they operate within a very highly charged political context in which sensitive issues, such as race, class, gender, and privilege dictate the terms of the conversation without every being directly acknowledged.

I worry about how these alumni admissions reps become the sole embodiment of the school to the student. I worry about the extent to which faculty and staff on university and college campuses work so hard at addressing both the obvious and also nuanced versions of racism on campus; and the ways in which these alumni admissions people perpetrate, often unwittingly, these problematic forms of privilege because they have not been part of the conversations, workshops, and debates both within the academy and on campus for the past few decades.

These alumni admissions reps are not fully trained to address the complicated and often indirect ways that privilege operates. While they may have attended various trainings that the University sponsors, this particular rep's behavior shows no understanding of the sensitive ways that her class, gender, and race influenced her interaction with the prospective students. This particular rep may not have even realized how her behavior and advice changed based on each applicant.

This rep also asked students for the student's SAT scores. Why is this part of an informational review? Wouldn't this be included on their application? How is the rep using this number to rank the students or, at least, label the student? In the academy, we handle these numbers with great dubiety and do not use them as any indication of a student's progress once they are enrolled in our courses. And more to the point, many faculty understand the ways in which SATs do more to reflect socio-economic class than intellect, yet her asking for this information, which I cannot believe is required part of her volunteer work, validates a measure that many of us view as meaningless.

While these alumni reps are volunteers and engaged in a well-meaning project of college pride, their patriotism should no longer be part of the admissions process. These reps -- and I have seen many of these conversations unfold, plus I did this volunteer work in my early 20s -- invariably provide erroneous information, and have little experience in the workings of a college or university yet they become its most visible and vocal ambassadors. This particular alumni admissions rep espoused information about pre-requisites, majors, electives, and what courses one could apply AP credit. She then conjured up scenarios about majoring in psychology and taking a minor in art. She talked about how professors grade labs, and what courses were overenrolled.

I sat there listening to her with my mouth wide open. As a tenured college professor, who advised over six dozen students, I cannot keep up with the changing policies on majors and requirements in my own department, let alone across the College. I carefully consult websites and manuals with each piece of advice I provide. More to the point, enrollments in courses vary by instructor and change dramatically each semester. And I can go on.

While this point may seem tangential to the aforementioned claim about affirmative action, they are connected -- in proving how this whole process of alumni admissions representatives is fundamentally flawed and unwittingly furthers forms of privilege that we on campus and within the academy attempt to eradicate. Thusly, affirmative action attempts to correct this problem by recognizing that white people in power invariably if unwillingly privilege experiences that resemble themselves.

If you have school pride, show up at Homecoming, donate money, or put a bumper sticker on your car; there is too much at stake in playing advisor.