Culture

Are College Admissions Officers Equipped to Judge Who Is Ethical?

(Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/Dreamstime)
College admissions officers say they aim to admit only the most ethical students to America’s elite universities — but what is their real goal?

Are students at elite colleges good people? They are supposed to be — doing ethical deeds is part of the admissions process. It is virtually impossible to be accepted by competitive schools without convincing the admissions committee that you engaged in hundreds of hours of community service, prompted only by a desire to “give back,” “help the less fortunate,” “fight injustice,” or something along those lines. And yet, if the statistics endorsed by the universities themselves are to be believed, college men rape women at roughly the same rate as Mai Mai militia fighters in the Congo.

Whether or not these statistics are accurate, the students themselves seem to regard each other as a bunch of rapists, racists, and microaggressors. So, according to both university officials and students, admissions officers are poor at selecting morally good people. This raises the question of whether admissions officers are even in a position to identify which 17-year-old students are ethical based on the sort of evidence available in their college applications.

But this is not the question that admissions officers are asking. Instead, they plan to double-down on making college admissions partly a morality contest. A recent report out of Harvard, endorsed by more than 80 high-ranking admissions officers from dozens of universities, argues that colleges should give the ethical qualities of applicants far more weight than in the past. They will require that students do more intensive, “meaningful, sustained community service,” and make even stronger pledges of allegiance to justice and morality. Admissions will then select those who, in addition to meeting academic requirements, are the most “ethically responsible and concerned for others.”

There is an obvious epistemic problem here, glibly dismissed in the report. If you tell students that, to get into college, they need to appear to demonstrate (in documentable form) their morality, what stops them from doing good deeds for selfish motives — not because they are virtuous, but because they want to get into college? The Harvard report simply exhorts admissions committees to “assess whether service has stirred in young people deeper questions about justice and emboldened them to challenge injustice.” In lieu of looking into applicants’ souls, they can ask them to submit letters from “a supervisor, a recipient of a service, a peer or a teacher” testifying to their moral growth. This reflects serious naïveté about how easy it is to falsely pose as a do-gooder.

How on earth can college admissions committees tell which 17-year-olds are genuine based on a short paper application?

Consider a case that’s playing out right now. Thomas Pogge is the director of the Global Justice Program and the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale. He has another appointment with the word “justice” in the title at King’s College London. On just the homepage of his website, the words “justice,” “ethics,” “moral/morally,” or the phrase “human rights” appear 15 times in total. Pogge seems like a college admissions officer’s ideal person. He spends his life using his intellectual talents to advocate for the disadvantaged and the oppressed. And he is widely looked upon as a moral paragon. Or at least he was until last month. Now it appears, with new details emerging weekly, that he has been systematically sexually harassing and exploiting female students for decades, offering letters of recommendation, jobs, and other academic benefits in exchange for sexual relationships. In one case he allegedly attempted to assault a student in a hotel room, and withdrew a job offer when she resisted. For all his talk about the evils of exploitation and power differentials between developed and developing countries, Pogge targeted foreign women whom he perceived to be unsophisticated about their options for defending themselves.

#share#Pogge’s story illustrates how easy it is to use the social-justice talk and conspicuous do-gooding that make admissions officers weak in the knees as a cover for immoral, even sociopathic, behavior. If Pogge fooled thousands of experts in moral philosophy for decades even while being in the public spotlight, how on earth can college admissions committees tell which 17-year-olds are genuine based on a short paper application? Indeed, they must be astonishingly arrogant about their own abilities if they think they can tell who experienced moral growth from a community-service project just by reading recommendation letters from a student’s “supervisor, a recipient of a service, a peer or a teacher.”

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Given how absurd it is to try to determine which high-school students are ethical exemplars based on such easy-to-fake data, one wonders whether recruiting moral students is the true aim of the authors and endorsers of the Harvard report. Closer examination suggests they may have another motive. The proposed community-service requirements seem like a way to force college applicants to make a declaration that they accept liberal theories about the origin of inequality and injustice — and weed out dissenters who refuse to do this or who don’t do it convincingly.

Despite the report’s claim that it is not seeking to “promote a particular moral or political ideology,” it’s clear enough what sorts of community service it’s looking to promote, and what kinds of conclusions it wants high-school students to draw from their experience. It says that students should “undertake community service and engagement that deepens their appreciation of diversity” and that “spark[s] . . . a deeper understanding of social structures and inequalities.” This is not-so-subtle liberal-speak, and we all know what it means. Promoting multiculturalism (though not European or Christian culture) is one of the main goals of the Left.

#related#The report asks students to have a multicultural experience and to draw conclusions about the source of social problems. Are students supposed to conclude that there’s not enough Burkean conservatism? Or that we need to implement more of Thomas Sowell’s recommendations? Those ideas would conflict with the multicultural vision extolled in the report itself. It’s obvious, rather, that college applicants are being invited to derive lessons about structural racism, oppression, and that sort of thing. The proposed community-service requirements are a more severe way to force applicants to get on board with the liberal explanation for social problems, or else be barred from top colleges.

Unfortunately, the community-service advocates don’t seem to be worried that colleges will be infiltrated (even more than they already are) by Pogges who are experts at moral posturing in the pursuit of narrow self-interest — so long as the moral posturing is done on behalf of the Left.

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