Does money talk in the Brown admissions office?

A Gawker exposé published Tuesday quoted leaked emails with offers of preferential admissions treatment from Brown administrators, including President Christina Paxson, for the children of potential donors. The story has drawn rapid response from both administrators, who claim the messages were cherry-picked and taken out of context, and student protesters from the #MoneyTalksAtBrown movement, who argue that they further validate the group’s concerns about undue financial influence on university policy.

Brown firmly stated that all admissions decisions are based on merit alone. Last night at the State of Brown, President Christina Paxson denounced the validity of the Gawker article for selectively quoting emails.

“The real purpose of that letter is to let people set their expectations about the level of influence they can have,” she said.

Cass Cliatt, the Vice President of Communications, added, “It’s tempting to seek connections where none exist. At no time is there communication between advancement and admissions.”

In so many words, the university firmly denies that financial donations have ever had any clout in the admissions office–except “maybe 100 years ago,” according to Cliatt.

Cliatt also took the opportunity to address what she called “discrepancies” in the article. The differences arose, Cliatt claims, because the article does not include all the correspondence that is accessible on WikiLeaks. The first problem was that the framing of the emails made it seem as though the donation and the early decision admittance were around the same time, she said. According to Cliatt, the discussion regarding the scholarship fund started in April 2012, and the concluding payment was made in February 2014, 10 months before the student’s Early Decision notification.

Cliatt also addressed an email in the Gawker article that was originally sent from Paxson to the Brown Corporation in September of 2014. According to Cliatt, the part that reads, “Also, please tell us if you learn of a prospective applicant who may need ‘special handling’ for campus visits or communications,” does not imply that the University gives special treatment to visitors of high status.

Instead, it is given to about 800 students per year who are from “any family we think could benefit from additional attention for their tour and/or meeting with a faculty, and the category includes a variety of reasons for this ‘handling’: having served in volunteer or leadership positions at Brown, being a family member of an alum, having made extraordinary contributions to Brown, being a celebrity or dignitary, or any reason that might disrupt a public tour,” Cliatt wrote in an email.

In the same email, Paxson also wrote:

In addition, it damages our reputation with high schools if we accept a student–sometimes even a very good student—while rejecting more highly-ranked students from the same school. We do this only if there are compelling reasons to do so.

The “compelling reasons,” according to Cliatt, arise “if the totality of a student’s academic talent or potential to be a good addition to the class isn’t captured by ranking alone — for instance, a student who didn’t have certain advantages but clearly demonstrates the intellect, talent, grit and determination to succeed, or a student whose engaged learning experiences complement more traditional indicators.”

It is clear, however, that some students believe those “compelling reasons” to be largely financial and status-based. This morning, a small group of students gathered outside Sayles Hall and distributed this flyer, which included a link to the WikiLeaks emails.

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A member of the Board of Trustees forwarded the aforementioned email from Paxson to the father highlighted in the Gawker article with the following message:

Thought you’d find this interesting in light of the history I told you about. But the plan will still be as I said. I think […] and I should have lunch in the next couple weeks so I can speak about her personally.  Then I need to know when her ED app is in.

While this wording does not necessarily indicate that the donation made by the father in exchange for his daughter’s admittance is “the plan” being referred to, it also certainly doesn’t prove that this was not the case.

Whatever the real truth regarding financial influence over admissions may be, it’s worth noting that as a private university, Brown relies on donations to function. With the smallest endowment in the Ivy League and few professional graduate programs, this school is especially burdened in procuring funds for the special initiatives its students and faculty wish to pursue.

It is then plausible that part of Brown’s business plan might be to attract the children of wealthy families, and with potentially good reason. According to Cliatt, parents of current students were responsible for donating $50 million, or 22%, of last year’s donations. This does not include parents who are alumni.Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 2.54.08 AM

The Gawker article alludes to the myth of meritocracy. Even so, the first line of the article concedes that donating one million dollars to a school to create a full ride scholarship fund constitutes a “good deed.” But, it is an act whose ethical intent has been reduced to simply securing an admissions spot. (Note, however, that the Gawker article never mentions whether the student was academically qualified enough to be admitted without a donation).

While a student admitted with an accompanying donation can give a handful of other students access to a Brown education, the admittance of one applicant of financial means over another, more qualified one is simply unjust. Certainly, if such a quid pro quo exists, there is a lack of transparency–and it’s not hard to see why some students suspect the admissions office prefers it that way.

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8 Comments

  1. Jed

    Maybe “advancement” doesn’t talk to “admissions” (really?) — but Paxson knew about the donation, and she met with the applicant’s father. And she promises in her letter that recommended students will get her full, personal attention. QED.

  2. Jed

    See Wall Street Journal from 2006 — nothing has changed! OF COURSE development staff talk to admissions! Cliatt must be misinformed? http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB115774251817757837

  3. Jack

    Its hilarious that people are actually surprised by this. Its even crazier that people care. Sure, maybe 5 spots out of 1500 are bought. But that money is then used to allow students to go om scholarship.

  4. CYNTHIA ABDALLAH

    If this is true, then students from African countries with great potential can not get into Brown because most of them can’t afford to donate to the school. Disappointing.

  5. Brian

    Where does it say that advancement and admission don’t talk?

  6. Cynthia: you’re mistaken. Poor students from Africa and elsewhere CAN get in because of generous donors.

  7. Excellent thought, I belive everyone should donate some amount to university or colleges.

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