Monday, November 9, 2009

Admissions, Development and Institutional Integrity

After holding forth in my last two blogs about what philanthropy-seeking organizations can do to lessen the tendency of donors to engage in quid quo pro gift-giving, I heard from a friend who said she understood my larger points but still wasn’t sure what a development officer was supposed to do when confronted with an aggressive parent who whips out a checkbook and says, “Okay, exactly what do I need to give to get my daughter admitted?”

Here’s what I would recommend: When asked “what it will take,” a development officer should say, “I can track your child’s application and advocate on his/her behalf if the dean of admission tells me that he/she meets the general criteria for acceptance (in other words, your giving, past or prospective, cannot compensate for poor academic performance; your son or daughter has to be a credible candidate). The advocacy of the development office can be brought to bear when the dean of admission is trying to make a choice among equally qualified applicants and we can point to one who comes from a family with a long history of support of this institution or (if the parent is not an alumnus) an impressive philanthropic record elsewhere -- and the longer that history, the better.”

Development officers should not offer to advocate on behalf of an applicant if the parent puts a particular sum on the table or asks, “how much?” They should say they will have to recuse themselves from the admissions process if a direct offer is made and advise the parent that such an approach will not be well-received by the institution at any point.

In my ideal world, universities should give philanthropic preferences in this order:

1. To alumni families who have given consistently to, and been active volunteers over many years at the institution to which their child is applying;

2. To alumni families who have given years before their child applied;

3. To alumni families who gave just before their child applied;

4. To non-alumni families with impressive philanthropic records elsewhere.

Development officers and other institutional representatives should be exceptionally wary of parents who throw around promises of large gifts should their child be admitted. Parents with great financial capacity but no record of philanthropy anywhere are a high risk. If their child is admitted, they are likely to find reasons for reneging or to put additional quid pro quo conditions on their giving.

Considering a family’s philanthropic record if the child is admissible is ethical in my estimation. Admission directors will tell you that there is a bell curve to every admissible pool of applications with an eminently qualified group on the right tail and a marginal group on the left, and a “great middle” within where the differences between candidates are so slight or so subtle as to render them indistinguishable and statistically insignificant. A family’s philanthropic record, particularly if considered in the context of their means, is a legitimate way to differentiate among that group. And, the practice of “development admits” is even more defensible if the institution has a real commitment to “need blind admission” and to identifying and encouraging applicants from the most modest economic circumstances. A “development admit” should not displace a more qualified or a less economically-advantaged applicant.

If such policies and practices are in place, and the development staff is well-trained on how to articulate them, the efforts of those who try to buy their child’s way in can be blunted, the interests of constructive, consistent donors with qualified children can be protected, and the conscience of the school can be preserved.

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