You Can be The Ethicist

by Harry on February 18, 2007

I was posed this problem by someone in a very highly ranked research department in one of the social sciences (not Philosophy, not Madison), and post with permission.

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?

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grant 02.18.07 at 6:49 pm

I think it’s fine to take into account. It’s even more acceptable if you let this individual know that even when anonymous they are still responsible for their actions, that way they can correct their behavior.


tom s. 02.18.07 at 6:49 pm

I guess I would say that if the evidence is backed up by other statements (comments or between the lines inferences from personal references) then there is no problem with putting a hefty weight on those comments or inferences. The only issue I can see is if the online behaviour is the only evidence of bad character. In that case, I’d think you have to be careful as a department (coincidence and mistaken identity could be a problem).

Easy to say sitting at home without having to actually make the decision.


tom bach 02.18.07 at 6:56 pm

I would say that predicting someone’s future behavior based on gossip assumed to be annon. is a dicey proposition. Surely, such wiki gossip is not intended to be nor is it an accurate representation of how this candidate would behave. Annon. Gossip is annon gossip, calling info sharing doesn’t really change its status.

It makes no differeence to me if the inst. is public or private, this kind of information is insufficient to judge the candidate’s suitability.


JR Richardson 02.18.07 at 7:02 pm

Yes. No. This is supposed to be _difficult_?


Mark 02.18.07 at 7:02 pm

This sort of evidence seems permissible, provided that there is a very high degree of confidence that the student who applied is the student who wrote on the website. Making an error here and hence ruling someone out on the basis of something that they did not do would be very bad indeed.

Near-blind reading of the applications is done in order to rule out certain unwarranted biases, but a bias against someone who might be malicious or otherwise dishonest doesn’t seem to be unwarranted.

In the end, I think it all comes down to how much evidence one has for these accusations which are made against a particular student. In order to do the right thing, this evidence needs to be carefully considered.


Shane 02.18.07 at 7:03 pm

If someone posts under an alias, their statements should in some way be attributed to that alias. They’re responsible for anything they say, but the personality of the alias isn’t necessarily the same as the personality of the author. For instance, a despicable or in World of Warcraft might be a great graduate student and person.

These forums are a place to vent and sometimes act silly or irresponsible, I’m not sure they always serve as a good way to judge someones character in real life. Then again, would you be friends with someone who talked bad about you on a forum, even pseudonymously.


Thomas 02.18.07 at 7:12 pm

I would think the decision would be guided by academic potential, not personal qualities. That is, honesty is relevant not as a personal matter, but only as a minimum academic standard. (We don’t care if you lie to your spouse, but you mustn’t be dishonest in your work.) Now certainly there’s a lot that can be classed under the amorphous “collegiality” label, but even (or perhaps especially) there one would want to be cautious, I’d think.

If information about personal qualities is going to be used, I think that there would have to be some reason to think it’s reliable. I’m not sure that anonymous internet postings are reliable in that sense. The question isn’t just whether one is nearly or absolutely certain about the identity of the poster, but also whether the postings made anonymously or quasi-anonymously are truly indicative of the character of the author. If the applicant’s recommenders know the applicant well and don’t see any evidence of the negative traits or behaviors, then why assume that the postings are a better source of information (or even a good source of information)?


99 02.18.07 at 7:13 pm

Some self-reflection might be in order. I can’t say for university level environments, but my experience with educators at other levels indicates that there there is a good deal of ‘unprofessional’ behavior (gossip about students) in protected, but not anonymous environments. Some of it would seem downright nasty and reflect poorly on the character of the speakers, whom often were regarded (rightly so, in my estimation) as professional and competent in their post. Because they believed they could be a reasonable professional and still hold personal opinions. I guess students can’t be held to this standard?

Is there a correlation between an forum thought to anonymous and a faculty cocktail party?

Understanding you might not be providing more detail to protect this person’s identity, nonetheless what you consider to be ‘utterly unpleasant’ might just look a lot like unvarnished student opinion.

Perhaps you should amend your application materials to indicate candidates should strive to be utterly pleasant.

That, and you can ask to read student diaries and journals as a condition of admission.


dsquared 02.18.07 at 7:18 pm

It might be unfair and it might not but at the end of the day, if this guy (because I would imagine we’re not talking about a woman here) gets into this university, then since half the current faculty think he’s an ass who slagged them off on the web, he’s gonna start with two strikes against him and has failure more or less written into the contract. The GAC might or might not be assessing his web posting fairly (few people are objective about internet flamewars), but this recruitment situation was not meant to be.


abb1 02.18.07 at 7:18 pm

It’s not wrong if it doesn’t contradict the official policy.


Kelly 02.18.07 at 7:24 pm

I absolutely think that this sort of thing should be taken into account when considering students for admission, and have in fact heard of other universities that do.

There are a couple of reasons for my belief here. One – younger students want to believe that they’re anonymous online, even when they’re easily identifiable. They don’t seem to have any realization that what’s said on the internet can come back and bite you in the meat-y “real” world. If they’re going to be so casual and easy with their comments during an application process (or catty and bitchy to fellow applicants), then how are they going to conduct themselves online when they are a part of your institution? What are they going to say that should remain private, but instead gets said all over the ‘net because of some flawed notion of privacy and anonymity?

Two – I think it’s very worth seeing how they handle criticism and commentary to whatever they post, and how they interact with other people. It’s a candid way of seeing what might be potential problems in future team work, receiving criticism, and general collegiality. Applicants put on their best behaviour in front of you; this is an easy way of seeing what they’re hiding.

…I had another thought, but I just completely forgot it.

Oh! Is it ethical? Hell yes. They put it online, in an open forum, where they are leaving themselves completely open to identification.


apthorp 02.18.07 at 7:25 pm

It may be a clue, but one that amounts to hearsay and so is not by itself actionable. Part of the premise has to be that this a student who would otherwise be offered admission. Given that, a call to one of the references or interview, not inquisition, with the student might be appropriate.

It’s probably worth noting that for an academic department “unpleasant” isn’t necessarily a disqualifying attribute. It seems like demonstrated academic potential (is that an oxymoron) should weigh most heavily.

Questions of honesty are serious, but serious enough that they should be judged on direct evidence rather than the bluster and bloviation that is not uncommon on line.

The question of public vs private interesting in and of it self. Isn’t the point selection of the candidates most likely to succeed? Why would issues of honest evaluation be different?


ogged 02.18.07 at 7:30 pm

raising doubts about whether he is honest

This would give me pause. Even if we make allowances for the fact that people behave differently online than off (although not so differently, in my experience), the dishonest ones tend not to confine dishonesty to any one part of life. So even if fairness compels us to let unpleasantness slide (question: would people’s answer to this dilemma be different if they were making the decision alone, or in a group?), it’s not a court of law and there’s no compunction to blind ourselves to what we reasonably take to be the facts.


FiniFinito 02.18.07 at 7:31 pm

Perhaps the situation would be clearer in a more classic contextual equivalence. Would a person caught red handed scribbling similar statements on the wall of your institution in permanent marker suffer a similar fate? Consider the website one of the walls of your institution, and the anonymous postings made by the student are the unattributed scribblings found one morning on that wall. Had someone stumbled upon the midnight writer, wouldn’t they have had an obligation to the institution to report the incident if they indeed had certain knowledge of the identity of the culprit?


voyou 02.18.07 at 7:32 pm

It seems to me the ethics problem arises earlier – what was the faculty member doing reading the site in question in the first place?


Randolph Fritz 02.18.07 at 7:33 pm

Bad on-line behavior is sometimes a simple expression of stress or fear; we are different people in different social contexts, sometimes very different. Most of us hide portions of ourselves and most of us act like jerks sometimes. I have a friend who I call “my favorite right-wing crazy” and with whom I do not discuss politics. There’s a well-known professional author who is a very decent person with colleages and safe friends and an absolute jerk in other contexts.

The best thing you can do, I think, is to give unusual weight and attention to the person’s academic references, who know the most about that person as a student. One thing you want to look closely for is signs of how the person conducts themselves in intimacy, and when there are people under their authority. Someone who is OK with friends, colleagues, and subordinates, and sometimes a jerk on-line, is probably OK. Someone who abuses friends, colleagues, or subordinates when they can is trouble, and best evaluated very carefully.

I hope this is a hypothetical problem.


harry b 02.18.07 at 7:53 pm

I can’t reveal much more, because the person in question didn’t want to reveal anything that would allow me to know anything, as it were (so for example, I don’t know the extent or kind of the behaviour that was off-putting). I can reveal that, in the end, the issue was hypothetical (if that makes sense) because in the end the committee did not get as far down the list as this applicant would have been indpenendently of the information. I suppose I should also say that the problem was posed because the faculty member genuinely felt this was a dilemma, and was relieved not to have to face it. Last thing — “taking into account” is not the same as “regarding as decisive”. One thing you’re being asked is how much weight to give to it, if any.


dearieme 02.18.07 at 8:29 pm

Research relies hugely on trust. That’s certainly true in the sciences, even though we can supposedly check each other by repeating the experiments. I take it that it’s even more true in Social Science. So focus on the issue of trust.


jim 02.18.07 at 8:31 pm

I suppose it partly depends on the department. Math or Theoretical Physics, I can’t see it mattering. But in an experimental science, particularly when research is carried out in large collaborative groups (Particle Physics comes to mind), such behaviour might be destructive of other people’s work. I don’t know much about how PhD research is organized in Social Science departments, though.


abb1 02.18.07 at 8:31 pm

If it’s ethical to ask for their employers’ or school teachers’ opinions of their characters (hearsay as well), then what exactly is the argument for this being unethical?


farah 02.18.07 at 9:01 pm

If you are interviewing, ask a question designed to elicit similar behaviour.


Ned Ulbricht 02.18.07 at 9:02 pm

[…] you can identify them with near, and in some cases absolute, certainty.

Certain enough to be sure it isn’t “joe job”?

If the GAC is going to take adverse action based on this, the applicant deserves a hearing and a opportunity to refute the… the… the… it’s not evidence. Not by any stretch of the imagination.


Peter 02.18.07 at 9:48 pm

If graduate studies in this hypothetical department is like others I know, then there is a significant inter-personal component to the work. On the one hand you are doing research, but on the other you are becoming part of a research community under the tutelage of a watchful adviser. Both are essential for a successful graduate experience, and it sounds like most professors would not be comfortable advising someone who is so prone to airing dirty laundry loudly and in public. Or maybe they’d be okay with it. But certainly, I think an online search of an applicant’s name is not out of bounds, and if there is a central site for a discipline, then looking there as well is not out of bounds.

The fact that this incident happened under a veil of pseudonymity is no defense. Pseudonyms are useful for anonymous speech when you are pretty sure that using your real name would get you into trouble (perhaps justified, perhaps not). Indeed, if they don’t understand how giving too much information can easily throw aside such a veil, then it’s two strikes against them – one for character and one for stupidity.

It’s not a particularly comforting conclusion, but I have to agree with comment 6 – “The GAC might or might not be assessing his web posting fairly (few people are objective about internet flamewars), but this recruitment situation was not meant to be.”


a 02.18.07 at 9:50 pm

“raising doubts about whether he is honest” I presume this means that doubts can be raised about whether he has embellished his application. In that case why not check? If one needs to, ask for proof or at least more details from the applicant. Ask him in for another interview; at least, interview him over the phone. Otherwise, it would seem at least possible that there is a case of mistaken identity, and the applicant is rejected for something he did not do.

If the question is not whether the student has been honest on his application but whether he is honest as a person, then it would seem that the department should not take it into account, unless it is willing to fire all non-honest professors as well.

I don’t know why private vs. public makes a difference ethically. Perhaps legally (don’t know about that), but surely it makes no ethical difference.


lee 02.18.07 at 9:55 pm

It is not clear that changing the policy to allow this sort of thing will have the consequences you want. It might become more likely that you will wrongly identify and punish someone.

The reason is that if potential students know about the change in policy, and are still allowed to make anonymous posts, then a nasty one could eliminate some of his rivals by pretending to be them.

So it depends on how well you think you can identify them. I hope you’d use more than the content of the posts.


Toadmonster 02.18.07 at 10:24 pm

The question itself seems to rest on a nasty assumption that the admissions committee has the right to all the information they can get their hands on about someone, as if because they have the power they are the responsible good guys, when in fact admissions is just a particular social game. Some commonsense reflection should expose that people speak differently in different contexts, that we can say good things about someone to their face but then say bad things about them elsewhere, and that we can even be telling the truth both times, based on complex impressions or changing moods. Especially in (supposedly) ‘safe’ situations, people tend to act out their less pleasant impulses, which then represent one extreme of a person’s spectrum of attitudes rather than the mean. Unsurprisingly, people in interviewee/applicant positions tend to show their sunnier side.

To me, the line “doubts about whether he is honest and the kind of person it would be reasonable to want other students to deal with” sounds like a possible cover for resentment for (a sense of) having been played. Though they’re not exclusive.

The ‘doubts about honesty’ bit is a sham however, suggesting that if he had said these things to their faces they would’ve graciously noted his candor. One might expect the ‘trust and honesty’ thing to go both ways, in that not only would the student not think things without expressing them, but the admissions committee wouldn’t, without any notification, go and try to identify applicants’ online pseudonyms.


Dan Kervick 02.18.07 at 10:30 pm

Who set up the website? Unless the website was set up by the school or department itself, with a promise that information posted on the website would not be used in the admissions process, then I don’t know why the use of the information would be unethical.

If you voluntarily divulge information about yourself in a public forum, even under an assumed name, then you have chosen to release that information to anyone who is authorized to access that website. If it is a publicly accessible website, that means everyone – unless misrepresentations were made by the managers of the website.


josh 02.18.07 at 10:43 pm

I think it’s fair to take evidence of dishonesty, unpleasantness and lack of scruple into account. In the short term, a nasty and unscrupulous person could poison the atmosphere among grad students (and beyond) in the department. In the long term, there’s the concern about how such a person would behave as scholar, colleague, and teacher in the future. People can, of course, change; but that doesn’t mean that they will. And someone who steals other people’s work, or bullies more vulnerable members of the same department, can have a very bad effect on morale, scholarship, and learning.
That said, I agree with a number of the other posters that some confirmation that this person is a jackass, beyond the evidence of supposedly anonymous posting, is in order. Interviews might not do the trick — such a person might be a capable dissembler — but at the least, checking with the person’s referees seems to be in order. And maybe some googling, to see if (s)he has ever exhibited similar behaviour under his(her) own name. I’d be very, very wary of mis-identification.
I’m glad that it wound up being a hypothetical problem, though.


abb1 02.18.07 at 10:50 pm

…nasty assumption that the admissions committee has the right to all the information they can get their hands on about someone…

Of course it does; to all the relevant information that is.

To make it obvious, all you need to do is to create a scenario in which this piece of information is critical. For example: people apply for airline pilot jobs and one of them anonymously admits to, say, a persistent fantasy of crashing a plane full of passengers. Or something.


Kelly 02.19.07 at 12:05 am

So it depends on how well you think you can identify them. I hope you’d use more than the content of the posts.
I’m going to guess that a lot of people reading this are not familiar with all of the support sites out there for people who are applying to graduate school. On these sites, people post their entire SOP, their CV, LORs if they have them, grades, transcripts, and so on and so forth for critique by other people.

In these situations, it’s painfully easy to identify people. All you need to do is match SOP and CV/academic background.


Luc 02.19.07 at 12:37 am

Hasn’t it always been in these kind of cases that gathering information without the knowledge nor consent of the subject is dodgy?

The internet makes it easier, but it doesn’t make it more ethical.


will u. 02.19.07 at 12:39 am

“In these situations, it’s painfully easy to identify people. All you need to do is match SOP and CV/academic background.”

Yeah, I’m applying for grad admissions now, and I’m sure I can be easily identified on the basis of the subject and general GRE scores I posted. I really ought to take them down.


Jim Aune 02.19.07 at 1:50 am

I’m finding it hard to make up my mind without at least a general example of the type of website discussed here. Could someone point me to an URL?


CattyinQueens 02.19.07 at 2:26 am

The post re: Joe Job is right–it may seem pretty easy to identify people, but what if you’ve wrongly done so? I imagine commentary on such forums has much to do with convention as much as individual personality.

Along these lines, there have been plenty of times that I’ve read the job forums on the Chronicle of Higher Ed and kind of thought I knew somebody was a candidate for a position in my department, but every time, I ended up being wrong–and as often as I find academia to be a small world, I’m almost just as frequently reminded that it’s actually quite a large one.

Also, newly admitted graduate students tend to be full of cheek until they read their first bout of theory or what have you. Sooner or later, everybody’s humbled, and by the time one finishes, one hardly resembles the silly person he or she had been prior to getting beaten down by 10 years of apprenticeship.

Stick to the application files. I would think most departments have enough applicants that it’s just too much extra work to even begin to look for evidence of a candidate’s abilities outside of that file.


lindsey 02.19.07 at 2:26 am

I don’t think it’s ethical to use the information. While the fact that the content of the online writing may be un-controversially damning to the student (in other words, almost no one would prefer a mean spirited student to a nicer one), that doesn’t change the fact that the student intended to be anonymous. If the student had disclosed that he/she was gay and the committee wanted to take that into account (as a negative factor towards admissions) then the case would more clearly be unethical. How does that change if the content is merely an indicator of a personality flaw instead of sexual preference? The student is responsible for what they submit in their application, and for their record at their undergraduate school (which is accessible to graduate admissions councils, and should have any truly pertinent info). Anything more and the student should have read a disclosure somewhere that they would be responsible for information the committee could find elsewhere (facebook and myspace come into mind). Not to mention the fact that it was supposed to be anonymous so you can’t be 100% positive that you are punishing the right person, another problem.

I probably wouldn’t want to be that student’s friend, but that doesn’t change the situation. Oh, and it doesn’t matter if the institution is public or private, at least I don’t think so.


dr ngo 02.19.07 at 4:02 am

Hasn’t it always been in these kind of cases that gathering information without the knowledge nor consent of the subject is dodgy?

I’ve never thought so, not for low values of “gathering.” E.g., if among your faculty colleagues (who might otherwise not be involved in this search) is someone who might happen to know one of the candidates, through having taught at his/her institution perchance, I would have thought it curious, if not downright remiss, to ask “Do you know this candidate? If so, what is your impression of him/her?”

Or are you seriously suggesting that we cannot in good conscience ask anything of anyone but those referees whom the candidate him/herself has nominated?


dr ngo 02.19.07 at 4:04 am

Duh. Make that “. . . would have thought it curious . . . NOT to ask.”

Preview is our friend.


moriarty 02.19.07 at 4:07 am

“Last thing—“taking into account” is not the same as “regarding as decisive”. One thing you’re being asked is how much weight to give to it, if any.”

If it’s given any weight at all, then it will have the potential to be decisive (assuming all else is equal or close). If you’re going to give it any weight, you have to allow for the chance that it will be the deciding factor in rejection.


voyou 02.19.07 at 4:07 am

It seems to me that the issue here is whether it’s right for the admissions committee to take into account information that the applicant had intended for a different audience; maybe there are offline analogies. Say the faculty member went into a bar and happened to overhear the student chatting with her friends. Would it be OK to use the information then? Would it be OK if the faculty member made a habit of hanging round bars in town where they know graduate students hang out? In the former case, using the information would be problematic (how do you interpret what people say when you’re not familiar with their intended audience?), but not absolutely unethical. But the latter case seems clearly unethical to me, and, depending on the nature of the web site in question, might be analogous to the case here.


online 02.19.07 at 5:06 am

Rejecting the person on the basis of this posting could only possibly be acceptable if the department in question were willing to actually confront him with this accusation and get a response. As Lee notes in #25, it is painfully easy to be/appear to be someone else, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

For example, maybe someone lied a little bit when he posted his malicious comments so that he couldn’t be caught, and unintentionally provided information that matched 100% with someone else.


Dan Kervick 02.19.07 at 5:46 am

If the student had disclosed that he/she was gay and the committee wanted to take that into account (as a negative factor towards admissions) then the case would more clearly be unethical. How does that change if the content is merely an indicator of a personality flaw instead of sexual preference?

Because in most cases it is illegal and wrong to take sexual orientation in account in making hiring and admissions decisions, or use it as a discriminating factor, but it is not illegal, or inappropriate, to take into account other kinds of information about personal ethics and character, honesty, collegiality, personality flaws, etc.

So, on the assumption that the information is both relevant and of the kind that the committee could legitimately take into account if it were acquired in some other way, the main questions as I see them are (i) was it ethical to gather the information in question in the way it was gathered, and (ii) how certain is the admissions committee that the applicant in question is the author of the information?

As for the second question, I would say that if the admissions committee is considering using the information from the web site as part of the basis for their judgment, and they have any doubt at all that the student authored the website posting, then the committee has an obligation to ask the student straight out: “Did you or did you not write these things on this website? And if so, are they true? What do you have to say in your defense?” It might be embarrassing for the committee members to admit that they were skulking around on some student-oriented website, but its too late now. They did get the information, and it would be unfair to base their judgment on a mere hunch or probable inference that the applicant authored the information, without giving the applicant a chance to set the record straight.

As far as whether the information was gathered in an ethical way, I would say “yes” so long as the website was not a legally restricted forum in some way, and the committee members were as entitled as anyone else to be there and read the postings.

The fact that some person intends some information to be anonymous, and intends not to divulge it publicly does not automatically mean that person has a right to the privacy of the information. Not all information about us is equally entitled to privacy protection, and in any case if we do wish to keep some information about ourselves private, it is our responsibility to protect it.

Suppose you wear a sheer white shirt to you job or admissions interview, and the interviewer can clearly see beneath the shirt a tattoo that says “Kill all the ni***rs!”. Does the interviewee have a just claim of being wronged if they say say, I’m sorry but I intended to keep the fact that I am a genocidal neo-nazi secret by hiding my tattoo beneath this shirt? I wouldn’t think so. Similarly, if someone posts something damaging under the “shirt” of an anonymous screen name, but a reader can see through the shirt and discern who the author is, then the failure to adequately protect that information is the responsibility of its author.


lindsey 02.19.07 at 6:07 am

In response to Dan, I totally agree that issues of sexual orientation are much different than that of personality, esp when considering an applicant (bad analogy I guess). My issue was more along the lines of this: if the academic honesty/integrity of the student is not in question (which can be obtained by school records), then should the committee judge the applicant for having a less than socially acceptable personality (lacking tact or wisdom of what’s appropriate to say at what times and to whom)? The student may very well just be unpleasant/arrogant, but perhaps that could change over the course of studies (as tends to happen with students once they face the reality of classes…which was mentioned by someone else above).

On another note, whether or not the committee intends to take it into consideration, I highly doubt that they can act as though they never saw the website. Psychologically, once the seed is there…it’s very hard to uproot. So I highly doubt they could disregard it even if they wanted to…In that case, they should decide whether or not they will take that sort of information into account prior to visiting the website (tempting though it may be).


99 02.19.07 at 6:24 am

Well, here’s an interesting anecdote to stir the pot as regards the bar conversation and context.

I went to a college that did not issue grades, but narrative evaluations. A friend had a professor with whom she has disagreements with over social issues (that were pertinent in the course of the classwork) note in her evaluation (which otherwise stipulated that she was diligent in her coursework and delivered above what was expected) that he observed her in a bar in the evening of a day she missed class.

Was that ethical? My friend spent some time working through the appeals process — without success — to have it stricken (not that her attendance was poor, but that the professor had any right to make observations about her personal life). Would me providing three pieces of information that would enable the majority of the readers of this site to identify him be ethical (without naming names or even listing schools he’s taught at)? Should this anecdote be used against him in future hiring reviews?


SG 02.19.07 at 7:00 am

Would any of the commenters be happy with their contributions (and contribution history!) here being used to judge them as “not the kind of person” a potential employer would want others to deal with and not “entirely honest”? I certainly wouldn`t (regardless of the quality or otherwise of my personality as revealed through my comments). I certainly wouldn`t want my intellectual capacity judged on the basis of my comments here!

Seems to me the same should apply to a student. God, some of you lot have revealed an interest in Science Fiction! You think that`s gonna get you hired?


abb1 02.19.07 at 8:08 am

#42: …and they have any doubt at all that the student authored the website posting, then the committee has an obligation to ask the student straight out…

I don’t think so. This is not a criminal investigation, they are not required to get to the bottom of it (nor do they have the means), but only to use their best judgment based on available information.

Just like in your tattoo scenario – you don’t confront the applicant saying: “I can see your tattoo, is this really how you feel or was it, by any chance, done to you by your parents when you were 5 years old?”

No, you don’t do cross-examination, you just collect the information and use your best judgment based on what you know, including your knowledge of the odds that each particular piece of information may be false or misleading. And, incidentally, not only website postings may be false, but the SAT scores and applicant-provided references as well.


aaron_m 02.19.07 at 9:57 am


Your post makes not sense at all. Why not ask the relvant question and get even more information on which to base you decission.

Are you really this affraid of an uncomfortable social situation?abb1

Your post makes not sense at all. Why not ask the relevant question when you have the chance and get even more information on which to base you decision.

Are you really this afraid of an uncomfortable social situation?

If you can’t ask this kind of question you given the background to the situation we are describing you have no business being on an admissions committee.


aaron_m 02.19.07 at 10:00 am


Some major cut and paste problems in that last post.



derrida derider 02.19.07 at 10:11 am

You either ignore it or you give the person a chance to explain it. It’s absurd to take an online persona as representing the whole person – many people (including me) do in fact adopt a quite different personality online. Plus there is the real possibility of you hanging the wrong person.

I’m appalled that you’d even think of taking it into account without further investigation.


abb1 02.19.07 at 10:22 am

Of course it’s OK to ask the question if you feel like it, I only object to the notion that you have an obligation to ask (per #42). You should be able to make use of the facts you know without cross-examination. This is not as if you grabbed this guy off the street and decide if he should be sent to jail; high degree of certainty is not required.

Suppose someone (a stranger) asks you for money citing severe hardship, but you notice what looks like a real diamond ring on his finger. Do you have an obligation to make sure this is not a merely well-made fake diamond?


Luc 02.19.07 at 12:11 pm

Or are you seriously suggesting that we cannot in good conscience ask anything of anyone but those referees whom the candidate him/herself has nominated?

If you want to select the best academic candidate with some sense of procedure and impartiality, I’d say yes, unless you’ve said so in advance.

Of course reality is different, and not everything done oustside of procedure is an ethical problem. But keeping to a strict procedure prevents lots of (ethical) problems. Like the one discussed here.


Liz 02.19.07 at 12:39 pm

The best response, when confronted with this type of pseudo-evidence, is to talk to the person who you believe is perpetrating the inappropriate behavior, show them what you’ve seen, and explain why it’s inappropriate–while taking pains to explain that you are not accusing them of anything, but would like them to know “for future reference.” However, this should be accomplished with utmost deft, considering the potential for the student to feel like they’re being accused, treated unfairly, or being put through a witch hunt.


Dan Kervick 02.19.07 at 12:53 pm

Would any of the commenters be happy with their contributions (and contribution history!) here being used to judge them as “not the kind of person” a potential employer would want others to deal with and not “entirely honest”? I certainly wouldn`t (regardless of the quality or otherwise of my personality as revealed through my comments). I certainly wouldn`t want my intellectual capacity judged on the basis of my comments here!

I wouldn’t be happy either sg. But if I am really that concerned about how potential employers might view my opinions, I shouldn’t post them on blogs and sign my name to them. And if I take the risk of posting them anyway under an invented screen name, I should be very circumspect about divulging personal information that might allow a reader to put two and two together.

We might wear various masks in dealing with different parts of our world, but others are not morally required to judge us based on the mask of our own choosing.


Henry (not the famous one) 02.19.07 at 12:56 pm

My concern is more substantive than procedural: to what extent are the committee members converting their hurt feelings (“saying malicious things about departments he has visited . . . and generally revealing himself to be utterly unpleasant”) into substantive flaws (“raising doubts about whether he is honest and the kind of person it would be reasonable to want other students to deal with”)? While of course it is legitimate to be concerned with other students’ welfare, the way that HB has framed the issue suggests that the committee members don’t feel comfortable in rejecting him because of the hurtful things that he has said, but want to give their feelings a more noble, public-minded in loco parentis character.

On the other hand, I am sympathetic to concerns about dishonesty (in all its forms)–there is nothing more corrosive (probably even in a field in which solitary research is the norm, but certainly in those fields that depend on collaborative endeavors) than concerns about a co-worker’s truthfulness and personal integrity. But is this about dishonesty or something else–“unpleasantness”?

I don’t know the state of the law in this area, but the Supreme Court’s old University of Missouri case indicates that this sort of academic decision-making is an area, like Antarctica, where no laws apply, other than those prohibiting discrimination on grounds of race, gender, etc. That is, however, even more reason for committees to proceed carefully in this area and not to put their personal interests forward as if they were institutional ones.

The procedural response might be one way to keep the committee honest: forcing it to ask the candidate if he actually said these things and whether he actually believes them would also force the committee to expose its concerns and, perhaps, look critically at its own motives and the department’s legitimate concerns. In this case, however, I somehow doubt that this would produce a satisfying solution, even if the candidate were higher up the list: I would expect him to offer the standard abject apology for nothing in particular (“I spoke without thinking . . . I apologize if my comments offended anyone. . . .”). Due process is a wonderful thing in theory, but it rarely (in my experience) makes much difference without a truly disinterested and open-minded decision-maker.


Dan Kervick 02.19.07 at 1:05 pm

abb1, you don’t need to do a cross examination to get to the bottom of every issue, but I think fairness requires that you take into account an awareness of your own limited knowledge if there is any realistic possibility that you might be wrong. It’s not life and death, but the shape of a person’s future career is at stake, and you owe them at least that much.

Just say: “look, some information has come to our attention, and it wouldn’t be fair to go forward without giving you a chance to comment on it and correct the record.”

The applicant may say, “This sucks! This is bullshit! What are you doing lurking on student websites! You guys are a bunch of pathetic asshole losers! I wouldn’t go to your damn school now if you begged me!” But then at least you gave the applicant a chance to set the record straight, and he declined.


abb1 02.19.07 at 2:07 pm

If you ask and the applicant simply denies that the comments were his, then not only you’re back to square 1 as far as confirming authenticity of the posts, but (I feel) now you really have to discard this information, because the applicant has denied it and you probably have no real, certified proof. Or, if you do have the proof, you now have to discuss it with the applicant, which is probably not something you want to do. Do you know what I mean?


aaron_m 02.19.07 at 2:14 pm

What do you mean abb1?

Is your claim that before you ask the evidence is good and you can base a decision on it but after you ask the evidence becomes either better or worse depending on whether you get an admission or denial, and that in the latter case the evidence becomes some much more unreliable that it is no longer relevant to the decision at hand?

It seems to me that if a simple denial can undermine the usability of the evidence it was not usable in the first place.


abb1 02.19.07 at 2:29 pm

I don’t know how to explain it.

You start with what the post calls “near, and in some cases absolute, certainty”. Simple enough.

Now you ask the culprit: “why did you make these comments?” and he says: “I didn’t.” Now, I feel, you have to either prove it and make him admit that he did or ignore the whole thing. I can’t explain why I feel this way. I’ll try to analyze it.


Thom Brooks 02.19.07 at 2:49 pm

Yes, I do think the committee can take this information into account.


Ned Ulbricht 02.19.07 at 3:58 pm

Hypothetically, start out with an IP address and RADIUS account logs from the network provider. Assume that the adverse action is no more serious than a letter of caution regarding “netiquette”.

Do you give the person a chance to explain?


eszter 02.19.07 at 3:59 pm

I think if you are sure that the person is who you think it is then it seems reasonable to add information from his/her behavior on the forum to the overall packet of information upon which you are basing your decision especially given that this is a public forum for the discussion of a professional topic (grad program admissions). However, if you cannot be certain then I would proceed with caution.

As an analogy for those who think it is wrong to take additional info into consideration, what do you think of the following? Let’s say you meet a prospective at a conference and you observe him/her behaving in a problematic manner (whether because comments after a presentation are outright problematic or the person treats someone very poorly in the hallway), would/could/should you ignore that experience with this person when you are faced with evaluating his/her potential as a positive contributor to your community?


Michael E. Sullivan 02.19.07 at 4:29 pm

Would any of the commenters be happy with their contributions (and contribution history!) here being used to judge them as “not the kind of person” a potential employer would want others to deal with and not “entirely honest”? I certainly wouldn`t (regardless of the quality or otherwise of my personality as revealed through my comments). I certainly wouldn`t want my intellectual capacity judged on the basis of my comments here!

I wouldn’t have a problem with an admissions committee or potential employer reading what I’ve written here or elsewhere, as long as they had some understanding of my audience. I certainly haven’t written anything here that I’m ashamed of.

If they were to use it to “judge my intellectual capacity” in the same way they might look at papers or project reports, that’s a major error on their part. Comments here fit somewhere between bar conversations and lecture questions or class discussion, and should be read as such.

I agree it’s very hard to make a judgement in the absence of further information. In general dan kervick at 42 covers the ethical issues well in my opinion. The issues are how certain we can be that the student in question did make the posts, and how reasonably we can judge their appropriateness in context and apply that to our opinion about their person, and whether we had a legal and ethical right to see the posts in the first place. If we’re clear on all three, there’s no reason not to use the information. The fact that the student attempted to be anonymous is irrelevant, as the analogy demonstrates.

If I catch someone sneakily putting up an anonymous hateful banner, is the person less culpable than if they had signed it?


Tom T. 02.19.07 at 4:58 pm

I think the fact that this information is on a website may be needlessly complicating the analysis. More generally, how would the admissions committee handle gossip of uncertain reliability about an applicant?


abb1 02.19.07 at 5:09 pm

…start out with an IP address…

Nah, this ain’t about any IPs. This is like this: someone posts a comment: “do you know A, big cheese at the faculty here? i used to work for this guy at the XYZ where he had a steaming affair with an intern and was stealing a lot of paper clips”. You take this comment with the list of applicants to A, he points the finger and says: “This is the guy”.

Is there a point in confronting the guy? I don’t think so. You just have to assume that there is a 97.5% probability that the guy identified by A is a very unpleasant person. This is not an automatic disqualifier, but something to consider.


clew 02.19.07 at 5:48 pm

In 64, I think A is also an unpleasant person*. Perhaps the applicant would fit in.

I want to second the arguments in 54, and add that I am dubious that the details of CV, etc., are as unique as claimed. Have you really run a complete search for collisions? I have had my paperwork confused with a first-middle-last-birthdate collision; two fellow students in my department have a first-middle-last-birthplace collision; we both know that people tend to leap to conclusions about which name-owner did what, even though they know there’s a collision.

Names, birthdates, and birthplaces are not independent variables, making this system less useful than it’s often supposed. Academic locale and interest are also related. I wouldn’t trust this “we can tell” very far at all.

Back to #54, I also think that hurt feelings which are trying to disguise themselves will leap to find justification where they can, so that their misidentifications will be extra-untrustworthy. People tend to stick to ‘it could have been X’ without thinking through whether it could have not been X; e.g., they will identify ‘really good Boston school’ as the one that makes them wince, forgetting that there are many so described. Nor do I think that there needs to be any maliciousness, or even consciousness, in the person making the misidentification. It’s one of the weak spots of human decision-making, which explicit systems, such as asking the accused, are supposed to patch.

On the other hand, if someone really is making nasty statements and admits to it, it seems fair to me to weigh this in their admission; while it’s true that it might be the feather that keeps them out of the department, it is in that case the feather that lets someone else in.

*Unless there’s some Trollopian arrangement of circumstances in which A is innocent and hounded. Innocent and never otherwise suspected of anything, dunno; prudence and virtue together suggest that A should have expressed benign puzzlement and passed on, but that’s a bit saintly to expect.


Ben M 02.19.07 at 5:48 pm

I agree with Dan Kervick #42’s analysis; the general principle that “the applicant is not in full control of the information given to the committee” is pretty well agreed upon; take, for example, the fact that one doesn’t read and screen one’s letters of recommendation.

I have a secondhand example with pretty close parallels to the hypothetical. An unidentified department has an “interview weekend” for their prospectives; during this weekend, in addition to attending department-hosted events, the prospectives socialize with current grad students, get taken to dinner, get put up in spare bedrooms, etc.. Occasionally, an applicant will reveal him or herself to be a complete jerk—not during the interviews, of course, but during the student-hosted events afterwards. The hosts are encouraged to quietly report this back to the admissions committee: “We think so-and-so would cause real problems in the department.” The one case I’m aware of (although it apparently happens every few years) involved an applicant who refused to work alongside women.

He probably *thought* he was anonymous—if not universally, at least with respect to the admissions committee. He wasn’t, and rightly so. A final point of similarity: the online jerk isn’t merely being a jerk to e.g., random blog commenters. Since the forum is one of “this year’s grad school applicants”, he or she is being a jerk to future classmates and colleagues. That bears much more directly on “collegiality” issues than most online behavior would.


clew 02.19.07 at 5:56 pm

abb1 and ben m, in #64 and #66, have two different cases: is the applicant telling an unpleasant truth about the department, or about the applicant?

In the first case, punishing the applicant for it is hypocritical, because it’s punishment for not keeping a secret that was already not kept by the department.


abb1 02.19.07 at 6:01 pm

Well, I was thinking it’s more like gossip and innuendo about the department, rather than unpleasant truth about the department.


Luc 02.19.07 at 6:07 pm

Bringing up these cases suggests that even though there is some consensus that additional information should be considered there are (ethical) limits. Is googling someone standard procedure or out of bounds? Saying something positive about a relative/former student? Exchanging information with other GAC’s? Etc.

I still think that it is better to state those rules before evaluating student admissions, and be open about them towards those students.

An honest and fair admission process is much more valuable than some anecdotal information that you might not use because of those damned procedures.


Sebastian holsclaw 02.19.07 at 6:11 pm

“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.”

I have no problem with using the information from the website, go to it. It may be just that we are missing context which would be obvious if we read the actual ‘gossip’, but saying malicious things isn’t the same as saying malicious and untrue things, so the honesty problem isn’t automatic. Now the utterly unpleasant part is probably enough, so take that as you will.


clew 02.19.07 at 6:12 pm

abb1; In your example, surely it’s either true and irrelevant (and if the dept. thinks it’s irrelevant, they oughtn’t complain that people talk about it); true and relevant, in which case they should deal with the beam in their own eye; or false, in which case I’d say it’s an unpleasant truth about the applicant.

I know my argument contradicts actual hierarchical habits, that every criticism upwards should be smothered in hushed appeals to ‘appropriateness’. I think we should do something to counterbalance that, though, esp. given the uncertainty that not-famous-harry and I are thinking of; stung vanity is going to be most comfortable accusing some Not-Like-Us sap of ‘inappropriate incollegiality’.


abb1 02.19.07 at 6:40 pm

Look, Clew, I can’t say I understand what you’re saying there, but I think ‘gossip-mongering’ is a clear enough concept. Gossip-mongering typically doesn’t have anything to do with criticism or true/false or relevant/irrelevant.


dave™© 02.19.07 at 7:52 pm

Since the comments are “anonymous,” how, exactly, does the decision-making committee propose to “identify” the commenter? If they are making the identification based on the “identifying” traits the commenter posts, are they considering the fact that someone could be “spoofing” the commenter’s identity? If they plan on tracking the commenter down via IP addresses and such, what does that say about the breach of academic freedom?

I think they better just not wander into this swamp…


konopelli/wgg 02.19.07 at 7:55 pm

my take?

somebody who behaves like a total dick behind a curtain of putative anonymity is probably not somebody with whom i would want to be too closely associated. grad students form pretty tight communities, often; associate pretty closely…

there is already a huge surplus of assholes in academia. why go out of one’s way to enroll another?

prob’ly that’s just me, though…


Outlandish Josh 02.19.07 at 8:06 pm

If you’re certain about the identity link, then it’s ok to take into account, but without real certainty you can’t decide anything on the basis of online behavior alone.

Certainty is hard. I don’t know the actual data in question, but it seems unlikely that a link could be made “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I would think that this evidence would probably be the sort of thing ot give rise to some subsequent probing or re-evaluation.

You’d also want to take into account the fact that many people do tend to behave very differently — to the point, much more poorly — in online fora, even without the cloak of pseudonymity. Their “real life” persona may still be a fine fit for the program.

Bottom line: you’re on thin ice making observed pseudonymous internet behavior a deciding factor for anything.


Mooser 02.19.07 at 8:08 pm

Let’s start prosecuting actors for what they do in their film roles, we’re already taxing authors of fiction (Mr. Webb anybody?) for the things their characters do and say.


Crusty Dem 02.19.07 at 8:34 pm


From an ethical viewpoint, I think this is pretty shaky, but I would also look into the legal aspects (of which I am quite ignorant). Personally, I wouldn’t even consider utilizing this information without asking the applicant directly if they were responsible for these comments and if they could explain them. The possibility of sabotage from another applicant/personal enemy is just too high.

Of course, I’m a little sensitive on these kinds of issues since my initial graduate school application at the school of my choice was rejected due to a nasty letter from my (crazy) former boss. I was only able to get the initial decision overturned because I had a copy of letters he sent to other institutions and I was able to convince several of his co-workers to discuss his mental instability with the admissions committee at my school of choice..


jefff 02.19.07 at 8:38 pm

I would be interested to know if this graduate program will be investigating any of thier professors to see if allegations made on this website are well founded and taking corrective action (eg firing abusive professors).


bob 02.19.07 at 8:38 pm

Here is an ethical problem for you. You are the dean of a department. One of the (untenured) professors in your department is very cordial and respectful to you in person, but you found out that when he goes home he tells his wife that you are a total freaking asshole and worse. You know this because you are sleeping with his wife.

First question: Should you arrange to have this person terminated? Question 2: Would your answer be different if you wanted to continue diddling his wife?


SteveG 02.19.07 at 8:48 pm

I think it is perfectly fine as long as the members of the committee are upstanding, wise, and extremely good looking as the members of the tenure and promotion committee at my institution are — especially the chair. Did I mention good looking? Also the president is incredibly insightful and wonderful for the institution and I couldn’t imagine a better provost. Bang up job, that one. Yup, love them all.


Joe S. 02.19.07 at 9:04 pm

What I don’t like about many of these posts is that they assume that the legal model of factfinding should be used by admissions committees. Sheesh, I even saw an adverse reference to hearsay, which–BTW–is accepted by most legal systems, including US administrative hearings.

If a lawyer’s sense of procedural fairness were the summum bonum of all, why not tear down the laboratories and replace them with courts of law? “Cross-examination is the greatest engine devised to find truth,” and all of that.

Going to the merits of this mess, I agree with the commentators who said that it is easier to feel confident in an identification than to be accurate in the identification. But I do think that collegiality is relevant, in student admissions, as well as faculty hires. And all human decisions are made behind a veil of ignorance and misinformation.


Gary Carson 02.19.07 at 9:15 pm

You seem to be assuming it’s okay to use confidential information to stalk someone on the internet, but aren’t sure it’s ethical to use the information you get as a result of the stalking?


DG 02.19.07 at 9:53 pm

Students should be judged on the basis of their application packets. The schools should be able to determine how we’ll they’re doing based on the quality of their incoming classes and the work that they do, not whining on anonymous Internet message boards. You shouldn’t take avenues that students use to blow off steam against them. If they know that they are being watched in such forums, those forums cease to be useful.

And absolutely the answer changes for private versus public universities. I think public schools should be held to higher ethical standards, if only because they are funded in part by taxpayers. That distinction doesn’t necessarily trickle down into the actual classroom, but I think in all other ways — selection committees especially — cognizance of public status is very important.


km 02.19.07 at 10:14 pm

I guess the technical meaning of anonymous is that no name is attached to the person in question. There’s also a more general understanding of it as kind of “not knowing who the person is” that isn’t necessarily just about the name.

Unfortunately in the real world identities can be determined by lots and lots of stuff other than one’s name. If you want to post potentially damaging things on the internet, you’ve got to be smart enough not to rely on the technical meaning of “anonymous” and take pains to protect other indicators of your identity. The person in question didn’t do that, so I’m not convinced by the “he intended it to be anonymous” argument.

I think not only is it ethical to take this information into consideration in the admissions process (as long as, as others have said, it’s not the ONLY criterion being used), but it’s stupid not to. If you have different kinds of information to judge a candidate’s potential fit in the department (I personally don’t think mere “academic potential” is the only thing the committee should be looking for), why not use it?


Jane 02.19.07 at 10:26 pm

I wonder what the members of the admissions committee are doing reading a Web site intended for students to blow off steam and dish about their prospects. I would suggest they refrain from doing so in the future.

But they’ve got a problem now, and if the on-line crimes of the student in question are really quite serious, I think he/she should be invited in for an interview and asked about it. If he’s sufficiently embarrassed and is otherwise a fine prospect, accept him. If really convincingly denies it’s him, admit him. If he doesn’t deny it and doesn’t get why it’s a problem, he’s likely to cause genuine problems in the department. Dont’ take him unless he’s really so exceptional that the program can’t do without him.

Said interview is the ideal time to explain the facts of life about on-line anonymity and to warn said student that if he’s accepted and you find out he’s continuing this sort of thing, he could lose his place. Or something.



aaron_m 02.19.07 at 10:34 pm

The question is, is it justifiable to prevent someone from moving forward in their career when, based on the merit of their work/qualifications, they should get the opportunity but were 1) I come across information, that I do not normally have access, that shows the candidate to be very unpleasant and 2) the particular career opportunity at hand is one where their unpleasantness could potentially affect me.

First, to make this question interesting the example should be constructed that so that the candidate does in fact have the qualifications despite their unpleasantness. In other words, their unpleasantness has not prevented them from excelling on the normal criteria of judgement. Second we should make the example one that hits a little closer to home.

Lets say A is applying for a professorship at your department and that she also has a manuscript submitted to a very prestigious journal were you are the editor responsible for her paper. You know that the paper, if sent to referees, will be accepted and that with this publication she will get the professorship. Without the publications she will not get the professorship. At the same time you come across information that A is a real monumental ass hole. You know this information to be true but could not satisfactorily substantiate it for the hiring committee. You would have to work closely with A should she get the job.

Are you justified is sabotaging her publication because you know how unpleasant she is? Many I think would answer no. The obvious question is then what is the difference in the case of this potential PhD student. Let us assume, with some plausibility, that denying the unpleasant grade student does entail a clear negative effect on the individual’s career (you happen to be at a very fancy schmancy department).

The idea that we cannot reject a potential co-worker because he is a monumental ass hole seems odd generally. We would not hold any private company to this standard, but it is precisely this that is the point. The academic world is much more dependent on being a genuine meritocracy. This is why sabotaging A’s publication is clearly unethical and why denying this grad student is also highly questionable. Furthermore, as has been noted previously, the more individualist the work this person will be doing the more difficult it is to find an argument based in merit for sabotaging this individual’s career.


harry b 02.19.07 at 10:45 pm


I’m inclined to agree with your judgement about your case. But I don’t think the meritocracy standard is helpful, and I also think the analogy is wrong.

What’s wrong with the analogy? Contrary to the assumptions of some on the thread, admissions committees are not concerned with making life easy or nice for professors, but they are concerned with making life conducive to good learning for students. Whether someone is collegial or not is relevant to other people’s learning. Especially in a small class, if one person is a monumental asshole (or stupid, or lazy or whatever) that may have a negative effect on other students. I think we have a duty to be concerned about that. We also consider diversity, for example, of interests among students — we want a good fit between them (which demands some diversity and a good deal of congruence).

The reason that the meritocracy standard isn’t helpful is that we are, even in graduate school, trying not only to predict but also to cause learning. How well someone learns in graduate school is not just a function of their past learning, but also of the environment they are in (at least, that’s what I would like to believe). I have argued for admitted students with weaker files over students with stronger files on the hunch that they would do well in our particular environment. There’s no way of testing whether I was right of course (well, not without large scale studies…).


vermin jones 02.19.07 at 10:45 pm

I dunno.

I’m applying for grad programs. I have said more than once, I heard that Professor X is a real bitch, who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Who did I hear that from? Other professors at other schools.

If it is something like that, I don’t see that it is realistic to take it into consideration. Do you think that everyone that applies to a given program loves everything about it and is completley honest about any misgivings that they might have?

Do you remember the anxiety that applying involved – not knowing if a program or the faculty are as good/bad as they appear, trying to impress them and having no idea whatsoever what they think of you? Perhaps the comments were more reflective of that pressure than their real beliefs.

The next time you’re at an academic conferance, look around the room and think about any negative remarks you might have said about the people in your field. Would you like them repeated around? If they did get out, would you feel that people made decisions affecting your career based on it?

I’ve had professors make unprofessional comments that they obviously wouldn’t want repeated in front of a tenure comittee, or a hiring comittee. Have you?

I had a job ghost writing graduate admissions essays for foreign students who couldn’t speak English. If you google my name, you’ll find that out about me. Would a program be justified if they did that, decided it was dishonest and decided not to admit me?

So, you can guess what my answer would be.


anon for this topic 02.19.07 at 11:02 pm

34: Test Magic Forums

I’m not particularly comfortable posting direct links, but you can see that users post “profiles” and ask for advice, discuss admission decisions, etc. These profiles may include undergrad institutions, test scores, grades, research interests, etc.

Incidentally, this blog post was mentioned in at least one thread on that forum.


Doug 02.19.07 at 11:13 pm

I confess that my reaction to the title of this post is to hear someone sing “You can be the ethicist/I’d rather be the Pope.”

That is all.


elfvillage 02.19.07 at 11:32 pm

A number of people have said that the information is publicly accessible so it should be fine to consider it.

But what would these same people think if a candidate was from a very well-known family or was dating a faculty daughter? Would it be permissible to take information arising from those connections into consideration? — or would the committee not rather try to bracket it out?

My view is that personality, ‘collegiality’, and the like should be held irrelevant save where it is so bad that it indicates the likelihood that the candidate will not manage to complete the programme or threatens to undermine its professional goals.

Not getting along with others, being an ass, being full of anger, even being dishonest in certain areas of one’s life, do not seem to me necessarily relevant considerations. Plenty of excellent scholars are such people, after all — and it’s not clear that they’re worse teachers for it either.


Academia is (for my tastes) too social a profession already, esp. in the humanities and social sciences. As one of my fellow grad. students put it: ‘Research gets you in the door but tribal politics get you into bed.’ This makes for a tough balancing act.

On the one hand, tribal politics are unavoidably central to academic life, and managing them well is probably even central to good scholarship and mentorship; so I can understand a committee giving this weight.

But I wish with all my heart that they wouldn’t, and I can’t help but feeling that most of the time these sorts of considerations are too full of slant, too thin on evidence, of too transitory a nature (because people do grow up, and sometime quickly) to result in other than superficial decisions.


MNPundit 02.20.07 at 12:06 am

Answer: Absolutely wrong. If they are a good candidate and would work hard and benefit by the program then that should be the only criteria needed for acceptance. If you’re deciding between two applicants and one basically says that you’re scum then that might be a different matter.

Unfortunately from what I’ve seen of the inner workings of university departments (very limited exposure to graduate departments but some) most of the bad stuff is true. The way some university departments treat their clerical staff for example, verges on obscene.


Peter 02.20.07 at 1:18 am

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

No. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to work with a sociopath, you’ve encountered this “say one thing in public, and something different to everyone else in private.” In the case of a sociopath, one bad apple spoils not only the rest of the apples in the barrel, but the barrel as well.

I recommend watching the movie Final Cut. The plot revolves around a bio-electronic implant that wealthier parents had implanted in their children, and didn’t tell them until they reached age 21 that the child had one. It does talk a little bit about some of what we’re hashing out here: would you behave differently if you knew that everything you saw and heard was recorded and would be played back later?

aaron_m does have some good points in 78. However, the hypothetical wasn’t that the person was unpleasant, but that 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. I for one picked up on the “whether he is honest” more than “are they unpleasant.”

I’ve worked with both (I am a programmer – a profession that seems to have plenty of unpleasant people), and the dishonest ones are far more painful to work with and can frequently result in negative productivity for a group/company: fire them and not only productivity improves, but so does morale. I’ve also worked with guys so unpleasant that they’d make milk curdle. Or make lemon juice seem sweet by comparison. In the workplace, getting things done is far more important than how pleasant you are. Getting caught being dishonest is the career killer.

Secondary question: does it make a difference to your answer…


45. Would any of the commenters be happy with their contributions (and contribution history!) here being used to judge them as “not the kind of person” a potential employer would want others to deal with and not “entirely honest”?

More and more employers require background checks. Especially for jobs that have no legitimate need for one. You should presume that everything you type will be held against you.

Am I happy about that? No. It is just the price of living in the sort of country that the bushistas have turned America into. At least when people google for my name, I don’t show up for more than a few pages.


Pope Ratzo 02.20.07 at 1:47 am

What you may think is “near, and in some cases absolute, certainty” may not in fact be so.

When you’re talking about somebody’s future, it’s best to use facts to the extent that they exist, and not faith in your ability to make good guesses.

There are lots of ways that an anonymous forum on the internet can be something other than what it seems. If you’ve got more reliable data to use to make your decision, use it and leave the forums alone. In fact, even if a comment on the internet carries a person’s name, I’d leave it alone unless they take responsibility in person.

Having said that, I think it may be proper to ask the person if the comments are theirs. If they say “no”, you leave it alone. If they say “yes”, you kick their butt out the door.


tzs 02.20.07 at 2:23 am

I don’t think anyone would have a question about the ethics of this if the person were posting material such as fantasies about killing women, or Jews.

Due diligence, particularly because it could open the university to a lawsuit later on.

If in this case, the poster demonstrates fraud or lying, I think if the posting can be traced back to the applicant in question, it should definitely go into the pot of things-to-be-considered.


SG 02.20.07 at 2:34 am

Isn`t this post really just saying “if you could deny people you don`t like access to university, would it be okay?” Would it be any different if the admissions committee had a device which unerringly identified unpleasant, untrustworthy people? Sure we would all like to consider people`s personalities in giving them a job, place at university etc., but that`s just flat out wrong no matter how we judge those personalities.


Big Fat Blowhard 02.20.07 at 3:00 am

IT all depends on how much credence you are willing to issue to the student who used said same website as a spring board for all GOOD statements, and hence a kissing up factor to his/her benefit.
I highly doubt these kinds of “kind” posts would sway your judgement to the better, so why should these sway your judgement for the worse?

What is fair is fair.


Big Fat Blowhard 02.20.07 at 3:15 am

Just remember this slippery slope. It might be pointed posts about univ life etc. today, but what about tomorrow, when you find out about one’s past sexual life, or maybe lack therefof, or religious or non-religiosity of someone? What about just past personal histories? If you hear about them, let say like above, in a bar, are you, in all your “due diligence”, required to ask personally about every little abberent behavior? And then why not just have a means test of some sort? Ask about random personal issues with no cause or history of them prior, and therefore the univ is off the hook, and you have your witchhunt, err I mean “good” candidates.
As for the tatoo under the shirt, that is the stupidest analogy. How about the person growing and learning:
1) It is wrong to think that, that is why I went to univ.
2) Tatoos are permanent, DUH!
3) Univ. professors are dickheads for thinking anything else


cerebrocrat 02.20.07 at 4:40 am

I guess this is a contrarian’s view.

No, and no. I think that treating a very small community, like a graduate program, as if it were a big corporate climate, is crazy. Personalities are definitive of a small community, and admitting an asshole is disruptive. (keep in mind, I’m talking about ethics, not policy, here) If you have evidence in hand suggesting that a prospective member of your community is an asshole, and you fail to protect your community from that assholism, then you’re at least dumb, and possibly acting unethically.

I agree with some commenters here that as policy, you should be as idealistic as possible, but the admissions process allows a great deal of space between ideals and practice, and if you fail to take advantage of this to protect your community from a clear asshole, then you are a fool.

As for the last commenter, I don’t understand at all why it’s not appropriate to consider someone’s personality. Academic departments are very small communities, and personalities affect the professional performance of the people involved. If I were a business guy, trying to put together a “team,” I would certainly consider the personal compatability of the people involved. Again, I’d be foolish not to.


TelltaleHeart 02.20.07 at 4:44 am

So the university provides an ostensibly anonymous forum for discussions of the pros and cons of the various university faculties and services, and then wants to cull anyone who posts critical material?

I think we have found a site for the new Bush Library.

Don’t know about America, but in my country (Australia), when an organisation collects personal information about you, the information may only legally be used for the purpose for which you have agreed it may be used.


SG 02.20.07 at 5:43 am

If I were a business guy, trying to put together a “team,” I would certainly consider the personal compatability of the people involved

alternatively you could learn a management style which gets people to leave their crap at the door. A manager or lecturer who can`t manage these problems has more than a personality problem – they have insufficient qualifications for the task.

This kind of argument – oh, we should consider our personal feelings in employing someone because everyone, you know, just has to get along – is a sign of a weakness of purpose. You aren`t willing to suffer a little bit of irascibility or annoyance in your day-to-day dealings, and as a consequence someone loses access to education? That`s pretty crappy.


abb1 02.20.07 at 7:59 am

#86 Are you justified is sabotaging her publication

Clearly you are not justified is sabotaging her publication.

This is a different scenario, however; here the person applies to a position and it’s your task to accept or deny his/her application based on your best judgment – and according to a bunch of policies. So, if you have this piece of information and taking it into consideration doesn’t contradict the policies, then, I think, it’s your responsibility to take it into consideration.

Incidentally, an application usually states quite clearly: this company (institution, organization) does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age, etc.

One has to assume that everything else is a fair game.


SG 02.20.07 at 9:13 am

No Abb1, one doesn`t have to assume that; one could assume that. Certainly as an applicant one should assume one`s potential employer is despicable and is using all available information to assess one`s application (including what one said on, for example, a thread on ethics in Crooked Timber). But as an employer/admissions assessor etc., one does not have to include information irrelevant to the position (or vaguely relevant if the employer is a pathetic loser who can`t handle a few differences of opinion).

I have worked in a lot of places where management were incapable of handling differences in opinion between staff; in one largely left-wing instituted I hired a person who was clearly unsuited to the temperament of the fellow staff, as well as right wing, and part of my management tasks involved shielding this employee from (admittedly minor) attitude problems where they might have affected this employee`s work. The employee in question revolutionised the workplace and left it in far better condition than it was in before that employee`s arrival. Had those on the hiring committee with me been able to infer evidence of this person`s occasionally racist, often irascible and sometimes unpleasant manners they would ultimately have missed a staff member worth their weight in gold. I was also on a hiring committee where a white South African was refused consideration because they had written “Race: white” on their application. The argument was that the individual must be a racist to have put such a point on their CV. To me, this shit was irrelevant – it was a technical position, and irrelevant whether the person in question hated anyone of any race. Sure they wouldn`t be going to work barbecues, but who cares? [and incidentally, in the former workplace being able to function as a close-knit team was important, which was why good management skills were more important than choosing the “right” person].

To my mind all this stuff about personality comes down to “we won`t be able to get along.” If one wants to “get along” with one`s co-workers one shouldn`t be a manager, and one shouldn`t assign oneself/accept/take responsibility for/allow oneself to be forced to take on the responsibility of hiring anyone. Similarly, one shouldn`t manage small groups because one is going to have to confront people being dickheads at some point.

(And yes, implicit in that is an argument that some people`s personality doesn`t suit their being a manager- so don`t employ me if you don`t like self-contradictory hypocrites).


abb1 02.20.07 at 10:53 am

That’s all fine, Sg, I don’t disagree with you. It’s perfectly alright if you decide to hire a genius with swastikas tattooed on his forehead or a gifted gossip-monger.

The question was: is it wrong to take this information about the applicant into account? I’m saying: no, it’s not wrong (with the caveats I mentioned above). And if in the end you decide that this information is only marginally relevant or even totally irrelevant – that’s up to you. Other employers might have different criteria.


aaron_m 02.20.07 at 11:18 am

#87 Harry B

Your criticisms of my example are not compelling.

First, your argument does not amount to my analogy being “wrong.” Rather you argue that there are additional considerations over and above merit that are relevant. It is certainly true that other factors should be taken into consideration, but your arguments do not convince me that merit should not clearly dominate the process.

If it is true that a PhD is a jerk to such an extent that they would undermine the ability of other PhDs to learn or do their work, then information about their social skills is relevant (as I alluded to in my post). But only if they have demonstrated that they cannot work with others. One can imagine that this will be relevant for PhDs working in teams under a professor, e.g. lots of collective projects and lab work. BUT that is a very specific kind of social problem for a specific kind of task (working in groups). And for Master’s students trying to enter into this kind of PhD programme their ability to work with others is something you can judge much better by asking those they have worked with on collective projects before.

The idea that we can motivate rejecting the candidate based on some general hunch that person A’s personality will inhibit persons B,C, and D from learning is just to abstract and easily manipulated. It risks being reasonable sounding BS in order to justify what you otherwise could not justify, prioritising an individual’s social popularity over academic merit.

How large of an impact can one unpleasant PhD student have on the learning environmental of an entire department? In rare cases I would say that they could have a huge effect, e.g. an ambitious sociopath or an illusive psychopath could be pretty disruptive. If you find half the staff cut up into small bits in the coffee room on day this will of course ruin the learning environment. But in the vast majority of cases it is not a few PhD students that determine the quality of the learning environment, and more importantly a socially difficult student rarely undermines the ability of others to learn baring the group research scenario.

If one could be fairly certain following a blog post that an individual would at the extreme end in terms of disruption then there is a case for using the information. But like many here I have a hard time imagining how one could be certain of that by following a blog post and suspect that there is something else going on here; namely that the committee member just does not like ‘that kind of person’ (maybe they are a libertarian or worse a relativist). Without more information it is difficult to judge.


SG 02.20.07 at 11:47 am

Abb1, I think it is wrong if doing so might adversely affect the person where in fact good management could ameliorate the effects of this person’s bad personality. I think you are unconsciously assuming that this individual is being judged in comparison to another equally qualified individual. In this case then yes, in as much as we are able to make “concrete” comparisons between individuals yes, we should take into account extraneous details (or we might as well flip a coin). But this information is not available in the example provided – presumably the information about personalities is being considered as if it were an “essential criterion”, i.e. it might displace some other desirable quality of the person which is actually more of a quality of interest. e.g. person A is a dickhead who meets all the essential criteria and as a bonus can program in C, which could be useful; person B meets all the essential criteria and is not a dickhead; therefore we employ person B and rue the fact a year later, when we discover C programming would be useful (meanwhile person A doesn’t get an education).

Also on a more general note I think this kind of attitude undermines the quality of the teaching or employment program. On the one hand we have a teaching program which (say, for example) has a group work focus and accepts people only on technical grounds; even though it could potentially weed out disruptive people through some (subjective) criteria it does not, and instead has a good management system for handling problems. On the other hand we have a teaching program which only allows in people it thinks will get along with one another, thus avoiding any really robust conflict management skills being required of either teachers or students. Eventually a dickhead is going to slip in under the radar in both programs, but neither the students nor the teachers in the latter program are going to know what to do. Given the focus on group work in most modern masters programs, this is both going to hold back the students’ education in the short term and fail to teach them a long-term skill everyone needs: dealing with dickheads.

Also generally I am opposed to people ghettoizing themselves away from people they don’t like – this kind of social specialisation doesn’t help us thrive as a society. I think it is objectionable in its own right (since society is about getting along), counter-productive and unfair to the majority of people who are offensive to some people and not to others. If otherwise reasonable people can get all the way through a 6 year university course without having to confront a bit of dickheadism, well, what is the good of it?


avm 02.20.07 at 2:26 pm

one thing makes me uncomfortable: nobody is sure who posted the malicious comments. It is more a supposition from the department. Why base your opinion on rumours and suppositions? What if they have misidentified the person?
I totally agree with no-s 25 and 41 above.


abb1 02.20.07 at 3:42 pm

Sg, all I’m doing is imagining myself being the head of this admission committee. I’m responsible for the outcome of this process. I have all this information and all these rules. Why would I want to deliberately overlook pieces of information that I find relevant and I’m allowed to take note of?

If it’s unethical to consider personality of the applicants, then it has to be stated right there in the rules, along with race and religion. But modern society doesn’t seem to commend this principle.


SG 02.21.07 at 1:38 am

No Abb1, it doesn`t have to be stated right there in the rules. It`s also unethical to shoot the applicants, but that`s not stated in the rules. Its a general assumption in life that you don`t get disadvantaged in the important things on the basis of a personal clash with another person. Even if the provenance of that personal clash is definite, not just supposed (as in this case). For example, most people get pissed off if they miss the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see their favourite band because the bouncer doesn`t like the look of them: it`s small beer to the bouncer, but a big matter to the person who misses the band. Same here. The staff on the program are going to have to do their job properly if this person is admitted – that`s small beer (in fact, if they take their job seriously they should appreciate this). If the person isn`t admitted, the staff get to be lazy and the person loses an education. Small beer this is not.

As another example of how this works, suppose you are a part of a group that has to “work closely together.” When you start working together, you are all womanizing scoundrels, and you are all fine with this. Then over time the rest of the team marry and settle down, and you don`t. They no longer appreciate you being a womanizing scoundrel, and so you can all get along, the boss sacks you. You happy about that? It`s not written in the rules that it`s wrong, but it is.

“Getting along” at work and in public does not mean “filtering out people you don`t like”. It means finding ways to interact politely with people who shit you. Every attempt to do what is described in this post moves the world a little step further along the path to being a balkanized, asocial collection of like-minded enclaves. This is bad morally (due to the exclusion inherent in this approach), practically (because it prevents people from learning to cope in situations where they meet strangers, or even from feeling they have to) and ultimately for our progress as a society. Groups of like-minded individuals don`t think clearly about contentious problems. As an example I give you the neo-cons. They certainly filtered out people they don`t like, even when (like semi-colon powell) those people had some very sensible things to say. Result: a few minor mistakes have been made.


Thomas 02.21.07 at 2:14 am

A couple of thoughts:

–There’s a lot of suggestion that you can’t be sufficiently sure about who posted the information. I’m guessing that, in this situation, that’s not quite right. The number of individuals involved is small enough, and I’m guessing that the information revealed is the key–it’s communicated, not personal (e.g., poster with same initials as applicant posts regarding communication from member of the committee that no one else would have knowledge of ). That sort of identification is reliable, if you ask me.

–There’s some disagreement about whether postings made anonymously are sufficiently revealing. I’ve already said what I think, and I won’t repeat it. But I have a thought experiment for the committee: What would you do if, in a posting, an applicant recounting a visit described a professor as “leering” or “lecherous” or “perverted”? What if the poster says it in an anonymous and supposedly humorous account of her visit? Is that enough for you to investigate? (E.g.: “Great trip, despite Professor Smith leering at me. Guess I shouldn’t have worn that sweater!” Or: “Though we were having a good conversation, but then I realized Jones wasn’t paying any attention to me, but was staring at some girl in the hall. What a pervert!”) (I’m obviously neither an academic nor a fiction writer. Tailor as you need.) Is this kind of information still reliable?


SG 02.21.07 at 2:33 am

Ahah, Thomas, that is a nice little can of worms to open.

But even if the information about their personality was definite, confirmed, 100% true, we should still not consider it. It is just wrong to do so.


Peter 02.21.07 at 2:49 am

How certain can you ever be that you know who posted the information? For instance, couldn’t a malicious person falsely use someone else’s profile and identifying information and post comments that reflect poorly on their target in order to defame them? What if the victim never even visits forums and so has no idea what has transpired? For this reason, at the very least an institution must confront the person and give them a chance to respond if they feel compelled to use the information.


abb1 02.21.07 at 5:15 pm

Aside from identifying the commenter by the content of his/her comments, how about this one: quite often to register for these on-line boards you have to provide a real email address; that is, in the middle of the registration a link is sent to the email address you provided for you to finalize the registration. So, at this point I (the administrator) have your real email (one of them anyway). Now I take this email and I google it. This could lead me to a number of places: your personal pages, your other postings, various official and semi-official lists, or maybe 3 years ago you placed an online ad to sell your bicycle. Faster than it took me to type this sentence I will be able to match your email with a name. Now I check the list of applicants, and if the name is there, I know who posted the comments. Fair enough?


Peter 02.21.07 at 5:22 pm

A fake email that has not been used in any other context is not difficult to make.


abb1 02.21.07 at 5:35 pm

It’s not, but most people don’t get a new email every time they register for an online chat.


Ned Ulbricht 02.21.07 at 6:50 pm

Fair enough?


As just one of many possible attacks, how ’bout DNS cache poisoning to intercept mail sent the registration address?

Among the billion or so (estimated) people on the ‘net these days, there are some really unpleasant individuals.


abb1 02.21.07 at 7:41 pm

Yeah, yeah, Ned. Sure.


derrida derider 02.22.07 at 12:30 am

abb1, this is not a matter of law, or of university policy. It’s a matter of natural justice. Can you take idle gossip into account? Sure, if you give the person the chance to clear the matter up.

And I also agree with those who argue that making nasty comments, even untrue ones, on an anonymous web forum and being a dishonest person are two different things. Anonymous nasty comments can be blowing off steam – hell, they can even be a response to a justified grievance. Dishonesty’s a different thing, and if demonstrated is indeed a deal-breaker.

And you should also remember the proverb that eavesdroppers never hear well of themselves.


ben 02.22.07 at 3:37 am

First response, without having read the masses of comments: the wrongness of the act is a function of the admissions committee’s official policy on the use of information outside of the official application. Does the committee consider “word of mouth” about the student–perhaps in the form of early professional activity, participation in conferences, and so forth? Does the impression a candidate makes over the course of informal visits prior to a decision have an impact? If a candidate applies as a transfer after having been affiliated with a program as a visiting student, is his performance over the visit considered when evaluating his appeal as a future colleague? Are personal calls in favor of the applicant to (presumably, senior) members of a department considered? If factors that are not part of a candidate’s official application are relevant–particularly if they can play a negative role (such as a disastrous visit might)–then there seems no strong block to the appropriateness of considering the online behavior, too.


abb1 02.22.07 at 8:08 am

Derrida, all this is so hypothetical. Without seeing real comments we may be imagining some drastically different scenarios.

I’m assuming here (for the sake of argument, since this is a hypothetical scenario) that the committee people are smart enough to differentiate between “malicious things” and “blowing off steam”.

Of course the committee people could be a bunch of idiots and/or corrupt individuals, but then we have a different and much bigger problem there.


abb1 02.22.07 at 8:41 am

As far as the justice aspect of it, you certainly should give the person the chance to clear the matter up if the person is already aboard, member of your team. I feel that admission is different in this respect. When you apply somewhere and get rejected you never get an explanation. The committee has decided that someone else was a better candidate, they promise that they didn’t hold your age, race and religion against you, and that’s all there is to it.


abb1 02.22.07 at 10:54 am

Seriously, I mean, really, think about it. You go to an interview, you try to make a good impression, you try to smile, you try to look them straight in the eyes and so on. Suppose you failed to make a good impression. Does the natural justice require the committee to say at the end of the interview: you know, you look like an asshole, but please clear the matter up, explain why you’ve been swearing and pounding on the desk here – is this because you really are an asshole or you’re, in fact, a very nice fella suffering a breakdown under tremendous pressure?


SG 02.22.07 at 11:40 am

No Abb1, you`re clutching at straws. The interview is certainly intended to measure your personality but it is clearly in a work setting – not in an anonymous online setting, a bar, etc. So the person`s behaviour then is clearly relevant to their behaviour at work. It is not the case, for example, that a dickhead at home is a dickhead in interviews (I think i interview quite well, thank you very much). And being a dickhead at home is irrelevant to the job.

And to a certain extent we do take into account the high pressure of a job interview in, for example, whether someone is sweating a little, stutters a bit, whatever.

The simple fact remains: it`s okay to be a dickhead, provided you don`t do it at work. Stick to this rule, and you can get a job anywhere you are qualified to work.


abb1 02.22.07 at 3:05 pm

The simple fact remains: it`s okay to be a dickhead, provided you don`t do it at work.

Fair enough. Up to a point.


aleslie06 02.22.07 at 4:44 pm

Every department website I have ever viewed tells their prospective students/potential applicants what the criteria are for the application evaluation. These include grades, GRE scores, statements of purpose, and writing samples. If an admissions committee is using information other than the criteria given to the applicant, then that committe is being dishonest and unfair to the applicant.

If the admissions committee decides to start browsing various forums and blogs to look for their applicants’ “true” thoughts and desires for various programs and begins to use them in evaluating an application, then they better start warning their applicants that they are doing so.

However, if a member on the admissions committee “happens” to stumble upon this information (even though I don’t know how that would exactly be possible), of course it becomes an ethical dilemma. But ethical dilemmas in regards to “chancing” upon information are quite different from the blantantly unethcial practice of seeking out personal feelings/writings of applicants without their knowledge.


SG 02.23.07 at 1:59 am

Abb1, is that point the point where you have to work with someone? Or is it some level of dickheadness that you are able to identify at interview? If so, doesn’t that make it unfair to use their online comments, since they weren’t warned their dickheadness was being monitored? After all, when warned that being a dickhead may endanger their pay, people often behave better.

I need to learn to parse “dickhead”. Useful word, that.


Anastasia 02.23.07 at 6:22 pm

Maybe I’m just cynical, but I have a really hard time believing that the other students in the department are actually the concern here. am i the only one who has seen a parade of total jerks admitted to their department? when there was no reason the faculty couldn’t have figured out they were total jerks from the way they acted at their interviews? or based on the comments of current students about these folks? I’m not throwing my department under the bus here. I don’t think they’re that unusual in their lack of attention to grad student dynamics.

my other point is that I’ve also had the experience of meeting a prospective student in an interview situation, deciding s/he is a total jackass, reporting the bad behavior–including in one case, an unpleasant comment about a specific faculty person–only to see them admitted.

In a couple of cases, I figured out after they enrolled that they really weren’t so bad. Nerves can make some people overcompensate, which comes off “arrogant asshole”. But, a few rejections from other departments and maybe a semester or two of grad school later and they’ve settled down, learned to let go of the ego trip and turned into really decent colleagues. No harm, no foul.

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