Way back when (and I really do mean “way back…”), when I was a brand new, 20-something admission officer, the part of my new job that intrigued me the most was the chance to serve on the selection committee or, as we say in the ‘biz, “committee.”
The idea that I would have a seat in the mysterious room where the decisions were made was so exciting. It felt like I had a pass to a secret place. And, like everyone else who’s on the outside looking into the admissions process, the rookie version of today’s dean was curious to see and feel the process up close. My appointment as an assistant director of admissions at a highly selective college gave me that opportunity and I was not disappointed as the Big Day arrived.
Flash forward 20 years. I chair the selection committee at Tufts. I am (pick your favorite metaphor) the ringleader or referee or chief justice of a smart, unruly, opinionated, high energy gang of officers who care passionately about their “kids” and want to steer as many of them as possible into the Class of 2014.
I am the gatekeeper. Think of me as the troll at the end of the bridge (a la Monty Python) who says “not so fast” or “let’s think about this” or “that feels like a harsh (or soft) reading of the file.” It’s my job to be judicious and stay dispassionate—which is much, much easier said than done—as our multifaceted pool of applicants works its way through the selection process. I must focus on “the big picture,” remember the critical elements of the University’s enrollment plan, be practical when my colleagues grow emotionally attached. Like I said, that’s easier said than done.
The room itself is just a room, not very fancy. There’s a large table with ten chairs around it (two committees work simultaneously) and the room is either unbearably hot or too chilly. (We need a Goldilocks thermostat so we can be “just right.”) There are baked goods and chocolate-covered espresso beans (the dean’s fave) and assorted snacks to keep us fueled as we march from school to school and consider the candidates. We read and think and argue and laugh (more than you might expect).
To gain a seat in the class, an applicant needs a yes vote from two-thirds of the committee, so seven is the magic number. Happily, most applicants muster a unanimous decision but some do engender divided outcomes, and those are tricky. Like Congress or “Survivor,” success requires an ability to count votes and see how things are headed before a vote is called. Sometimes there’s a surprise. After a heated debate last Thursday, the committee voted 3-7 to defer a student; as the conversation unfolded, I was guessing it was 5-5 or 6-4. I was wrong. My swing votes swung the wrong way. (Yes, I was one of the three votes to admit, which just shows that the dean doesn’t always get what he wants.)
Other cases seem split but suddenly emerge unanimous. And, after the territory manager made a strong appeal, another applicant stalled one vote shy of the two-thirds majority. A pen or a piece of popcorn might have been thrown. Yes, Virginia, there’s drama in the committee room.
Committee is a messy, inefficient process but, at Tufts at least, it’s the vital heart of our admissions effort. It’s where the class gets shaped and develops a voice. It’s the moment when we can see the new class emerging from the more anonymous applicant pool as stories and perspectives take hold. And it’s a slice of quasi-democracy in action as 10 officers wrestle with facts and impressions and institutional priorities as we complete our work.
In a few days, this round will be finished and the first seats in the Class of 2014 will be offered. The committee will retreat to our separate corners for more reading and evaluating before our next session convenes in late January, when we’ll meet a new set of applicants and a new table-full of baked goods…