An Interview with Dean Seth Allen

I’m sitting across from new Vice
President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Pomona College Seth
Allen.  I have on one of my few
dress shirts and my lone sports jacket. 
He is dressed to the nines with one of those crisp, high-end ties that
look good no matter where they happen to fall.

We have been talking for twenty
minutes on the genesis and mechanics of how college rankings are currently
formulated.  In my anxiety to
secure the interview, I offered not to bring any recording device, and in my
correspondence with several layers of protocol firewall I was very explicit in
the fact that I don’t want to talk about the CMC scandal at all, that I want to
go deeper into the current pressure-cooker culture of the Admissions process for
applicants and officers alike.

But I can’t escape the feeling that
this man can simply out-talk me.  I
feel like I’m at a disadvantage, not because he has any malicious intent, but
because he is somewhat of a professional rhetorician, and that he knows this
stuff inside and out.  My time is
running out on our forty-five minute interview.  I’ve got to get going.

“Where do ethics come into play in an
Admissions Department?” I ask.

Finally, I’ve elicited a
hand-over-mouth moment of contemplation.

After a long pause, Dean Allen looks
me in the eye and tells me that that’s a good, important question.  We go deeper.  What follows is one of my most cherished conversations with
a member of the administration during my time here at Pomona.  Let me share it with you.

For Dean Allen the issue of ethics in
an Admissions Department is two-fold. 
The first is simple: An Admissions Department will not survive if it is
not ethical.  He tells me that
Admissions is staffed full of recent college graduates who cherish their ideals
and are looking to give back to their alma mater or a similar institution.  An unethical Admissions Department
takes a very basic risk of alienating talented people from working for them.

The second point he relates to me has
three parts and dovetails nicely with the first concern.  He calls it the “Ethics Talk” that is
given to all new employees in the business.

First, no representative of the
college should ever talk poorly about other institutions.  The goal is to promote the institution
you represent as worthwhile, not bring the competition down by marking them

Second, the process must stay student-centered.  Application time comes once for
students, but every year for Admissions officers.  It is a pivotal moment for students and one of their first
opportunities to seriously assess their goals, ambitions and how they can
achieve them.  An Admissions
officer’s role is to ease the process and guide students to the college that
fits, even if it is not the one they represent.

Third, all decisions should be
rationally explicable vis-à-vis the institution’s guiding principles.  At Pomona, these principles, in regards
to matriculation, are worn on our Sixth Street sleeve: “Let only the
Eager, Thoughtful and Reverent enter here.”

Next, I ask Dean Allen for an example
in practicum of the last point.  He
tells me the story of an Early Decision applicant this year and the process of
round-table discussion regarding what this student would offer.  A lot of round-table discussion, Allen
informs me, is playing devil’s advocate. 
In this case, a committee member brought up the student’s test scores
which were below Pomona’s average numbers.

Someone gave a persuasive speech that
the student had demonstrated time and time again their ability to do the
requisite intellectual work at Pomona, their commitment to their education,
their depth of thought and passion for learning.  In essence, that they did embody the ideals of Eager,
Thoughtful and Reverent.  Dean Allen
agreed.  The student was accepted.

Next I ask Seth, as I’m calling him by
this point, what factors could cause an institution to depart from these
ethical standards.  His answer:
wanting too many things simultaneously and too quickly.

He explains the idea of yield,
bringing up the percentage of students who accept offers of acceptance.  How does one increase yield to one
hundred percent?  Accept an entire
class of binding Early Decision students. 
What does one lose?  A
well-formed, diverse, coherent class of freshmen.

I ask him if, theoretically, he could
jump our SAT average up one hundred points in a year.  He tells me he could, theoretically.  It would be possible through
recruitment and selection to enroll a class of near perfect SAT and ACT scores,
and then fly a banner sporting Cecil’s face and our U.S. News ranking emblazoned
in blue, underlined orange.  This
last is my tongue-in-cheek suggestion. 
What’s lost in this scenario? 
We might as well drape the theoretical banner over James Blaisdell’s Sixth Street quote.

Seth’s point is that Admissions’ goals
need to be aligned and realistic.  He
is confident that he can boost Pomona’s profile slowly, over time, while still
creating classes that represent and perpetuate our core values.  There is a definite amount of
gamesmanship, strategy and tactic involved in the process, but these should
never be at the cost of our principles and people.

All that’s left now are a few
loose-end questions.  Namely, what
steps can Pomona take to avoid these pressures of wanting it all and wanting it
all right now?

As I’m glancing at my notes to
formulate this concluding question, it hits me.  Seth’s earlier pause was not a lack of words, but most
likely a moment to consider his course of action.  What he has given me is an honest, ethical treatment of the
subject, but it is also a brilliant piece of rhetoric. 

Consider his first point about ethics
in Admissions; he writes it as necessity. 
His second, though we never touch upon it directly, must be a reference
to our northern neighbor.  He gives
it prominence as the first point he discusses and gradually builds to a
statement of method, with a stop along the way to humanize the process.  The first example he gives me is also a
declaration.  Pomona will not fall
into the same unfortunate situation as CMC.  I even see that one of my first notes of the day was about
his plan to reinstate a practice of traveling on recruitment trips with
officers from the entire consortium. 
In a moment where it would be easy to distance Pomona from controversial
McKenna, he’s more interested in cooperation
than competition.

Seth Allen is a professional
rhetorician, in my book.  It is his
job to weave together myriad concepts and pressures and articulate them into a
persuasive narrative of what Pomona is. 
The fact that he does this with intelligent, passionate consideration of
all parties is admirable.  We are
in safe hands, Pomona.

I put down my notebook and relax.  I tell Seth that Admissions seems a
good metaphor for a liberal arts education.  I point with both hands to make a track:

“See, the few times I’ve been
disappointed by students here is when they seem to get single-minded and focus
on mastering a skill and start applying it without the full picture.”

I realize my heartfelt epiphany has
led to an infraction of rule one of the “Ethics Talk,” so I back-pedal invoking
rule 3:

“I guess that’s the danger; with
education comes power.  What I like
about a Liberal Arts education is that I’m equipped with tools, but I have the
opportunity to learn the context they function in and how to utilize them in a
humane way.”

I spread my hands to encompass the
room on the word context.  Seth
looks me again in the eye, pauses, and tells me that he thinks that’s well put
and that that’s where he stands as well.

That loose-end question about how to
prevent unethical Admissions practices? 
Seth’s answer is education, campus-wide discourse with Administration,
Faculty, Student Body and Staff: Conversations, like the one we just had.

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