Statement on Report by Ad Hoc Group on Reporting of Applications President Ruscio's Response to Findings, Recommendations

The Washington Post published an article on Sept. 22, 2013, about how colleges and universities report the number of applicants during the admissions process. The article left an impression that colleges and universities inflate data to benefit their image, and it featured Washington and Lee as a prime example. Although the article stated that we adhered to the guidelines and that other colleges and universities interpret them in a similar fashion, the context called our credibility into question. For an institution that values honor and integrity, that charge, even if implicit, called for a response—not an impulsive response, neither a simplistic apology nor a reflexive defense, but rather a patient, careful look that avoided any rush to judgment and acknowledged the complexity of the question.

I appointed an ad hoc group composed of three of the most respected members of our community to examine what we do and make recommendations for what we might do differently in the future, if anything.  Sidney Evans, vice president for student affairs, chaired the group. She was joined by Beau Dudley '74, '79, executive director of alumni affairs, and Marc Conner, associate provost and the James Ballengee Professor of English.

They have now submitted their report, and I have decided to make public a summary they prepared as well as their recommendations. That summary is appended. I am grateful to that group and to those on this campus and the professionals elsewhere who gave their time and expertise to answer their questions. Their conclusions are clear; and I endorse their recommendations. I express not only my personal gratitude but also that of the entire community.

I wish to add some of my own comments and conclusions in response to their findings.

First, for me personally and, I hope, for our community, the episode should serve as a reminder of the purpose of the admissions process. It is for the University to work with individual students and their families to find the college that is right for them, socially and academically. It is more about counseling and providing guidance and less about marketing, generating high numbers, and worrying about rankings.

The admission process at Washington and Lee is highly competitive, and as an alumnus, faculty member and president, I am proud that students from across the country and, increasingly, throughout the world want to come here. In the end, however, it does not matter what our selectivity is in the rankings. What matters is that students with excellent academic and personal promise find us and decide to attend for the right reasons—because of the kind of community we are and because of the education we offer. 

One implication in the context of the Post's story was that W&L’s reporting of the number of applications epitomized the desire of colleges to improve their rankings by interpreting the guidelines in a self-interested way. The irony is that Washington and Lee's policy is never to publicize any rankings. Since 2007, we have never issued a press release about them, never used them in our publications, never posted them on our website, and never sought to leverage them in any promotional manner. Our message has been that we do not make managerial or strategic decisions based on how such decisions will impact our rankings. We do not take the rankings seriously, and we believe students should not take them seriously.

Second, as the report indicates, we have good reasons for treating individuals as applicants as soon as they have submitted a formal application, but before we have received every piece of material we call for in the application process. Once a student submits an application and pays their fee (or receives a waiver), that applicant is entitled to the guidance and counseling we provide, even in cases where we must send an uncomfortable message about their prospects. In other cases, students might be applying from secondary schools where they receive little assistance or guidance, and therefore they might be unable to meet the substantial administrative challenge of submitting every item in a timely fashion.

Colleges and universities have very different admissions profiles; they structure their admissions processes accordingly and work with applicants in ways that fit their particular circumstances. As the report recommends, we will specify more clearly how we count applicants and why—and we will continue to conform with the guidelines as we always have. But we will base our statement about what constitutes an applicant at Washington and Lee upon how we view the application process and upon our relationship with prospective students.

Last, Washington and Lee is an institution that holds high aspirations for acting honorably and ethically and with the highest standards of integrity. Even the innuendo of improper behavior carries greater weight here than elsewhere. Precisely because of that, we need to guard against reckless rushes to judgment. One of the lessons I have learned from this community of honor is that determinations about ethical behavior are not always simple ones; they usually require patience, and they always require discernment. I am thankful to those who shared this understanding throughout this process, and while I acknowledge the concerns of those who reached conclusions more quickly than I could, or different than what the ad hoc group found despite their intensive analysis, I am thankful to be at an institution where those questions still matter.