The Admissions Committee


This case is a discussion about affirmative action, graduate education and graduate research; the case raises questions about the responsibilities of university research in society and issues surrounding student-mentor relationships.



In the early 1990s, Major State University instituted multiple two-year fellowships to be awarded to students from under-represented racial groups in order "to attract a higher quantity and quality of minority students to the school's higher education programs." The number of fellowships available per department was a function of the number of full-time faculty members, roughly, one fellowship for every ten faculty members in any given department. The fellowships were to be granted and administered individually by each department. According to the instructions given by the school's administration, the only eligibility requirement was that the recipient "must be a citizen of the United States and a member of a racially under-represented group." Fellowships were available on an annual basis; fellowships that were not awarded in a given year did not accrue to following years.

The Admissions Committee

As a graduate student, you were called to serve on the admissions committee of your department. Faculty members see students' participation in the committee as a necessary and legitimate input toward the selection of the incoming cohort. As a student, it is not only an honor to be asked to serve on the committee, but also a duty to act responsibly in a way that ensures a fair and transparent admissions process. The admissions committee was composed of four faculty members and one doctoral student. Three of the faculty members, Professors Wilson, Harris and Ahuja, had tenured appointments; Professor Belman was an Assistant Professor in a tenure-track position. The committee members' core responsibilities involved reading each applicant's portfolio and determining whether the applicant was qualified.

The admissions committee planned three meetings during the spring semester. Straightforward admissions decisions were to be made during the first meeting. During the second meeting, the committee would screen late applicants, identify candidates for fellowship support, and review borderline cases. Final decisions on any pending applications would be made during the third meeting.

The first meeting was uneventful; for the most part, members agreed on admission recommendations for the cases considered. However, none of the individuals discussed during this first meeting fulfilled the requirements for the minority fellowship. As the second meeting progressed, it became apparent that only two minority students were even being considered for admission. The first applicant, born in Mombasa, Kenya, was Lambert Motowi. Lambert recently married Sarah Bailey from Provo, Utah, thereby becoming a U. S. citizen and hence eligible for the minority fellowship. The second applicant was Rodney Williams, an African-American applicant from inner city St. Louis.

Professor Wilson categorized the two students as borderline cases. Although Lambert's work experience and technical background made him more fit for the program, it was not clear that he should be offered admission. Rodney had a weaker technical background than Lambert but enthusiastically expressed interest in working with Professor Harris. To further complicate the decision, both applicants expressed an imperative need for financial assistance. Without financial assistance, it would not be possible for them to attend graduate school.

Who should be admitted? Who should get the fellowship? The committee needs to make a decision regarding the two applicants. The financial need of both applicants implies that the university's minority fellowship would be attached to the admissions decision. That is, if one of the two is admitted, he would automatically be assigned the fellowship. The committee decides to have a candid discussion of the pros and cons of each candidate. After a few minutes, the committee appeared divided. Professors Wilson and Ahuja sounded pretty convinced that the fellowship should be awarded to Lambert, given that he satisfies the eligibility criteria and he has an acceptable academic record. Professor Ahuja said, "It would be a waste to let that fellowship money go. We should award it to Lambert Motowi."

Professor Harris argued persuasively against Lambert's case. He said that he did not believe that a foreign student, who had presumably faced little or no racial discrimination, should be eligible for the minority fellowship. "This is about restoration," he claimed. Further, Professor Harris argued that the school's failure to articulate the fellowship's intent more clearly should be understood as a call for exercising discretion in awarding it. In contrast, Professor Belman explained that she believed that academic standards should not be lowered to accommodate students who were not fully qualified for the academic rigors of a doctoral degree. "These students will not learn and act in a vacuum," she said. "They will interact with other students and professors and take time and energy that we do not have. By accepting them, in the end we are shortchanging the students and ourselves," she claimed.

You have refrained from voicing your opinion because you might tilt the balance. In addition, you feel that is inappropriate for you to be considering this case, given that it is plausible that you and Lambert or Rodney (or both) may end up sharing an office or a bench next year. Inevitably, Professor Wilson asks for your opinion.


Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 3, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1999.

. . The Admissions Committee. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

This case provides a framework for discussion about affirmative action, graduate education and graduate research. Indirectly, the case raises questions about the responsibilities of university research in society and issues surrounding student-mentor relationships. It is intended to open up communication on a topic that is rarely discussed in technical research and thought to pertain only to "policy."

Affirmative action in graduate education is important because science and the generation of knowledge are embedded in a larger context of values, norms and priorities. Historians have recognized that the growth of knowledge in science cannot be understood simply as a mastery of nature through the use of a set of tools. Rather, the interests and priorities of science are structured by circumstances in society. As scientists, we should be able to reflect on our work and determine how it relates to a broader context. The debate over affirmative action is only one aspect of the complex interaction between science and society.

In using this case for instruction, it could be useful to assign the characters to different students/participants and have them develop arguments in support of their positions. Such a role-playing exercise could unveil additional issues of importance to the case. It also allows students to determine what "ought to be done" for a given situation as well as the compelling pressures for not following through.

The commentary is organized in three sections. First, the parties involved are identified and a discussion of their roles and responsibilities is provided. Second, four points of conflict are presented. These topics will bound the discussion. (The reader must realize that the topic of affirmative action is controversial and quite broad.) Finally, the third section contains additional questions for discussion.

Parties Roles, and Responsibilities

Each of the multiple parties involved in the case provides a different perspective on the issues at stake and the points of conflict. The essence of the case is the student member's participation on the admissions committee and his or her role on it.

The faculty members, as agents of the university and as implementors of the admissions policy, are the second group involved. Each committee member -- the student and the faculty -- is expected to "ensure a fair and transparent admissions process." These terms are vague for the student serving on the committee, not to mention the faculty members, who might have personal interests to promote. The third group consists of the two students under consideration for admission (and the fellowship). These individuals embodied in the university are a micro-representation of a public education system that has specific goals and objectives.

As a public university, the school has a public mission to fulfill. That mission could be to provide quality education to the state's population, or to develop a strong research agenda that supports the state's or the nation's priorities. In achieving their missions, institutions as complex as schools often find contradictions in the implementation of policies. For example, is academic excellence exclusive of racial diversity under the current historical context? As with many hierarchical institutions, Major State University is supporting a controversial policy by having language written in a vague way. Vague policy directives, however, are not surprising. The school might be attempting to avoid future lawsuits, or has simply delegated to departmental administrators the nuts and bolts of policy implementation. This vagueness of the school's intent resembles many real-life situations.

In addition to the responsibilities of each group, it is important to focus on how accountability is distributed among the actors. Accountability is important because it helps determine how individuals view their responsibilities and the need to act upon them. The faculty members are accountable to other faculty members, to the university at large and, in an indirect way, to the society. Accountability of the student on the committee is less clear, however. The student may be accountable to other current students, to future students or to the faculty members on the committee.

Points of Conflict

A first point of conflict is the appropriateness of student participation in a program's admission decisions. Student representation is often justified by appealing to a democratic and consensus-based character of decision making where stakeholders are heard and have some influence on committee decisions. Although valuable for the student body, the appropriateness of this approach in admissions decisions is difficult to ascertain. Regardless of the ethical implications of student involvement in admission decisions, the information that a given student was admitted primarily because of the availability of funds earmarked for a racial (or gender) category should remain confidential, not accessible to students. The perils of information leaks are considerable. It is surprising that neither the faculty nor the student raised any questions about the appropriateness of the student's participation before the committee's activities began.

This case raises further questions about the relationship between faculty members and students (which differs from the one-to-one student-mentor relationships discussed in other cases). Should students be limited to their research and academic activities? Is their involvement in program decision making worth the perils it brings?

A second point of conflict arises from the decision itself. For this discussion, it is important to consider some of the most common arguments favoring affirmative action. Affirmative action is often promoted in the interest of compensating for past situations deemed wrong. It is cited as a challenge to a historian by insisting on a contextual analysis of issues. Current inequalities and institutional practices, it is argued, are linked to earlier periods. There is a presumption that racism (or gender bias) has contributed to contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage, resulting in differences in income, education and rates of incarceration, among others. The United States, like many other countries in this hemisphere, was born of different forms of violent colonization, with slavery being critical to a national economy. For some, the mere memory of this often overlooked past justifies the need for affirmative action. It could be argued that these types of harms spill over from person to person in the form of stereotypes. The net result of this hypothesized cultural contagion is that future members of society inherit the cumulative effects of macro- and micro-level discrimination before they are ever in a position to experience a specific and identifiable harm that many consider a prerequisite to reparation, the concept cited by Professor Harris. Other rationales for affirmative action include compensating for current bias, redistributing resources vital to survival, democratic participation in society, preventing social disintegration or bestowing charity.

It would appear that a key element of the discussion is that Lambert was born and presumably educated in Kenya, while Rodney grew up in the United States. This difference would make Rodney more qualified to receive the fellowship even though merit and qualifications for admission have not been discussed yet. It could be argued that Kenya's precarious economy, due to colonialism, qualify Rodney for the fellowship. A third point of friction arises from the potential conflict of interest faced by the faculty members. For example, Professor Belman is not yet tenured. For her, quality research (and the means to achieve it) might be a decisive factor for her professional career. However, Professor Belman might find racial or gender diversity in the workplace valuable and hence encounter a definite conflict. Similarly, Professor Harris argued against Lambert's admission based on the notion of restoration. Is it because he firmly believes in affirmative action or because Rodney has expressed interest in working with him?

From the text, it is not clear what motivates each faculty member to make the statements presented. The alternatives outlined above are plausible and point to definite conflicts of interest. One could think of similar situations in admissions processes where conflict of interest is not as clear, and yet it exists. For example, what should be done when a highly qualified student expresses interest in working in a field where research money is scarce, but it is clear to the faculty that his abilities would be in suited to other, more promising areas of research.

A fourth point of conflict is the flexibility of standards in determining the admission of either or both of the students. As presented, the case is ambiguous about Lambert's qualifications for entering the program, but the case presents Rodney as less qualified than Lambert. Should the admission decision be based solely on academic standards or merit? How can letters of recommendation be comparable if they come from different countries or areas of study? The word "merit" is often used to illustrate one aspect of affirmative action, but how does one define merit in this context? While the general implication is that merit refers to standardized test scores, these determinants are more accurate reflections of the socioeconomic status of the parents. Defenders of affirmative action policies focus on the importance of having a healthy skepticism toward claims of neutrality, objectivity and color blindness, and meritocracy. These claims appear to be central to an ideology of an equal opportunity that presents race as an immutable devoid of social meaning and tells an historical, abstracted story of racial inequality. But is affirmative action the answer?

The fifth point of conflict takes the discussion back to the role of graduate education in society, and more specifically, in a public university. Should graduate education focus on individual success or on the advancement of knowledge and science? What is socially responsible education? Are the advancement of science and social responsibility mutually exclusive? As stated in the opening paragraph of this commentary, these questions are difficult to answer because they are embedded in the social and political milieu of the educational system. Awareness, discussion of the issues and tolerance surface as catalysts for understanding what is ethical and desirable for society.

Additional Discussion

There is enough ambiguity in the case to allow the construction of other scenarios for further discussion. For example, both applicants are males. Do the issues discussed here apply to gender discrimination? Would the case be different if the Kenyan applicant were a woman?

What if Professor Belman, motivated by her tenure worries, said that she would not accept responsibility for the tutelage of either student and pushed other faculty to state whether they would mentor them? Where do one's role as a leading researcher, one's responsibility as a mentor to the students and one's obligation to society begin and end?

A common feeling among minority students in graduate (and undergraduate) school is that other students view them only as a result of affirmative action policies, thereby discrediting individual merit. In a society that appears to value merit over other personal aspects, is this concern legitimate? Can schools address this concern? How?

Cornell West states that, "if racial and gender discrimination could be abated through the good will and meritorious judgement of those in power, affirmative action would be unnecessary." (West, 1993, p. 65) Can discrimination be effectively reduced with affirmative action policies? Are other policies more effective? How would they affect graduate research?

References and Further Reading

  • Ansley, Fran "Affirmative Action: Diversity of Opinions - Classifying Race, Racializing Class," 68 University of Colorado Law Review (Fall 1997): 1001-33.
  • Edley, Christopher Jr. Not all Black and White: Affirmative Action, Race, and American Values. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.
  • Gordon, Robert W. and Margaret Jane Radin, eds. Words that Wound. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.
  • West, Cornell. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. 

I will address this commentary to the graduate student who is serving on the department's graduate admissions committee. Understandably, you feel that you are in an uncomfortable position. However, it may be helpful to sort out issues you do not need to address from those you do. One issue you do not need to address is whether there should be a special fellowship program for minority applicants. This program has been approved by your institution, as has the number of such fellowships for your department. Even if others (or you in another capacity) wish to challenge this program, that is not your present task. As a member of the committee, your task is to determine who, under the present guidelines, should be admitted to the graduate program and to identify potential candidates for the minority fellowship program.

Your first specific task is to assist the committee in making its admissions decisions. I think it is important to separate this task from that of making recommendations for the fellowship. Professor Belman is right in saying that if students are not fully qualified for the academic rigors of a doctoral degree, they should not be admitted, regardless of minority status. For her, apparently that settles the issue: Neither Lambert Motowi nor Rodney Williams is fully qualified. For you, however, the matter may not be so clear.

As a committee member, it is your responsibility to make your own judgment about whether Lambert and Rodney are capable of succeeding in the program. That may not be an easy matter to determine, but it must be done - and with a steady eye on factors that are important for academic success at the Ph.D. level. Unfortunately, some members of your committee seem to be making it more difficult to stay focused on only those factors. Professors Wilson and Ahuja apparently are convinced that Lambert's (but not Rodney's) academic record is sufficient for admission. However, Professor Ahuja's comment ("It would be a waste to let that fellowship money go") may raise the question of whether the opportunity for financial support is clouding judgment about the adequacy of Lambert's academic record. You must postpone the issue of "waste" until you have rendered your judgment about qualifications for academic work.

Professor Harris's comments also pose difficulties. It is not clear whether he opposes both admitting Lambert and awarding him a fellowship. Since admission is likely to lead to a fellowship award, Harris may be opposing admission primarily because he opposes awarding the fellowship to Lambert. Harris's opposition to awarding the fellowship to someone who has faced little racial discrimination raises the question of what is really driving his opposition to admitting Lambert. Harris is making two assumptions. First, he is assuming that Lambert has not suffered significant racial discrimination, and this assumption may not be true. Second, he is assuming that the presence or absence of such suffering on the part of the specific applicants (the "restoration" factor) is a key criterion for the fellowships. It is very unlikely that this is one of the stated criteria for minority fellowships, as such a standard would greatly complicate the evaluative process. In any case, even if the awarding of a fellowship is likely once a minority candidate is admitted, the candidate's qualifications should be considered independently of the fellowship opportunity.

It is also possible that Harris favors Rodney because Rodney has expressed a strong interest in working with Harris. (It is also possible that Harris believes neither candidate should be admitted.) It would be unfortunate if Harris is opposing Lambert's admission because he favors Rodney over Lambert in regard to the fellowship. As I have already indicated, it is important that the judgment of academic qualifications should not be clouded by the fellowship opportunity.

It may be your judgment that both should be admitted. If both are admitted, then the issue of who should get the fellowship can be considered. If your judgment is that neither should be admitted, then, if others agree, the fellowship issue becomes moot.

Since the discussion seems to mix considerations of academic potential with issues about fellowship criteria, perhaps the most useful role you can play at this point is a clarifying one. Without suggesting that any of the faculty have suspect motives for denying admission to Lambert or Rodney, you could suggest that the committee postpone consideration of the fellowship issue until admission decisions are made. To that extent, you will be siding with Professor Belman's view that academic standards should be preserved. If you share her view that neither Lambert nor Rodney is fully qualified, then you should recommend against their admission. If you disagree with her judgment on the candidates, then you argue their cases. Clearly indicating to others that you think the first order of business is to separate the qualification and fellowship issues might actually change the focus of the discussion. Others may join you in trying to make a separate assessment of academic qualifications.

Assuming you adopt the stance outlined above, it seems to me that your problems can be redefined. You have rendered your judgment about the qualifications of the candidates. The committee now makes its admission decisions, taking into consideration what you have said only about qualifications. (You are silent about your fellowship recommendations at this point). If, despite your efforts, the committee as a whole does not separate the qualification issue from the fellowship issues, at least you will have performed responsibly. If neither candidate is admitted, then you have nothing further to do.

If only Rodney is admitted, then Harris will support the fellowship award. Perhaps the others will, too. If two support and two do not, you may be thrown into a tie-breaking role - but only if you remain silent until the others have cast their lot. If you enter fully into discussion of the intent of the fellowship program, there is no more reason to think of yourself as the tie-breaker than any other committee member. I can see no good reason for waiting until the others have made their positions evident. In fact, as a responsible participant you should be helping to shape the discussion as it goes, not simply casting the tie-breaking vote.

It seems unlikely that the committee would vote to admit Rodney but not offer the fellowship. In that case, sharing an office or bench with Rodney would pose no special problems for you. If only Lambert were admitted, he would probably be awarded the fellowship, too. It is stated that Lambert's citizenship does qualify him as a fellowship candidate, assuming he is admitted. Even if Harris still opposes awarding the fellowship to Lambert, it is quite possible that Belman would become convinced that Lambert is qualified to pursue the doctoral degree. You would not be the deciding vote in that case. If Belman remained opposed, then your vote would swing matters one way or the other. That is a decision you would have to live with, but it is not clear why this outcome should pose any special problems for you. If you ended up sharing an office or bench with Lambert, his not having a fellowship would not be the result of your decision alone. In any case, there is no reason for you to discuss the deliberative process with. (In fact, the specifics of that process would presumably be confidential.)

Finally, if both were admitted, then full attention would quite appropriately turn to the fellowship opportunity. Here you could enter into the discussion from the outset, expressing your views about the candidates' respective qualifications and the apparent intent of the program. Again, there is no reason to view yourself as occupying the tie-breaker's role unless you allow yourself to play a passive, wait-and-see role -- an arguably less than fully responsible role as a committee member. You are one vote among five.

In conclusion, you must resist the temptation to view yourself as being the one who might tilt the balance one way or another. All of the committee members could view themselves in that way, in which case there would be five wait-and-see members, thus rendering the committee ineffective in performing its task. It is an honor to serve on such a committee. It is also a responsibility. The responsibility is to serve on the committee as an equal, not as a possible tie-breaker when the others are divided equally on an issue. In the end, you may find yourself sharing an office or bench with someone you either supported or rejected. The same is true of the faculty. However, anxieties or hopes about such outcomes should not be the driving force behind one's decisions about these matters.

Author: Michael Pritchard, Western Michigan University.