Discussing college decision making

February 8, 2011
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Reporter Rebecca Berfanger wrote this post.

Most decisions made by colleges and universities tend to be secretive, unless they rise to the level of public outcry and end up being reported by the media, or if a lawsuit is filed and makes the information public record.

This has made it somewhat difficult for Michael A. Olivas, a law professor and director of the Institute of Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston to do research on the topic of “Governing Badly: Theory and Practice of Bad Ideas in College Decisionmaking.” This was the subject of the annual Jerome Hall Lecture at Indiana University Maurer School of Law on Monday, and the findings will be published in a future edition of Indiana Law Journal.

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t found anything, but it does mean that he hasn’t been able to find everything.

Olivas, president of the American Association of Law Schools, raised some interesting points about why he thinks that not only should good policies be explained, but also bad policies and bad decisions because that would give a better understanding of how to make things better.

He joked that bad decisions are difficult to find because one can’t simply do an Internet search for “bad decisions,” and there is no such thing as “baddecisions.com” to cite precedent for bad decisions in higher education.

Olivas focused his lecture on why he doesn’t agree with legacy admissions, also known as the alumni provision, at public universities; examples of professors who wrongly lost their jobs when programs or courses were cut due to budget issues; and why studying poor decisions can ultimately help colleges make better decisions.

As for the legacy admissions, he said that because a parent has gone to college, the applicant already has an advantage over other applicants who don’t have college-educated parents. Those applicants’ parents might also have an in with contacts at the school’s department of admissions already if they want to call for more information as to what the school is seeking in students.

He didn’t say this advantage to students of college-educated parents was a bad thing, but for public schools to weigh the legacy question heavily, which can sometimes make a big difference to a student who is applying, just doesn’t make sense.

An audience member asked if this was fair because of the idea that if an alumni’s child is accepted, that alumni may be more likely to donate funds to the school, especially when there is less funding from the state. Olivas said that still wasn’t enough of a reason for schools to favor applicants.

Another issue he discussed was when schools fire professors because their programs were cut. He said these situations might not be cut-and-dry, but that if a tenure-track professor was fired due to budget reasons because their program and classes were cut, but then someone else was hired to teach similar or the same classes but with different names, that’s a bad decision.

He also said transparency was key in general to decisions made by colleges and universities. If everything was openly discussed, he’d have less of an issue with these decisions. In turn, the courts would also likely have less of an issue if these decisions led to court filings because judges and lawyers would know that the decisions were examined and made with good judgment.

In the end, when a bad decision is made, the decision maker likely didn’t know it was a bad decision at the time, he added. This is another reason why these decisions should be studied to avoid similar bad decisions in the future.

Do you think colleges and universities should be more transparent in their decisions about admissions and personnel issues? Do you think students who have alumni privilege have an unfair advantage over other applicants?

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