Ethical College Admissions: Baked Alaska

Jim Jump asks, is it legitimate to take advantage of another's hardship?

August 26, 2019

In Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, the character Blanche DuBois says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” It’s a nice sentiment, although it doesn’t work out all that well for her.

But what about those of us who depend on the misery of others? “Misery loves company” is a common literary theme, explored by artists ranging from playwright Christopher Marlowe in the 1500s to the band Soul Asylum in the 1990s. It is certainly reassuring to see others who are more miserable than we are, but is it ethical to gain advantage from the misfortune of others?

That question came up this summer in conjunction with the turmoil experienced by the University of Alaska system. Several weeks ago the university reached a compromise with Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy in which the university’s operating budget will be sliced $70 million over the next three years, including $25 million during the current budget year.

That the compromise was seen as a victory provides a window into how bad things were earlier in the summer. In late June the university system was thrust into chaos when Dunleavy used a line-item veto to cut $130 million from its operating budget. That cut, added to $5 million the Legislature had already stripped from the university’s budget, meant that 40 percent of the state’s support for higher education (and 18 percent of the university’s budget) had disappeared overnight. That kind of funding loss is both unprecedented and also what UA system president Jim Johnsen called, with understatement and irony, “devastating.”

The crisis had its origins in some issues that are unique to Alaska and others that are related to the larger partisan culture wars being waged by a new generation of Republican governors determined to turn back the clock. Higher education is a popular straw man in those culture wars.

Dunleavy was elected in 2018, and in December his administration forecast a budget deficit of $1.6 billion, a deficit he blamed on his predecessor’s optimistic projection for oil prices. Alaska’s economy is highly dependent on oil and gas, and the state has seen an 80 percent decrease in state revenues from oil in the past five years. Dunleavy cut $444 million from the state’s $8.3 billion budget to lower the deficit.

But Dunleavy was also motivated by a campaign promise to increase the dividend Alaska residents receive from the Alaska Permanent Fund. That fund, set up following discovery of North Slope oil reserves, pays every citizen an annual dividend that may be the model for Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang’s proposal to pay every American citizen a $1,000-per-month stipend.

Last year the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend was $1,600 for the year, but Dunleavy has pledged to raise it to $3,000, or nearly $1,000 more than it has ever paid in the 37 years the dividend has been in effect. The philosophical justification for the increase is that Alaska residents are served better by money paid directly to them than by government services. Achieving the $3,000 goal set by Dunleavy would mean that the state is spending $2 billion on dividends, money that has to come from other parts of the budget.

Even with the compromise, the University of Alaska has already felt impact from the budget issues. Moody’s has downgraded its credit rating, and the university declared financial exigency, a step that will make it easier to terminate tenured faculty in the future.

What is harder to measure is the psychic damage to the university. I talked last week with a colleague who earned her Ph.D. there and had an opportunity to visit the lab she had worked in as a doctoral student while vacationing in Alaska earlier in the summer. As might be expected, morale is low, and there is widespread fear that Dunleavy’s ultimate goal is combining the university's three main branches -- in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau -- into a single campus. There is also uncertainty about the crisis’s impact on students being able to get the courses they need to complete degrees and the University of Alaska’s ability to enroll students.

It is that last point that leads to our question about the ethics of benefiting from the misfortune of others. Shortly after the University of Alaska’s budget woes surfaced, several people associated with the university received a sponsored Facebook post from SUNY Online, the distance learning arm of the State University of New York.

Here is the post: “Worried about the future of Alaska’s universities? SUNY is accepting students now. You can bring the State University of New York home with you and complete your degree from a name you trust, 100 percent online.” I learned about it when asked to comment for an Inside Higher Ed story.

In this case the post came from an overzealous junior marketing staffer, and senior SUNY administrators withdrew the ad once it came to their attention. That was clearly the right thing to do. But what are the guiding principles for when an institution might exploit the misfortune of another institution, recognizing that the verb “exploit” carries with it negative ethical connotations?

The National Association for College Admission Counseling’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices prohibits the practice known as “poaching” students from another institution, stating that colleges “will not knowingly recruit or offer enrollment incentives to students who are already enrolled, registered, have declared their intent or submitted contractual deposits to other institutions.” That has generally been accepted within the profession as unethical behavior, and yet the prohibition on poaching was at the heart of the Department of Justice’s investigation into NACAC’s code of ethics, interpreting it as restraint of trade.

What SUNY did in this case could certainly be interpreted as recruitment of students enrolled at Alaska. The question is whether the ethical principles are different for online institutions. My instinct is no.

Intent is always a consideration in making ethical judgments, and thus there is a difference in the magnitude of the lapse depending on whether this was a screwup on the part of one individual or a calculated strategy on the part of the entire institution. SUNY walked it back once they learned of it, and that was the proper response.

On a larger scale, one way of determining intent is asking the question, “Who is being served?” Is reaching out to students impacted by institutional misfortune serving the students, or is it self-serving? In cases like the students displaced by natural disasters in Puerto Rico or New Orleans, the colleges that took them in were performing a humanitarian service. Similarly, the colleges that took in the students abandoned by the University of Texas at Tyler after having scholarships revoked were serving the students first and foremost.

A more nuanced case happened this summer after Virginia Tech overenrolled by 1,500 freshmen. A number of other Virginia colleges whose own enrollment was jeopardized by Tech’s bounty were placed in the difficult situation of deciding whether, and how aggressively, to reach out to the students who had turned them down to enroll at Virginia Tech. Were they serving the students’ needs or their own needs?

In the Alaska case, the most objectionable part of the Facebook post was the timing. It occurred when the University of Alaska was reeling from the budget cuts, and SUNY’s attempt to reach out opened wounds that were raw and deep and came across as exploitation of a tragedy. Let’s hope the wounds heal and that it’s not the beginning of a long-term tragedy for the university and the state.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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