College Admissions Diversity Deception, Student Ethics Corruption


See that young black man in the photo above, gracing the cover of the University of Wisconsin admissions brochure? The one apparently cheering for the Badgers at a Wisconsin football game? His name is Diallo Shabazz, and as a student at the school in 2000 had never been to a game in his life when someone photoshopped his head into a crowd shot to let potential applicants know how diverse the University of Wisconsin was. This infamous incident, which Jon Stewart had a ball with in the day (is the Daily Show really that old?), is apparently more the norm that we thought at the time.

Tim Pippert is a sociologist at Augsburg College in Minnesota. He and his researchers looked at more than 10,000 images from college brochures to compare the racial composition of students in the pictures to the colleges’ actual demographics. They discovered that diversity, as depicted in the brochures, was over-represented. “When we looked at African-Americans in those schools that were predominantly white, the actual percentage in those campuses was only about 5 percent of the student body,” Pippert told NPR. “They were photographed at 14.5 percent.”

Jim Rawlins, admissions director at the University of Oregon and past president of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, told NPR that the misrepresentation can be justified as a legitimate way to improve student body diversity. No, Jim, it really can’t be. It can be rationalized that way, and the rationalization is “it’s for a good cause,” or  The Saint’s Excuse. It is not fair or ethical to lie to students via manipulated photo-images that suggest a diverse campus in order to trick minority students into applying so that the school can admit a more diverse student body. This is called false advertising, and it is a bait and switch.

Student: Hey! I came here believing those photos in your brochure that this was a more diverse campus!

Administrator: See? And because you came, it IS a more diverse campus!

Not surprisingly, a school with this kind of warped ethics turns out graduates who think the ends justify the means too. Shabazz, the victim of the stolen head caper, seemed to be telling NPR that he believed colleges should represent their student population demographics to potential students aspirationally rather than accurately, saying,

“I think that universities have a responsibility to portray diversity on campus, and to portray the type of diversity that they would like to create. It shows what their value systems are. At the same time, I think they have a responsibility to be actively engaged in creating that diversity on campus that goes deeper than just what’s in the picture.”

Again, wrong. This is called misrepresentation, manipulation and lying “for a good cause.” You see, it’s not just the admissions departments. This is the warped version of ethics that many universities are teaching their students. It is a culture of deception for “the greater good.”

[I just deleted, as a cheap shot, my last sentence. Guess what it was.]


Pointer: TaxProf Blog

Facts and Graphic: NPR

32 thoughts on “College Admissions Diversity Deception, Student Ethics Corruption

  1. Last sentence….something regarding the Obama administration? Or a riff off the Sesame Street song…Which One Is Not Like The Other…

  2. I think we’re talking about two different things here. Whereas both are manipulations of reality in one sense, I think there’s both a pragmatic and an ethical distinction to be made here. Obviously, photoshopping an African-American student into an event he did not attend is unethical. (We had a photoshopping incident on our campus a few years ago when a student wearing an offensive t-shirt was removed from a shot of the student cheering section at a football game.) But I’d argue that the mere fact that minority students are over-represented in promotional materials means little to nothing.

    After all, it’s an ad, and anyone who believes everything merely implied in advertising isn’t exactly ready for the real world. I’d be willing to bet, for example, that there are more photos of gorgeous summer days or a pristine snow-covered campus than there are of drizzly March afternoons when the whole place is covered in mud, even if the latter are actually more plentiful. Similarly, the ratio of very attractive young people of both sexes to those who look like the north end of a southbound duck is likely to be higher than the literal situation would merit. The goal is to make the place look attractive, and a diverse student body is one more thing that adds to that attractiveness.

    A couple of times a semester, I represent our department at a university-wide recruitment event. I take two students with me each time. It’s the kind of thing that requires no special training, but we still want to be represented well. So I look at the lists of who’s in rehearsal or otherwise unavailable, then choose the students I want for the job from who’s left. Top priority is articulate and personable representatives who know the program and will say appropriately good things about it (in other words, we’re already misrepresenting the “truth,” since not everyone in the department qualifies as either knowledgeable or amiable, nor are all our students thrilled with us at all times). But after that, I sure do want to have one man and one woman, one actor/director and one designer/technician, and yes, at least one African-American or Hispanic student, even if such minorities in fact represent considerably less than half the department. Oh, and if they happen to be cute, that’s not a bad thing.

    The difference is not that we’re misrepresenting “reality.” Of course, we are. Not everyone in the program is that pleasant, that smart, that attractive, or that positive. If you come to my school, you’re not going to be surrounded by people that impressive. Still, that friendly, talented, intelligent and beautiful young Hispanic woman really is one of our majors. If we hired a model to pretend to be a student, that would be the equivalent of photoshopping. But what we’re doing is the equivalent of a head shot: it needs to look like us, but us at our best and with our hair perfect. There’s nothing wrong with that, and showing more minority students in promotional materials than a strict percentage of the student body would indicate doesn’t strike me as problematic. As long as they really were at the game, in the dining hall, or sitting in front of the campus landmark on a beautiful day.

    • I think that’s all true Rick, and in fact a paragraph, inferior to your comment, to the same effect was a late cut here….except that I find the statements of the ex-student I quoted and the administrator damning. Because they both appear to be advocating or justifying intentional misrepresentation in order to bootstrap diversity

      • Are you agreeing that all promotional material is intentionally misrepresentative (us, but with good hair) and then saying on that basis
        Promotion is ethical if it serves a lower or equal value purpose (business)
        Promotion is unethical if it serves a higher or equal purpose (diversity)
        If so, that’s a paradox. Surely?

        Is there a reason not to say instead that
        All ‘gloss’ is unethical. That’s all gloss, including combing your hair before a ‘shoot’, choosing a biased photograph, photoshopping or flat out lying. It’s surely not how you fool people that makes deception unethical, it’s that you make a realistic effective malign attempt?

        We could still say that ‘glossing’ an admissions brochure is an entertaining ‘lying game’ between consenting adults with nothing to lose. We could stil say that for a public body to ‘gloss’ a public statement on a loaded issue (diversity) is unethical. Because it is malign, in as much as the public may form a false impresssion about the state of a public value (diversity).

        • Deceptive promotion is always unethical. A certain degree of puffery is acceptable with a presumably sophisticated audience. “The best” is not necessarily the best.

          Schools, law schools and institutions that are supposedly dedicated to service of humanity should be held to a higher standard. These are all non-profit institutions, after all.

  3. Which brings to mind an interesting recent experience. It was an alumni magazine, not a recruiting publication, from a prestigious old Northeast university.

    Absogoshdarnedlutely everyone in a picture was white.

    It’s as if universities are telling young people that they’re diverse while reassuring old people that “those people” are not ruining the neighborhood.

  4. Even more alarming is that an estimated 16% of that college believes wearing a baseball cap backwards is cool.

    It isn’t and never has been, despite what the 1990s wishes us to believe.

  5. If most imagery portraying a college campus consists generally of a handful of students or less, with the occasional picture like this one capturing a crowd (in this case I only count less than a dozen discernible faces), it would make sense for minorities to be over represented in the images compared to the actual campus.

    If a picture only has 6 people in it, and the image selected has 1 African American, that is 17%. Naturally universities will want to appeal to as many people as possible and will err on the side of caution to make sure most of their promotional imagery displays at least one of each key demographic, especially African American, given this day in age’s hypersensitivity to racial nonsense.

    I don’t necessarily think the incidental occurrence of overrepresentation is unethical or intentionally dishonest. I do think the manufactured occurrences, such as the photo edited image above IS dishonest.

  6. Additionally, whatever the student body’s innocuous hand signal is, it sure looks like they are pulling the trigger on imaginary firearms. How insensitive and evil right wingers they are. Horrifying. Makes me sick to my stomach. The utter disregard for firearm safety being displayed. Don’t they know how dangerous they are being now? Don’t they know the societal rot they are breeding? Utterly contemptuous, they should have all been expelled for advancing evil NRA ideologies.

    Jack, I think it’s horrible that you showed that image. They are making a mockery of all school shootings and you are guilty by publishing that image as a furtherance of the belief that it is ok to bring and use firearms at a school. You are a horrible person for doing this.

    I really think you were insensitive for doing such. By showing the obvious image of college students pretending to shoot children you are stifling free expression and you are also a racist. This just goes to show how evil and right wing you and your audience is. I can’t believe you. You probably also hate immigrants.

  7. We had a speaker in High School come in to talk about choosing colleges, navigating financial aid, all that jazz. He was affiliated with a local small university but wasn’t hard-selling them, it was overall a valuable seminar. One part that I still smile at was when he pulled out a brochure from the university and said “Oh look! One of our many professional-quality photography students just happened to be carrying a full camera rig on campus when he stumbled onto a group of very attractive students having leisure time! What a coincicentce that there are 4 women, 3 men, 2 African-Americans, 1 Asian-American, and 1 Latino! And every one of them has a college-logo shirt on! Wasn’t that a lucky day for our Photographer!”

  8. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assert that there is a fundamental difference between Photoshopping a face into the stands at a ballgame and choosing photos which don’t represent your student demographics with full accuracy… especially within the context of your promotional/recruitment/advertising materials.

    Specifically, it is the difference between false advertising and normal advertising rhetoric — the difference between actually *lying* and simply emphasizing the things you value and view as positive.

    So no, I can’t really agree with your conclusions here, Jack…

    • The partners in a law firm that included on its website a photo that misrepresented the composition of its staff would be facing potential sanctions for false advertising.

      And this is a bit, well, naive?: “simply emphasizing the things you value and view as positive.” The tactic emphasizes what the school thinks its applicants will find positive.

      How is the practice any different from the much derided practice in covering GOP conventions of the director giving disproportionate screen time to the few blacks in attendance…or, in the alternative, a biased network director focusing on the oldest rednecks he can find?

      • Well, first off, the coverage of GOP conventions is (at least allegedly) journalism, not advertising. A better analogy would be the proprtion of Coca-Cola drinkers smiling in Coke ads versus the number smiling in reality… or the proportion of black Republican voters featured in political ads versus the party’s demographics.

        As for naivete… well, I didn’t get into *why* the school values them or view them as positive, did I?

  9. I wonder what the Historically Black University’s imagery is like?

    Just perusing Prairie View A&M’s website under the tab “Student Life”, you catch 1 out of 22 people are white (4.5%), the remainder are black (95.5%).

    The school’s actual demographics are 84% black, 4% white, the balance composed of other ethinicities.

    I’d be interested in seeing a larger gathering of stats on their recruiting imagery to see if the reverse effect exists or the above discussed effect still holds true…

  10. Pingback: Today in College Admissions: 1/3/2014 | P3 Just One Degree

  11. The unethical conduct here was photoshopping ANY face onto the photograph, not that the campus was trying to look more diverse.

    I came of age when colleges and universities were all competing for the students who were the best and brightest, or could obtain financial aid to attend. I was inundated with college and later law school brochures. And I and all of my friends knew that they were trying to sell us something. We all assumed that everything they sent was puffery and not representative of the student body or chances of later career success.

    The most “honest” brochure I ever received was from Stanford Law. It had a graph showing the average LSAT score and undergrad GPA of its students. Under the graph, it said (and I am paraphrasing as this was years ago), to not bother applying unless you fell within that one section. As a potential applicant, I really appreciated that honesty. Given that Stanford doesn’t really need to worry about competing in the marketplace though, it can afford to be brutally honest.

    Jack, these schools even lie in person. Did you take your son on any campus tours? I’m sure you witnessed this.

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