Sunday, February 18, 2007
previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)
You be the ethicist!
Graduate Admissions Committee... is deciding whom to admit.... there is a website on which potential students gossip share information about the departments to which they are applying, and many do so anonymously. However, many such students say enough about themselves that if you are in possession of their file (as graduate admissions committee is) you can identify them with near, and in some cases absolute, certainty. One applicant to said department behaves on the website (under the supposed cloak of anonymity) like… well, very badly, saying malicious things about departments he has visited, raising doubts about whether he is honest and the kind of person it would be reasonable to want other students to deal with, and generally revealing himself to be utterly unpleasant.My take: yes, it's wrong. More precise information (how ironclad is the ID'ing of this applicant? How bad is the behavior?) might make it a tougher call. That said, it sounds like the only difference between this applican't behavior and 99% of all grad students I have known in my day is that this person put these things into print rather than speaking them at a party after several beers.
[So you're saying all grad students are utterly unpleasant?--ed. No, I'm saying that all grad students, like all professors, have a side to their personalities that is best shielded from public view. I think it's safe to assume that this applicant never thought that a GAC, armed with information from the file, would put two and two together on a web site. So what would you do?--ed. Assuming the person was admitted and came, if I were the GAC I'd probably have a closed-door meeting with the person to ascertain the truth, and then put a bit of a scare into him or her. That should be sufficient to deter future printed displays of bad behavior.]
What do you think?posted by Dan on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM
Yeah, after some interesting search committee experiences (ratemyprofessor.com, google), I've decided that straying from required materials (letters of recommendation, writing sample, transcripts, interviews, etc.) is simply unethical. Candidates need to be evaluated on the same, specified criteria and it skews the playing field to go digging up other stuff on the web. Academics need to be evaluated on the quality of their research, teaching, and service. Even if web stuff is "in the public domain," it ought not to be used.posted by: Punkin Poo on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
Daniel W. Drezner
I disagree, depending on what is actually said on the website.
Assuming the person can be identified (the question is meaningless without that assumption), then the question can be rephrased as: Is it appropriate for the committee to rely on data extrinsic to the materials they are given? I think it most certainly is.
If the candidate appears to be disruptive, or worse, why should the school take him? Suppose he laid out plans on how he planned to cheat his way through school. Should he be given a slot that might otherwise go to some one else?
Suppose the extrinsic material shows he lied on some of the material the committee was given--material that, if presented without the lies would have excluded the candidate. Is it still required that the committee close its eyes to the truth?
Obviously, there are shades of utility in extrinsic information. But certainly at one end of the spectrum such information is, to me, patently of proper use. That means in general it is not unethical to use such information.
How much weight is to be given to the information, of course, will depend on the facts of each case; but to sweep away all extrinsic information by saying its unethical to use it suggests that the application process is more like a criminal trial, where the jury can only look at the evidence the court lets it see, than an exercise in choosing co-workers you have to live with for years to come.
Yeah, after some interesting search committee experiences (ratemyprofessor.com, google), I've decided that straying from required materials (letters of recommendation, writing sample, transcripts, interviews, etc.) is simply unethical. Candidates need to be evaluated on the same, specified criteria and it skews the playing field to go digging up other stuff on the web. Academics need to be evaluated on the quality of their research, teaching, and service. Even if web stuff is "in the public domain," it ought not to be used.
I treat this the same as employers who think it's OK to look up applicants on places like facebook: it's not ethical.
How is this different from the grad school hiring a PI to follow the applicant around at the bars on Friday night? They're in public, right? We clearly see this as a violation of our expected right to privacy. I don't know why the internet is any different in this regard. (Actually, the supposed divide between the young and the old concerning privacy on the internet seems to be related to this point...)posted by: cure on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
Assuming the person can be identified...
If anyone cares, I can be identified, though I post under a pseudonym. I would rather that my employer not do that (though one of my senior colleagues does blog), and I have taken steps over the years that my google footprint is hard to find. (If you google my name, you will likely come up with a famous relative.)
In the academic world -- I don't think this is ethical. In the business world, where an employer can lose time and productivity if one ends up with a person who is prone to sexual harassment, obnoxious behavior, or generalized wierdness, I don't have the same problem with this. The problem I do have is no employer is ever going to find anything positive in one of these reviews -- he's just going to find a reason not to hire...posted by: Appalled Moderate on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
I don't think it's ethical either, and would add that too many employers generally are apt to enter the hiring process as if they expected to end up with a piece of machinery performing specific tasks rather than an actual employee who will need to be managed and supervised. Employers taking this approach are likely to get spooked by the appearance of imperfection, when in fact it is the appearance of an ideal hire that is most often illusory.posted by: Zathras on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
I have trouble seeing why it's not ethical.
The "private detective follows you around" analogy is -- no offense -- idiotic. Sorry.
If I understand the facts correctly, the applicant is a regular poster at an academic website; posts anonymously, but badly, so that s/he is recognizable; and is a troll. There's not a close FTF analogy to this, but that's rather like recognizing an applicant's handwriting as being identical to the tagger who's been spraying grafitti around campus.
I think people are confusing this with the "google the applicant, check out her blog" scenario. But that's a completely different question.
I also think Dan's libertarian instincts are misleading him here. "Everyone has the right to be an asshole on the Internet"... okay, fine. But don't expect there will never be RW negative consequences. The net is not some separate wonderland where we can act out our fantasies without fear of consequences. It's all one world.
posted by: Doug M. on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
I'm a mathematician. This cuts both ways. On one hand, I can't think of a realistic situation where I would be "certain" that the poster was the candidate and not an imposter, etc. On the other hand, we have a one word putdown of a candidate that tends to make us stop worrying about proof and certainty - "unibomber?"posted by: Bob_R on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
I think it is unethical to use the information as described -- but if the applicant's posts cast doubt on the veracity of his/her application, that calls for an explanation. The balance sought here is between informed evaluation of applicants and a fair admissions process; fairness to all applicants requires some effort to ensure honesty.posted by: Mr Punch on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
I do admit this has slight Orwellian overtones. However, schools have an obligation to keep disinterested, antagonistic, or otherwise dysfunctional students away from their community. If that means reading myspace, facebook, livejournal, or any other online writings from an applicant – so be it. If someone does not belong at a school there will probably be evidence of some kind at one of these online sources. Or at least that’s what the revisionist in me would like to think about the people I matriculated with that ended up committing felonies or about the two young men at Seton Hall that set a fire in a residence hall, walked away, let the fire burn without telling anyone, and because of this several people died.posted by: Pedantic on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
I think it depends on the case. There are certain factors that must be taken into consideration before it's concluded that using this information is ethical or not. For instance, what type of information is it? Is it information that potentially discredits the poster and his work. Moreover, would the GAC be able to sufficiently prove that the GS and the poster are the same people? Nevertheless, it seems erroneous to argue that using this information is unethical (in all cases).
Yet, there is also another problem, in that the ethically right thing to do is unclear.
conclusion: it's hard to determine whether it is ethically wrong or right (assuming that there is an ethically right or wrong thing to do). it depends on the case if you ask me.posted by: Eventual1L on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
as a boss going through the process of hiring new staff right now, I cannot see why any information I can legitimately acquire about job candidates is not fair game. I'm not limited to reading the recommendations sent in (which obviously put the candidate in the best possible light), but freely seek out other opinions from people who might know the candidate or his/her work. I'm doling out a very scarce commodity, and need to be able to depend heavily on the person I hire; the job applicant has no right to the job, and would be lucky to get it if I so choose. So you can bet your bippy I'm going to do as much due diligence as I can. I suppose the situation might be somewhat different for an admissions committee reviewing grad school applicants, but I'd want to hear good arguments why before agreeing...
lcposted by: lamont cranston on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
How can this possibily be unethical?
Do you not Google every applicant as thoroughly as possible?
Anyone of graduate-student age who thinks there is anonymity on the Internet is too stupid to live, let alone be admitted to grad school.
You are deciding an the allocation of a scarce and valuable resource - the spot in the program. You have both a right and a duty to ensure that the decision is as informed as possible.
If there is any doubt about identity or intent, just ask the person. Whether you are right or wrong, the answer will add grist to the informed-decision mill.
BTW: It's not unethical to hire a PI or do a background-check, either; it's just prohibitively expensive.posted by: mrsizer on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
P.S. Of course the information has to be relevant.
For example, mysogonistic (sp?) remarks should have no bearing on an application for, say, the Physics department (although if the advisor is to be female, perhaps it would) but it is a bit out-of-bounds for a Women's Studies program.
The same sort of thing applies with respect to behavior and the PI scenario. You may not like the fact that the candidate parties and whores around, but if his performance is not being affected then it is not relevant.
And, for goodness sake, talk to the person. The mysogonistic remarks could be in reaction to a recent bad breakup with a girlfriend and the partying could be because old friends were in town for the week.
So perhaps I should clarify my original "of course it's ethical" point: It's ethical to take it into account and bring it up. It's unethical to use it against the person without that person's knowledge. The candidate should be aware of what is being used to judge him. The candidate should also have enough of a brain to realize that everything he's ever done is on the table and be prepared to answer for it.posted by: mrsizer on 02.18.07 at 10:13 PM [permalink]
Post a Comment: