Let’s revisit our September discussion over the (infamous) claim that the mission of Williams is to be the best college in the world and that being the best college requires admitting (and enrolling) more of the best students. Professor Matt Carter wrote a letter to the editor in the Record in response. Today is day 1 of my 3-day reply.

In my brief four years as a faculty member at Williams, I have been struck by the number of students whom, during one-on-one conversations with me, have confided their beliefs that somehow they “snuck into” Williams. “I only got into Williams because I’m an athlete,” some have said. “I only got into Williams because I’m an underrepresented minority.” “I only got into Williams because I’m from an underrepresented part of the country.”

Some of those students are correct. If you are an athletic tip, then you would have not gotten into Williams if you had not been on the coach’s list. Some of these students are misinformed. Although a desire for geographic diversity does exist, it plays a de minimus role in Williams admissions.

Indeed, “I only got in because _____” is more common than individual students think, and I even know of some faculty who feel the same way about their own job offers.

Luck and talent and the often mysterious preferences of opaque institutions play a role in all our lives.

Of course, from my vantage point, each of these students has not only deserved to be at Williams, but has contributed much to my courses, my lab and just about every corner of campus.

Note the subtle shift from getting in “because” of factor X to discussion of who “deserved to be at Williams.” This is sloppy and unhelpful. That athletic ability, as measured by inclusion on a coach’s list of tips, affects admissions in general, and the status of certain applicants specifically, is an statement of empirical fact. You may like it. You may not like it. But your preferences are irrelevant to the truth. Notions of who “deserved” admission are completely different. They are moral judgments. There is no necessary connection between the reality of how admissions works at Williams and the moral argument about how it should work.

For me, and I suspect for Professor Carter, every student at Williams “deserves” to be at Williams (except in extreme cases of, say, the forgery of a high school transcript). Applicants don’t make the rules. They don’t decide the policies of Williams. They submit themselves to our judgment. If they are accepted, then, almost by definition, they “deserve” to be at Williams.

Nevertheless, these feelings persist and can lead to pessimistic views that “my best work will never be as good as the students who actually deserve to be here.” I am so sad when I hear these feelings, especially because they remove a sense of optimism about assignments, exams and meaningful projects in and out of the classroom.

Whose fault is that? Not mine! The vast majority of Williams students with, say, academic ratings of 4 went to high schools with lots of applicants to Williams. They know applicants with much better grades and test scores who were rejected from Williams. For me, they “deserve” to be at Williams as much as any Eph. But, it is hardly crazy for them to wonder at the process, to worry that they will be outmatched academically in Professor Carter’s class, to suspect that their “best work will never be as good as the students” with much higher test scores and high school grades.

The average African-American student in Professor Carter’s classes has an math+verbal SAT score of around 1270. The averaged tipped athlete is at 1350. The average for the class as a whole is 1450. And, for those applicants without a hook involve race/wealth/athletics, it is probably above 1500. If that range causes problems, don’t blame me! Blame Adam Falk and Liz Creighton ’03.

Moreover, whether or not these views are “pessimistic” is another question of empirical fact, one that I urge Professor Carter not to investigate until he receives tenure in another three years. Do AR 4 and below students do as well in Professor Carter’s class as AR 1 students? I bet that they do far, far worse.

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