‘Merit-blind admissions’ fool math profs. on April 1

How would you feel if you discovered that 20 percent of your class was admitted to Brown entirely at random? That’s exactly what Richard Schwartz, professor of mathematics, wanted to see on April Fools’ Day when he played a prank on the Department of Mathematics.

After a day of brainstorming, conferring with his wife and writing a bit, Schwartz sent an e-mail to the entire math department, in which he explained that though most Brown students had straight A’s in high school, their grades fluctuated once they arrived at college. The solution? “All the applications will be put into a hat and the first 200 new admits to Brown will be drawn at random.”

The e-mail started out slowly. Schwartz told the recipients that an “Admissions Advisory Committee,” which supposedly studied correlations between admissions practices and student performance at Brown, had a novel recommendation for the admissions office. “I tried to convince them that I was on the admissions advisory committee and asked for feedback,” he said. “The idea was to try to make it build up.”

The e-mail featured the results of a fictitious study conducted by the committee, which confirmed that there appeared to be no difference between the college grades of “academic elites” ­- students admitted with multiple 5s on Advanced Placement tests, high grades and awards ­- and the college grades of students admitted for non-academic reasons.

“When we compared these students side by side, we hardly found any difference at all!” he wrote.

“It is perhaps better to say that the excellent high school grades of our students did not translate into similar grades at Brown,” he continued in the e-mail. “Overall, there seems to be little correlation at all between what we see on the student applications and what we see once the students are here. It seems that the applications are so carefully padded and polished that we can’t tell the good from the bad.”

Schwartz was thorough. He even suggested that the Brown committee wasn’t the first to notice the discrepancy – other Ivies had conducted similar studies and found similar results. Harvard, he wrote, had been experimenting with a “really unsettling idea – a kind of ‘random admission policy,’” over the last two years, admitting three percent of its incoming freshman class completely at random.

The random pool was “subject to a certain minimum level of perceived quality. This is to say that they randomly gave some ‘decent but not great seeming’ applicants a chance, but obviously did not take people with prison records,” Schwartz wrote in the e-mail.

He claimed that Harvard’s pilot program was, surprisingly, a success, and would be increasing its random admittance percentage from three to six percent. Princeton would admit 10 percent at random, and Columbia would follow suit.

Schwartz fabricated a positive quote from a Princeton administrator: “‘In the absence of any other good criterion, it seems fair to give the benevolent hand of chance a greater role in guiding the future of higher education,’” the fake administrator said, adding that the new policy was criticized by the press as “merit-blind admissions.”

This convincing build-up formed the groundwork for the punch line. Brown was moving to a “20 percent random admission’s policy by 2011″ and “both President Simmons and Provost Kertzer have enthusiastically (and publicly) embraced this recommended new policy.”

Finally, Schwartz solicited feedback and added a link to his Web site. Of course, the page said “Happy April Fools’ Day.” But instead of a laugh and a pat on the back, a surprised Schwartz received many reply e-mails with comments, started a day-long e-mail thread, and discovered that most of the math department does not click links for more information.

“Somehow it did seem within the realm of the kind of crazy things that you hear,” said Professor of Mathematics Jeffrey Brock, one of the many professors initially fooled by Schwartz’s e-mail. Brock attributed the heated responses Schwartz received to a tendency among mathematicians to rely heavily on statistics and traditional admissions practices.

“I think that mathematicians are slightly more prone to think that the more conservative approaches to looking at scores would be preferable,” Brock said, adding that there was “lamentation” expressed that traditional admissions practices were falling by the wayside.

Brock, who was rejected from Brown as an undergraduate, said his history with the University may have contributed to his gullibility. “I suppose my reaction on some level was ‘OK, well yeah, maybe I would have gotten in if they were randomly choosing,’” he said.

Professor of Mathematics Thomas Goodwillie was also fooled, but wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that what he found most embarrassing about falling for the prank is that the use of big names like Harvard and Princeton made him give the idea more serious consideration. “I like to believe that I am more of a think-for-yourself person than that,” he wrote.

Schwartz said most of the responses he received were the expected “that’s a terrible idea,” but some of the responses were surprising. Some approved of the idea, but thought that 20 percent was excessive, Schwartz said. “One guy wrote back and said he thought it was a really good idea.”

He added that he and a colleague had a conversation about how difficult graduate school admissions are. “You look at these applications and you think, ‘I have a stack of 100 geniuses,’” so the process is basically random because you can’t make a wrong choice.

Schwartz said he started thinking about April Fools’ jokes when he read an article on a plane about practical jokes.

“It’s a joke but I sort of feel like there’s some truth to it,” Schwartz said. “I think that’s why it fooled people.”

Brock said Schwartz is known in the department as a joker. “He has a very wry sense of humor,” Brock said. “We thought about making a special department officer of ‘Jester,’ and appointing Rich to a five-year term.”