University News

Alumni interview guidelines hard to uphold

Despite U. reforms, several sources report varied interview styles, neglect of conflicts of interest

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 23, 2016

The alumni interview program is responsible for more than 30,000 annual interviews conducted by 9,000 interviewers. Management of the program recently shifted from Alumni Relations to the Office of Admissions.

In February, then-high school senior Matt Sarafa posted a YouTube video recounting a disturbing interaction with his Brown alumni interviewer. Sarafa claimed that his alumni interviewer made racist and homophobic statements to him during the interview, The Herald previously reported.

“In the very rare circumstance when an applicant informs us that an interview has been unproductive or uncomfortable, it is our policy to contact those involved in the interaction to discuss the interview and to take a series of actions,” wrote Brian Clark, director of news and editorial development, in an email to The Herald. “We took these steps last spring upon learning of a troubling experience reported by an applicant, and the alumni interviewer is not conducting interviews at this time,” he added.

This one case is a small part of a vast program. The alumni interviewer system engages 9,000 alumni volunteers around the world, and over 30,000 interviews are conducted each year, Clark wrote.

“The vast majority of interactions between applicants and interviewers are very productive, enjoyable and helpful for both the prospective students and for Brown,” Clark wrote. “Our expectation is that our alumni interviewers act as ambassadors for Brown and that applicants emerge with a positive experience regardless of whether they are ultimately admitted to the University,” he added.

The University has also aimed to improve its alumni interviewing program in recent months, Clark wrote, improvements that include moving the program’s management from the Office of Alumni Relations to the Admission Office, where staff members and administrators wield a “deep knowledge of the overall admission process.”

But Sarafa’s case is not the only interview to have fallen short of various University standards in recent years. Interviews with several alumni interviewers and students who have participated in alumni interviews suggest that training is limited and difficult to enforce, certain interviews may be conducted despite conflicts of interest and interview styles are varied, creating the possibility that some students are given more severe evaluations than others.

Training practices

The University has recently “refined (its) training manuals and practices to reflect (its) commitment to creating a positive experience,” Clark wrote. In addition, the University has “expanded the range of training sessions (both on campus and across the globe) for the program’s 350 regional chairs, who oversee and provide instruction to the interviewers in their geographic region.”

The University offers “in-person training for these chairs both on campus and via travel by the admission staff,” Clark wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. “All volunteer interviewers are required to complete an online registration process each year, which takes them through a training manual, asks conflict of interest questions and requires that they affirm their commitment to abide by program policies,” he added.

     But interviews with multiple alumni interviewers and student interviewees indicated that the precepts laid out through training materials may not always be upheld, and some interviewers reported a different perception of the training’s rigor than Clark described.

     “There was literature to read, but there was no training process,” said Jessica Porter ’88, who said she believes she joined the alumni interview program in 2009.

There are “a lot of guidelines” and “really good information” available online about “the types of questions and the kinds of information we want to gather,” said Lauren Riordan ’85, adding that the amount of information and its quality have increased in recent years. Still, “there’s no formal training,” she said.

Interviews with alumni interviewers and students suggest that alumni interviewers take a varied array of approaches to their conversations with prospective students.

Patipan Prasertsom ’13, an alumni interviewer, said he approaches the interviews as a formality meant to ensure the absence of any red flags. “You don’t want to feel responsible for destroying someone’s hope,” he said, so he tends to write his reviews on the softer side.

Porter said an interview goes well if she spots a spark of passion and curiosity. Beyond that, “we just act as a filter or an amplifier for that person’s qualities,” she said.

But other interviewers may take a more rigorous approach. For example, in her interview as a prospective student, Julia Peters ’17 said she was asked to read and respond to a news article on environmental policy on the spot.

Conflicts of interest and implicit bias

Another potential inconsistency of the interviewing process is the biases of its interviewers. Some biases may manifest themselves in the preventable form of conflicts of interest while others may be implicit biases that all people possess and are thus more difficult to mitigate.

To limit the former issue, the University’s “training and registration process has long required interviewers to identify any potential conflicts of interest with applicants,” Clark wrote.

     While the vast majority of interviews likely contain no conflicts of interest, one current Brown student — who chose to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions against herself and her alumni interviewer — was interviewed by her mother’s best friend. “We didn’t even talk about school or academics or anything; we just sat down and had a conversation,” she said.

    “You’re not supposed to interview anyone that you know, but my mom interviewed at my high school, for example, after I graduated,” said another student, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her mother’s identity. “She would come home and tell me how they went” and ask something like: “is that the same impression you got?”

Inconsistencies in the ways people conduct their interviews and the judgments they make about their interviewees are part of human nature, said Gary Latham, fellow of the American Psychological Association and professor of organizational effectiveness at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

In order to limit such inconsistencies, institutions can provide interviewers a scoring guide and specific questions to ask candidates that will “keep (interviewers’) biases in check,” Latham added.

Serving as an ambassador for Brown

      Another major aim of the alumni interviewing program is to help applicants understand what Brown is like, Clark wrote. Clark did not answer a question regarding how alumni interviewers are kept abreast of current campus events, though he wrote that “the intent is not to deliver information that is accessible online or can come from the admission staff — but rather to offer applicants the chance for a conversation with an individual who can share thoughts on the Brown experience and the University’s values more broadly.”

Students had mixed feelings about how well their interviewers were able to speak about Brown today. “I mean, (my interviewer) must have gone (to Brown) at least 30 years ago,” said Kat Zouboulakis ’18, adding, “I think a 30-year-old Brown alum would be better than a 60-year-old Brown alum.”

    But that wasn’t a consensus view among all students. “I would’ve appreciated someone older, in most cases, because I feel like they can offer me more about how life at Brown is going to look for me down the road,” said Liza Ruzicka ’19, a former Herald copy editor.

     In a similar vein, many sources agreed on interviewers’ capability to capture and relay the general culture of Brown, despite the generational gap. “Obviously (my interviewer) couldn’t give lots of specifics about what it’s like now, but I think he did provide a good perspective of the general atmosphere, which I think did kind of hold, even though it was a long time ago,” Aidan O’Shea ’19 said.

    Interviewers shared the feeling that Brown’s essence has remained the same for many years. “Social and current generational factors may change, but that spark doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned,” Porter said.

     The impact of the interview itself on admission decisions is difficult to identify with precision. “The interview is just one element among the many factors considered during the admission process,” Clark wrote.

     “I really don’t know how much bias or prejudice with an interviewer tilts the scales. I just don’t know. But I presume it’s not that much because, believe me, I’ve tried. There have been applicants who I’ve just been like, ‘you would be crazy not to take this kid,’ and they didn’t get in,” Porter said.