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How Brown’s inner circle helps well connected applicants get admitted

Former Corporation members routinely aid students in admission process, Herald investigation finds

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During their final years of high school, tens of thousands of prospective applicants to Brown University hunt for benevolent recommenders to write letters vouching for their academic and personal qualities.


For most students, those recommenders are teachers, mentors or counselors. But for a select few, an extra recommendation from a member of the University’s inner circle — a current or former Corporation member, high-ranking administrator or donor — can earn them favorable treatment during the application review process.

It’s long been known that universities nationwide allow well connected insiders to recommend students for admission, but little has been known about how this process works at Brown and who writes the recommendations.

A Herald investigation, based on more than a dozen interviews with students, staff and admissions experts, found that these influential members of the Brown community routinely recommend students for admission. 

In some cases, the student’s application is reviewed by members of Brown’s administration not affiliated with the Office of College Admission before submission, according to interviews with students and emails reviewed by The Herald.

University President Christina Paxson P’19 P’MD’20 has explicitly acknowledged the role that former Corporation members play as recommenders, instructing them only to provide recommendations for students if the recommender has “unique knowledge of their strengths and accomplishments.” But recommenders routinely ignored that guidance, The Herald found.

Six students, all granted anonymity for fear of retaliation or challenges to their student status, independently described how they acquired these recommendations, a process that unfolded through emails and text messages between students, recommenders and University administrators that were reviewed by The Herald. 


Five of the six students that The Herald spoke to said they met their recommenders for the first time as potential letter writers. Four of these students were recommended by current or former members of the Brown Corporation, and two were recommended by administrators.

University policy also prohibits active Corporation members and select administrators from recommending students for admission — a policy that two sources said University officials violated.

Associate Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admission Logan Powell acknowledged that there had been cases in which current Corporation members submitted a letter of recommendation to the Office of Admission, though he characterized those cases as “exceedingly rare” and said the letters were typically added to an applicant’s file by an “office staff person who was not knowledgeable that the recommender was a Corporation member.” 

He confirmed that these letters are considered as part of the admissions process, but said that no applicant is granted “disparate treatment” as a result of those letters.

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Powell also noted that Corporation members are permitted to write recommendations in “exceptionally rare cases,” like when an applicant may not have “tools or access” that other applicants do. He added that some Corporation members recommend students from under-resourced backgrounds. If so, the recommender’s name is usually redacted.

Powell declined to confirm whether specific Corporation members had submitted letters of recommendation, citing the office’s confidentiality policy.

Two people with direct knowledge of admissions deliberations confirmed that some students receive special treatment because of endorsement by influential community members. These students are not guaranteed admission — but they are granted extra attention in a highly competitive admissions process, the sources explained.

One individual with direct knowledge of admissions deliberations likened it to the extra attention that an applicant with an underrepresented identity, such as a low-income student, may receive. But unlike those students, applicants with high-profile recommenders largely come from affluent backgrounds themselves. 

These practices follow a consistent pattern: In high school, the students are introduced to a major donor or administrator mere months or weeks before applying to Brown, usually via an immediate familial connection. The influential member of the Brown community then meets with the student and reviews their academic and extracurricular achievements before deciding whether to recommend them for admission. 

Some donors or administrators explicitly promised a “recommendation.” Others hinted at it: one offered to “put a good word in,” for instance, and another promised to “advocate for” the student.

Of the six students The Herald interviewed, all of their recommenders had donated between $50,000 to tens of millions to the University, a factor that boosts the recommendation letters’ influence, according to one person with direct knowledge of the admission process. 

These practices largely benefit affluent students, despite the University’s ongoing public efforts to improve socioeconomic diversity on campus.

The University’s public-facing messaging emphasizes its commitment to socioeconomic diversity. It recently announced a need-blind policy for future international applicants and it currently meets 100% of demonstrated need with grant-based financial aid for all admitted applicants. The University is currently considering whether to continue granting preference to applicants with a parent who attended Brown. 

But the actual extent of socioeconomic diversity on campus has been questioned in recent years. Brown consistently ranks lowest among Ivies in the percent of students receiving both financial aid and Pell Grants

“Responsible universities are trying, in the light of the Supreme Court’s decision last year striking down racial preferences, to do everything they can to promote racial inclusion in new ways,” wrote Richard Kahlenberg, an expert witness for Students for Fair Admission in its case against Harvard, in response to The Herald’s findings. “Catering to the wealthy works at cross-purposes with Brown’s commitment to preserving diversity.”

Cass Cliatt, the University’s senior vice president for communications, wrote in an email to The Herald that Brown “has strong policies and practices to ensure the integrity of our admissions practices, and in instances in the past where the University identified a need to address any practices that did not align with our values, we changed them.”

“We have been transparent in confronting historical practices, including past issues being raised that the administration discovered and addressed many years ago,” she wrote. “Our policies on admissions are explicit, and we have no indications that any Corporation members have violated the policies on advocacy.”

Current Corporation members have not been allowed to write recommendation letters since at least 2019. That year — months after the Varsity Blues scandal, which did not implicate Brown — a document titled “Roles & Responsibilities of Corporation Members” was mentioned for the first time in a public summary of Corporation meetings. It explicitly prohibited Corporation members and their spouses from writing recommendations or advocating for applicants.

Cliatt said that Brown decided to publicize Corporation responsibilities “amid campus and public interest.” 

‘You have to meet the threshold’

A small group of individuals utilize their close ties to University leadership to recommend students. Philanthropist Marty Granoff P’93 is one of them.

Granoff, a former Corporation member and prolific donor to the University, and his wife, Perry Granoff P’93, are the namesake of the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts on campus, a building valued at over $55 million.

The Herald spoke to two current students who received assistance from Granoff during their application process. Emails and text messages reviewed by The Herald show that students continually communicated with Granoff throughout their admissions process, including by sharing some of their application materials. They often turned to Granoff as a source of counsel when applying.

Both students were put in contact with Granoff via their parents. Both had conversations with the donor prior to applying wherein he discussed each applicant’s personal interest in Brown, academic performance and viability as a candidate for admission. He made clear to both of them that he does not recommend every student. Instead, Granoff said he decides after these conversations whether the student meets his standard for recommendation.

“You have to meet the threshold that he has — impress him,” one student said.

Granoff also connects students with Powell, who arranges private meetings with students, according to emails reviewed by The Herald.

Powell wrote in an email to The Herald that he routinely meets with students regardless of connections to Brown, pointing to personal meetings he has with students of all backgrounds, including low-income and rural students.

Granoff also sent at least one student’s essays to Ronald Margolin, the vice president for international advancement, which is the University department that facilitates donations. In his response, Margolin provided feedback on the essay.

Cliatt, who said she was responding on behalf of all administrators and current Corporation or former Corporation members that The Herald contacted, said that communications with administrative contacts does not imply that a student will receive preference in admissions as a result, even when Brown leaders are contacted by students’ recommenders and mentors — a practice she said happens routinely. 

Granoff did not respond to The Herald’s requests for comment. 

Both students also said Granoff congratulated them before the students — or their families — informed Granoff of the decision. In one case, a student said they received a congratulatory gift before admissions decisions were released.

Powell said it is common to share students’ admission statuses shortly before decisions are released when “knowledge supports preparation and planning,” like with school counselors, scholarship sponsors, coaches and ROTC centers. He declined to confirm whether Granoff or other individuals had been involved in those conversations, citing his office’s confidentiality policy.

Both students told The Herald that Granoff attends a dinner during move-in week each year. Among the attendees are parents of children he has recommended and Paxson.

Cliatt told The Herald that Paxson hosts fundraising dinners with parents at the beginning of each academic year, but the dinners are not sponsored by Granoff, even if he “may be present,” she added.

“Attendance is based on relationships the University wants to cultivate with identified parents variably for volunteerism, mentoring, philanthropy and perhaps advisory committees, depending on how they might contribute their time, talent or philanthropy to the community,” Cliatt wrote.

She also said that the dinners are University events co-hosted by alumni each year, are “routine” and are a common fundraising method for Brown. 

In 2019, the Providence Journal reported that Granoff hosted yearly dinners with children of “preeminent U.S. politicians, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, business executives, financial moguls and otherwise wealthy individuals” with logistical support from the University’s Advancement Office. 

Following the article’s publication, Paxson wrote that “Brown’s central administration” had not been aware of the support the Advancement Department had provided, and the University barred the department from providing logistical support for those dinners in the future. 

Granoff is not the only one who has helped students gain admission to the University. 

In violation of University policy barring recommendations from sitting Corporation members and presidential cabinet members, Corporation trustee and filmmaker Perri Peltz told one student she’d recommend them for admission during her tenure, according to the student. 

Emails shared with The Herald show that Peltz and the student arranged a meeting to discuss the student’s application and follow-up correspondence when the student was admitted. The student said she submitted a recommendation following their meeting. 

Peltz did not respond to The Herald’s requests for comment.

‘Reputation for excellence’ 

Admissions counselor Sara Harberson, a former admission officer at the University of Pennsylvania, compared The Herald’s findings to admissions practices she witnessed while at Penn, where she worked until 2008.

She said that while at Penn, officials from its Office of Advancement and representatives from the admission office would host at least one annual meeting to discuss the admission status of applicants recommended by large-dollar donors. These applications, she said, were often electronically flagged in the application database by high-level admission officials.

The University of Pennsylvania did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

At Brown, the Advancement Office does not communicate with the Office of Admission about prospective applicants, Cliatt said.

But recommendations from donors and other influential members of the Brown community are allowed, and the University gives explicit guidance on how to submit them. In an annual email to former Corporation members provided to The Herald, Paxson outlines the process by which former trustees and fellows can recommend “exceptional candidates” for admission. 

“As leaders in the Brown community, you may receive requests to write letters of recommendation in support of applicants,” Paxson wrote. “Any belief that connections are an important factor in admissions damages Brown’s reputation for excellence, and conflicts with the reality that students are admitted to Brown based on stellar credentials, and not on the basis of connections.”

Paxson urged the former Corporation members to write “only if you know the candidate well, and have unique knowledge of their strengths and accomplishments.” 

In a separate annual letter to current Corporation members, Paxson asks them and their spouses to “refrain from writing letters in support of admissions candidates.”

Cliatt wrote that it is common practice for alums, regardless of their donor status, to recommend students. She also noted that donations from such alums fund many initiatives at Brown, including financial aid for students with demonstrated need. 

‘Everyone has connections’

All of the students The Herald spoke with attended elite private high schools. While there, they experienced a competitive culture, increasing in intensity when the college application season reared its head at the end of their junior year.

Comparison between classmates was the status quo, the students said. They and their classmates scrounged for information on which students were applying to which schools to maximize their own chances of acceptance. This often involved considerations of students’ connections to various universities, including Brown.

Eleven students The Herald spoke to said that they made decisions about their college list partly based on which students with connections were applying to which elite institutions, as they believed there was a decreased chance they would be accepted in comparison to better-connected students. 

“It sucks that everyone has connections, but they do,” one student said. “You’re not going to get anywhere ignoring the connections that you do have.” 

“But you’re given this first-class ticket to Brown. What do you do?” another student said. “You use the connection.”

Owen Dahlkamp

Owen Dahlkamp is a Section Editor overseeing coverage for University News and Science & Research. Hailing from San Diego, CA, he is concentrating in political science and cognitive neuroscience with an interest in data analytics. In his free time, you can find him making spreadsheets at Dave’s Coffee.


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