College Admission and Democracy

Today is election day, and of course the great leveling force in the process for selecting our leaders is that everybody’s vote counts the same, regardless of one’s station.  John McCain and Barack Obama themselves cast one vote apiece, and their individual decisions wield no more influence on the final outcome than ours do.

Similarly, when the admission committee meets to make its hardest choices between similarly qualified applicants, each vote around the table carries the same weight.  That means that during committee, an assistant dean who graduated from William and Mary last spring wields the same authority that I do as the dean.  At that phase in our process, there are no bad choices, only difficult ones.  Some might call this a pleasant change from the usual quandary of political elections, but we face considerable challenges.  And we approach those challenges through a process that is thoroughly democratic, even if its results could not possibly meet everyone’s personal standards for fairness.

What we don’t do, however, is cast our votes in secret.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Jill Lepore observes that secret ballots, known as the Australian ballot, are a comparatively new patch on the American electoral process.  The philosopher John Stuart Mill famously opposed them because he believed that anonymity permitted voting in strict accordance to one’s self-interest instead of the public good.  Without secret ballots, however, corruption in American elections was rampant, and votes commonly could be purchased or bullied.

In an admission committee, there’s no buying of votes, and there’s no bullying (usually).  There’s also no avoiding the scrutiny of one’s colleagues for each vote cast.  In this sense you might say we have the best of both worlds and an even purer democratic exercise than what national elections permit.

– Henry Broaddus

Categories: Admission, Faculty & Staff Blogs

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