The jaws dropped in sync at admissions offices and living rooms alike when the News reported this July that Princeton had pried into the admissions decisions of eight Yale applicants.
Observers immediately blamed the cult of competition that infects America’s top universities, speculating that Princeton’s snoop was designed to snatch top students from Yale. But a few weeks later, it seems that the access was less malicious than that, at least according to an impartial investigation ordered by Shirley Tilghman, Princeton’s president.
Motives aside, it’s wrong to open someone else’s mail — which is precisely what Princeton’s hack amounts to. And considering the sensitivity of the data he accessed, Princeton’s admissions director got off easy when Tilghman reassigned him and claimed that “even individuals with a high degree of sensitivity to ethical principles in traditional settings can fail to be equally sensitive when technology is involved.” Would she be so understanding if he had checked her online bank account?
Perhaps the most surprising part of the story is the simplicity of Yale’s security. A Social Security number and birthday hardly make for adequate protection, especially when nosy neighbors have access to the same information.
Contrary to the opinion of many, the incident doesn’t show that the Ivies are cut-throat or that the admissions process is corrupt — at least not by itself. Both schools will learn from embarrassment — Yale will issue unique codes to applicants next year and Princeton will almost certainly hold back its peepers — but not before reminding us that even the finest institutions can slip up.