The independent news organization of Duke University

Academic Council discusses Duke's admissions in wake of college admissions scandal

As the national college admissions dumpster fire sees a wave of plea deals, Duke is looking inward to make sure that no such problems exist here. 

At Thursday's Academic Council meeting, Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, spoke about the mechanisms and relationships in place between the admissions office and Duke Athletics to prevent malfeasance. 

"In all these relationships and processes, there's a certain amount of trust," Guttentag said. "Sometimes people—as we've seen with institutions we would not expect—there is always the ability to abuse trust."

The college admissions scandal came to light last month when federal prosecutors charged 50 people as part of a multi-year scam of illicitly trying to get students into colleges through the "side door." 

The charges were made against varsity coaches at prestigious schools—such as Yale and Georgetown—related to passing off prospective students as recruits, parents who allegedly paid thousands of dollars to illegally boost their children's standardized test scores, and architect William Singer, who has pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy and more.

No Duke administrators or coaches were named in the charges.

At last month's Academic Council meeting, President Vincent Price said that Duke was auditing years of its admissions to ensure that no such impropriety had transpired. On Thursday, Guttentag explained the mechanisms Duke has in place to make sure it had not. 

In the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, there are four senior admissions officers who are assigned to specific sports teams. They review the students at multiple intervals throughout the admissions process. Students are vetted when coaches send over their lists, and again when the students actually apply.

Guttentag, himself one of the four senior officers, handles the men's basketball team, women's basketball team and football, he said. Additionally, each varsity team is assigned to an administrator in athletics who also oversees it. 

Since the scandal, there have been meetings that include athletics, admissions and the University's legal counsel to discuss how to "make things a little safer for everyone." 

Guttentag said that there are strong enough relationships between admissions and athletics for him to feel that people are “doing the right things in the right ways."

"At the same time, we are not unaware that some of our peer institutions may have felt comfortable saying the same thing," Guttentag said.

Steffen Bass, professor of physics, asked Guttentag whether they were going back through admissions records from previous years to look for irregularities between students who were admitted to play on a team and the ones who ended up on the rosters. The dean responded that they are looking, and that "everything matches up."

“Occasionally it will happen that somebody does not appear on a roster that one would have expected," Guttentag said. "For every one of those cases—and there aren't very many—due diligence was done and there was a legitimate reason, that we're all comfortable with, why that could have been the case.”

Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke professor of African and African American studies, asked Guttentag about athletes reclassifying into different high school years to come to college sooner. According to Guttentag, there are no such cases so far this year, to his knowledge. 

In other business

Abbas Benmamoun, vice provost for faculty advancement, presented ideas for a Faculty Professionalism Council. The goal of the body would be to help the University deal with behavior that falls below the legal definition of harassment but is detrimental to people and the community. 

Council Chair Don Taylor, professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, talked about plans to bring a draft of revisions for the rules governing the Faculty Hearing Committee to the Council in May. The revisions are part of an effort to modernize the FHC, Taylor said.

Additionally, Taylor said that the council will discuss the selection of faculty ombudspersons at the May meeting. The ombudsperson serves as a guiding tool to help faculty with concerns and issues navigate administrative channels and address their problems. 

Thomas Metzloff, professor of law, has served as faculty ombuds for the last two years, and Taylor says that at the May meeting the council will vote on whether to reappoint him for another two years. Because of the high demand for the services of the role, a second ombudsperson will be added. This one will be a faculty member in the School of Medicine, and they will be chosen over the summer, Taylor said. 

Nathan Luzum and Stefanie Pousoulides contributed reporting.