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Princeton Dean Accesses Private Yale University Admissions Website

By Pia Banerjee

Princeton University Associate Dean and Admissions Director Stephen E. LeMenager has been temporarily suspended after it became known that he had used information from Princeton applicants to enter Yale University’s admissions site.

In early April, LeMenager took the names, birth dates, and social security numbers of 11 students who had applied to both universities. He used this information to sign into Yale’s online admissions notification system, which tells each student whether he or she was accepted or rejected to the university. The students included Lauren Bush, niece of President George W. Bush.

“We are deeply concerned about the privacy of our students. We therefore have notified appropriate law enforcement authorities, as well as the applicants whose Web locations were accessed,” said Yale University general counsel Dorothy Robinson.

Yale officials became aware of the breach of privacy when Princeton officials mentioned that they had accessed the student admissions site at an Ivy League deans’ conference, the Yale Daily News reported. Princeton administrators only became aware of the incident after Yale President Richard C. Levin called Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman on July 24. The names of the Princeton officials involved have not been released to the public.

Yale spoke to the Federal Bureau of Investigation on July 25. The FBI will conduct an investigation of the incident. Tilghman wrote in an e-mail to Princeton students, staff, and faculty that the university had begun its own investigation and “placed Dean LeMenager on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.”

Neither university commented on LeMenager’s motive for entering Yale’s site. However, LeMenager told the Yale Daily News, “it was really an innocent way for us to check out the security. That was our main concern of having an online notification system, that it would be susceptible to people who had that information: parents, guidance counselors and admissions officers at other schools.”

Yale site accessed 18 times

Alexander Clark, a Yale junior who developed the notification site, discovered that the site was accessed a total of 18 times from Princeton, 14 of which are linked to the computers in Princeton’s admissions office, The Boston Globe reported July 26. “It appears that at least one [of the other four instances] may have resulted from a Princeton student checking on the application of a sibling,” Tilghman wrote in her e-mail. Two students’ accounts were accessed before those students logged on.

Yale’s online notification system, new this year, displayed fireworks if an applicant was accepted or a rejection notice otherwise. Because the display and notice could only be viewed the first time an applicant entered the site, applicants whose accounts LeMenager had broken into were unable to find out their admission status. The site gave a security warning that only prospective students should log in.

Apart from the admissions notification, other personal information on the site included whether or not the student had filed for financial aid and academic information sent from the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT.

Competition a possible motive

Admissions officers from other universities were shocked at the incident but realized that it could easily happen with today’s competition among universities. “This report reflects the heightened craziness about admissions decisions,” said James O. Freedman, former president of Dartmouth College. “It probably wouldn’t subvert the Constitution, but it is competitiveness taken to a dastardly length.”

“The admissions business is very competitive now, even among the most prestigious private universities,” said MIT Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones. “There are many reasons for this, including the pressure to make the top 5 ranking in the college rating systems ... As long as people believe that these ratings actually mean something, the pressure will be on colleges to work things to their advantage.”

Yale spokesman Thomas Conroy said that the university will continue using the online notification system in the future but add a higher level of security, The New York Times reported. Other universities may have to consider changing their systems as well. The University of California and other universities currently allow access to their notification Websites with only a name and either assigned ID number or social security number.

Jones said that MIT is not currently thinking about implementing an online admissions site. Jones, MIT wants to look people-friendly and thus sends admittance notification letters through the mail. The admissions department eases prospective students’ anxiety by mailing these letters a few weeks before the Ivy League schools do.

Jones said that MIT is very careful about security. “Because we are at MIT and are hyper-sensitive about privacy, we are always careful to ask ourselves not whether we can access even more information, but whether we should,” she said.