Yale admissions office responds to my WSJ piece

Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, has written a letter to the Wall Street Journal responding to my opinion piece last week. Countering a claim I never made, he asserts that civic activism in an applying student is not “the only attribute we look for.”

Interestingly, Quinlan does not distance his office from, seek to explain, or mention at all, the earlier Yale admissions blog post on which my piece was based, which had said of accepted students: “we expect them to be versed in issues of social justice.” Instead, he summarily dismisses my analysis as “false” and wrong.”

Meanwhile, in Quinlan’s reworking, what had been a call for applicants to be “versed in issues of social justice” has turned into a thing more anodyne: Yale will “expect its students to be engaged citizens.”

But even that fallback ought to be controversial, if intended as a requirement for applicants rather than a plus. So a high school senior has mastered a field of study or performance, shown mature character and wide-ranging mind, but never spoken out on a public issue, marched, campaigned or even perhaps taken the time to vote? That’s an automatic “no” for an admissions committee?

Of course, a large share of those who apply to Yale are not old enough to have been qualified voters during an election. That’s another reason to hesitate before rejecting those who’ve fallen short of being “engaged citizens.” Earlier post here. And Greg Piper writes up the whole controversy at The College Fix.


  • Isn’t it funny how words have ceased to have meaning. Yale said X. You criticized X. And now X has a different meaning? And this from a university. Sad.

  • You were totally right to criticize Yale. They do in fact want left wing activists. Would they look favorably on students who picketed an abortion clinic? That is activism and social engagement. How about students in ROTC? High school students don’t have a clue what they should be engaged in. It should be enough that they haven’t been arrested and made good grades. These extreme activists are not in fact good citizens they are just loud citizens. They are bullies and in some cases anarchists.

  • I suppose the good news is no one can read the rebuttal without being a WSJ subscriber (including me).

    So how they would feel about “engaged citizen” applicants who protested in support of gun rights, in support of traditional marriage, or against abortion?

    Would they really be treated equally to a student that engaged in protests for gun control, in support of gay marriage, or in support of abortion rights?

    I know the real answer, I am just curious how Yale would publicly tiptoe around that response.

  • Incidentally, the WSJ paywall now bends based on propensity modeling.


    So if you find it consistently excludes you, it may be rating you as the sort of reader it thinks might be induced to subscribe.

  • The Florida county in which I reside requires students to “volunteer” in an “approved” activity or service before before being able to graduate. I believe that it is the same across the state, but am not sure.

    At one point in time, colleges took note that students were engaged in clubs or activities outside of the standard school day. It was a “plus” for the college applicant. Now, it is a requirement which turns the meaning of “volunteering” on its head.

    “If you don’t volunteer, you won’t graduate” is lacking any common sense as “volunteering” should be, well, voluntary.

    (The School District here is also looking to make passing a CPR course mandatory and have local legislators on board with making that a state requirement. )

    Forcing kids to work without compensation or engaging in “social issues and causes” is not what schools are there for.

    Graduating students may not be able to read or do math, but daggone it, they are great at protesting!

  • I can’t read the letter without a WSJ subscription. Could you post the letter? (Surely it would be fair use!)

    • The WSJ is particularly antsy about not having its copy redistributed right after publication, aside from whatever views on that subject the letter writer himself may have. However, if you follow the College Fix link at the end of the post, it employs fair use to quote a couple of excerpts from the letter which give a fair sense of its content.

  • Good grief. You can be an engaged citizen without being some sort of “movement leading, left-wing protester.” (And BTW, there are RIGHT WING protestors and activists, too.)
    Being engaged has to do with having a level of awareness and capability to “engage” in dialogue with an informed point of view. There is also an “action” component, but that doesn’t necessarily mean marching in the streets. It has to do with leadership, which our universities are supposed to be developing. Leaders take action. Being engaged is also important as many college classrooms promote and encourage lively conversation about their field of study and how it can relate to or impact current events. I had some of my best (and most challenging) debates in a college classroom. And being versed in economic theory but not knowing how it applies to today’s economic environment, policies or indicators makes one full of useless head knowledge.
    I’m not the marching or protesting type, but I stay informed of current events and changes in foreign, domestic and economic policy, and leverage that to make informed personal and professional decisions, whether that be how I vote, where I work, how I lead, or how I advise clients. The common element here? Demonstrating a willingness to make AND act on informed decisions.

  • I read the original blog post differently from you. Specifically, this part:

    “In high school, we teach students calculus and US History, literature and physics. We teach them how to write analytical essays and lab reports. But we also have to teach them how to think and feel and be proud and involved citizens of wherever they live. I believe it is our duty to teach them the latter just as much as the former.

    For those students who come to Yale, we expect them to be versed in issues of social justice. We encourage them to be vocal when they see an opportunity for change in our institution and in the world. We value student voices on campus and we encourage discourse and action. To punish our applicants for doing just that would go against the very beliefs that make Yale such a special place to study. Instead, I support those high school students around the country and urge other educators and administrators to do the same.”

    I take this to mean: “I believe high schools should teach their students to be engaged citizens. We expect Yale students to be engaged citizens – that’s part of the Yale educational experience. So it wouldn’t be consistent with how we expect students to behave at Yale if we punished them for behaving that way in high school.” This seems noncontroversial to me.

    Your initial piece asserted: “This endorsement of activism raises a few questions. Would Yale really turn away a brilliant young flutist, chemist or poet who, while solidly educated in history, religion and government, is not specifically “versed in issues of social justice”? What about students who have pursued courses based on great works of the past? Must they be versed in contemporary views of social justice too? Besides, which causes constitute social justice?”

    I’m a a parent of a current student, and live within easy driving distance, so I’m up there frequently and meet a lot of students. It seems pretty clear to me that most of the ones I know wouldn’t have been admitted if there were a “social justice” litmus test (although they tend to be well-informed about current affairs and have opinions about them, of varying points of view and degrees of intensity). It’s equally clear to me that there are plenty of people like your “brilliant young flutist, chemist or poet…or students who have pursued courses based on great works of the past” at Yale who are engaged citizens but aren’t “social justice” activists, however defined, and whatever political opinions they may have.

    You imply that as a result of the admissions blog post, students should be worried about indicating to the admissions office that they’re engaged in conservative activism. I don’t know what the authors of the conservative op-eds that the Yale Daily News runs regularly said about their political views in their applications, but these students certainly have a forum at Yale to express them (as well as many others, including the Yale Political Union).

    Critically, I think the point that both the blog post and Dean Quinlan were making was that Yale seeks students that a Yale education can help become engaged citizens (if they weren’t already) who will make a positive difference in the world. What I don’t believe they’re saying is that an “engaged citizen” is necessarily an activist, or that a student is required to be an activist in order to be admitted.

    • I’d like to hope that you are right, and that the original blog post by Yale really meant to convey no more than the innocuous aspirations embodied in your paraphrase (“engaged citizens… who will make a positive difference in the world”).

      However, this hope would require me to discount as irrelevant or contingent a lot of language in the original blog post. My piece recounted in detail, and took issue with, this language, yet neither you nor Dean Quinlan have offered to defend or even mention it except in the most anodyne paraphrase.

      I encourage everyone to re-read the original Yale blog post and decide whether I am reading things into it that aren’t there, or its defenders are reading things out of it that are there:


      • I think you quoted three extracts from the original blog post, plus the title. The first was “Yale will NOT be rescinding anyone’s admission decision for participating in peaceful walkouts for this or other causes”, which you didn’t seem to find controversial or one-sided (I didn’t either).

        I quoted the second sentence (“For those students who come to Yale, we expect them to be versed in issues of social justice,”) back and explained at some length why I thought it meant something different than you thought it did when read in the context of the surrounding paragraphs.

        The third extract you quoted (“I have the pleasure of reading applications from San Francisco, where activism is very much a part of the culture. Essays ring of social justice issues.”) should also be read in context, I believe. The paragraph continues as follows:

        “In the fall of 2016, students in San Francisco were campaigning on behalf of Proposition F, a measure which would have lowered the voting age to 16 for local elections and ballot measures. The proposal did not pass, but the message was loud and clear: this generation of teenagers care about the issues and are ready for their voices to be heard.

        Now, high schoolers have taken the issue of gun control personally. And rightly so. The phrase “school shooting” is now ingrained in our national vocabulary; how could our teenagers possibly stand idly by?”

        It seems to me that right wing as well as left wing students could support Proposition F, which is simply about whether high schoolers should be able to vote on issues that affect them. And it doesn’t seem to me that high school students seeking through peaceful civic engagement to influence public opinion in such a way as to reduce shootings in the schools they attend is an inherently partisan issue either.

        Finally, you noted the blog post’s title (“In Support of Student Protests”) as evidence of the author’s, and Yale’s, purported agenda. I read that as an emphatic reaction to the question from students whether participating in peaceful protests would result in their offers of admission being rescinded. Of course not, she’s saying – we welcome evidence of peaceful civic engagement, of all kinds. Yale wants people who will try to change the world for the better, peacefully. This is pretty clear in the language of the post, it seems to me, and I don’t believe a reading that Yale is trying to recruit and incubate “social justice warriors” as that term is generally understood is supported by the words on the page.

  • Not to intrude, but doesn’t:

    (“engaged citizens… who will make a positive difference in the world”).

    imply that someone somewhere is making a decision as to whether the acts and actions of another are “positive?”

    Hypothetically, of course, if a person applying to Yale was actively involved in supporting the baker / t-shirts / photographer cases where the individuals have been accused of all sorts of things, is that a “positive difference in the world?”

    Or would the Yale admissions office see the support of certain groups as a “negative?”

    What about a student who in their school supported the idea of right to decide what to wear for Halloween as an expression of free speech rather than supporting the people who basically forced Erika and Nicholas Christakis to resign?

    Is the support of the right of free speech and expression vs.supporting the so called “right” to not be offended a “positive difference” no matter where you come down on the issue?

  • Fitting that a Yale administrator changes the connotation of a word. “It depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is” came from the mouth of a Yale graduate.