Admin points to Admissions in switch to Common App

By Zach Werner

University President Robert Zimmer recently said that Michael Behnke, vice president and dean of College Enrollment, ultimately made the decision to switch to the Common

Application for undergraduate admissions.

Months after the University announced the change, facts are just now coming to light about how the decision was made and by whom.

In a meeting with the Maroon on February 6, Zimmer said that the final decision to switch to the Common Application rested with Behnke, whose responsibilities include oversight of the College’s Admissions Office.

“This is Michael Behnke’s domain,” Zimmer said. “This is why he’s a Vice President of the University.”

Zimmer said he told Behnke: “Ultimately, this is your call.”

According to Zimmer, the Admissions Office had been “batting this around for years.”

Zimmer said he then advised admissions officials to weigh the positive and negative aspects of the situation and to make the change if they believed it would be beneficial. “Come to a decision and move on,” Zimmer said he told Behnke.

Behnke discussed the potential switch with Zimmer and Dean of Admissions Ted O’Neill last spring.

“Two things happened in the spring of last year, and I don’t remember which was first,” Behnke said. “One was a meeting between newly appointed President Zimmer, Dean O’Neill, and me. One question he [Zimmer] asked was why we do not let students submit basic information in a common format.”

The second event was the decision of two important competitors, Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania, to accept the Common Application in 2007.

“In short, we decided we did not have a good answer to President Zimmer’s question, and we decided to submit an application to join the Common Application, and that application has been accepted,” Behnke said.

Since the decision became public, Zimmer has repeatedly denied that he ordered the switch.

When asked about the decision-making process, O’Neill deferred an official response to Behnke.

“The Admissions Office made the choice to switch to the Common Application,” Zimmer said to a Shoreland Hall audience in early February. “I only encouraged discussion of the issue in the office and later approved of their choice.”

However, an anonymous source in the University said that little discussion of the issue took place between the administration and the Admissions Office.

“I would not characterize the development of the decision between the administration and the Admissions Department as a discussion,” the source said. “It was a case of the administration saying, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do.’”

Critics have also questioned the degree to which the University solicited student input. Zimmer said he asked Behnke if the Admissions Office had discussed the switch with “relevant parts of the community” and “focus groups.”

The anonymous source in the University said the Maroon Key Society (MKS) was consulted, though the source was unsure if input was solicited from other student associations. The Society is an honorary group in the College whose members serve as advisers to the Dean of the College and the Dean of Students in the College.

Attempts to reach Behnke for comment about input from student groups were unsuccessful.

Dan Michaeli, a fourth-year and MKS member, said the group, which has fewer than 30 members, discussed the Common Application briefly in an October 9 meeting that Behnke attended. “We had a discussion for a few minutes on the issue of whether the Uncommon Application was the best way of attracting the students we were hoping to attract to the University,” he said.

Michaeli said the application issue was not discussed directly. “It was not on the agenda and was something that was brought up in the context of a conversation about the image of the University.”

Katherine Michonski, also a fourth-year member of MKS, said administrators did not discuss the potential application switch with the group in a substantive way at the October meeting.

“At the first meeting of fall quarter, the Maroon Key Society was asked about perceptions of the College; we were asked to articulate what we felt made the University of Chicago unique and what qualities should be kept as the College expands. However, at no point during that meeting were we told that the University was planning on, or even thinking about, changing to the Common Application,” she said in an e-mail interview.

An MKS member who wished to remain anonymous said the discussion took place so close to when news of the official switch became public that the group’s input could not have impacted the decision.

“Based on how quickly the decision was ultimately made, it seemed that the discussion in the Maroon Key meeting had not played a central role in initiating the discussion and actually took place fairly far along into the process of making the change,” the source said.

Administrators discussed the switch in greater depth with the MKS at a January 22 meeting after the decision had been announced.

“It seems to me that the January 22nd meeting was held more to assuage MKS students then to seriously gauge our opinions,” Michonski said.

Dean of the College “John Boyer and other administrative officials that attend meetings of the MKS do take our input seriously; however, in the case of the Uncommon App, our opinions were only sought after the fact,” Michonski said. “Therefore, it does not seem that the administration wanted student input in this decision; rather they made up their minds without having conducted any substantive and direct discussion about the value of the Uncommon Application with the student body.”