NEWS

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August 2, 2002

FBI investigates Princeton U. admissions

Officials at both Princeton and Yale Universities verify reports that several admissions officers at Princeton have gained unauthorized access to a Yale website intended to disclose admissions decisions to Yale applicants. Those under investigation include Director of Admissions and Associate Dean Stephen Lemenager, who claims that he was conducting harmless security checks when he used confidential information from student applications to access the site. Yale officials discovered the infraction in June and conducted their own investigation before notifying the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Princeton officials last Wednesday.

"I deeply regret the enormous strain that these events have caused, first and foremost, to the students whose rights were violated," said Princeton's president, Shirley M. Tilghman on Monday in a press release to all students and faculty. "Basic ethical principles of privacy and confidentiality are at stake here. We teach these principles and we hold our students, faculty and staff to them. Violations of these principles therefore must not, and will not, be tolerated."

The Yale website was illegitimately entered 18 times. Yale reports that 14 of those entries were traced to computers in the Princeton admission's office. Though it is unclear who is to blame for the remainder of the security breeches, officials suspect that at least one more of the responsible computers may be elsewhere on the Princeton campus.

Since being notified last week, Princeton has begun its own investigation to discover the details and motives of the electronic trespass. Dean Lemenager has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

"We will move quickly to bring the investigation to a just conclusion, and we will then take appropriate actions to deal with infractions that have occurred and to try to prevent any recurrence of similar actions in the future," Tilghman said.

As the investigation continues, Lemanager told Yale's undergraduate newspaper that his intentions were not malicious. "It was really an innocent way for us to check security," Lemenager said to the Yale Daily News. "That was our main concern of having an online notification system, that it would be susceptible to people who had that information."

To gain access to the Yale admissions website, which was used for the first time this year, applicants entered their social security numbers and birth dates—a protection measure that many institutions believe is too easily circumvented. Other universities that have tried online notification websites require a predetermined, specially assigned password to gain access.

However, some point to this incident as an example of the competitiveness that has come to typify the college admissions process, especially at upper echelon schools like Princeton and Yale. James O. Freedman, a legal scholar and former president of Dartmouth, told the New York Times he felt the scandal reflected the heightened craziness about admissions decisions, taking competition to a "dastardly length."

University of Chicago officials do not share Freedman's concern, though. "As a matter of breech on privacy I believe it is an important case, but as a matter of admissions activity it means nothing," said Ted O'Neill, Dean of Admissions at the University. "It was an act of curiosity, not of rivalry or competitiveness."

While the University has considered using a website to relay admissions decisions, the idea was eventually rejected, although not for security reasons. "It's just not a dignified way to deliver a very important piece of information," O'Neill said.