Over the years Princeton University — like its human counterparts — has committed its share of faux pas. Back in the 1950s the university sanctioned a system of private eating clubs that pretty much discriminated against Jews and other young men who might have been considered social misfits. In the early 1960s Princeton was one of several colleges that paraded its freshmen — in the nude — in front of a still camera for what was presumed to be a study of posture.
In the 1970s the university grappled with allegations of misconduct in the application of its Honor Code. In the 1980s and 1990s issues of drinking binges and the now-banned Nude Olympics gave Old Nassau more than one public black eye.
But through the years none of these institutional indiscretions has led to a more abject apology than the recent "hacking" of the Yale admissions website by several Princeton administrators. In case you missed the national news accounts, the Princeton admissions staffers were able to gain entrance to the Yale website and determine whether or not certain students who also had applied to Princeton had been accepted or rejected by Yale.
Princeton had gained access using nothing more than the student’s name, social security number, and date of birth — information readily provided by any college applicant. Princeton had not used the information to its advantage — the "hacking" had occurred after the university had mailed its letters of acceptance in April. And the Princeton people notified Yale of its lax security at a meeting of Ivy League admissions officers in May.
But the incident created a fusillade of charges by Yale (included reporting the incident to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Connecticut) and a raft (or ocean liner) of apologies from Princeton to Yale. Princeton president Shirley M. Tilghman met with the press in person to present a five-page explanation and institutional mea culpa. Floating along with that missive was a one-page statement from Princeton’s dean of admission, Fred Hargadorn, described by Tilghman as "a towering figure in the field."
Because of the hacking incident, the towering figure was reduced to a pool of contrition: "As Princeton’s Dean of Admission I am ultimately responsible for the manner in which we conduct the University’s admissions process. . . I also accept responsibility for not having called attention to the impropriety immediately . . . I apologize to the eight students whose names were checked and to Yale University itself . . . I pledge to do my best . . . to restore the [admission offices’s] complete integrity . . . My staff and I will dedicate ourselves to reviewing our guidelines for handling sensitive and confidential information. . ."
If that apology were not quite enough, Tilghman’s statement carefully noted that Hargadorn would be retiring next June, "when he completes this final year of his term." The associate dean, Stephen LeMenager, whose almost 20 years of experience might have put him in line to succeed Hargadorn, was also moving on — to work in another administrative office.
Amid all those apologies, the big picture seemed hard to grasp. If, for example, Yale truly believed it was institutionally injured by Princeton’s hacking, why did it wait so long to pursue the matter? Why did it not apologize to its applicants for posting their information on such a blatantly unsecured website?
Why did the U.S. Attorney’s office, when first approached by Yale, not simply tell the college to go back to its computer room and secure its website? Who was harmed, and what was the harm, the law enforcement people might have asked. It can’t be terrible to be accepted at Yale. Being rejected and having people know about it must not be fun, but it can hardly be considered slanderous.
Of course, others might ask what’s the harm of Princeton apologizing so profusely. Isn’t it better to acknowledge this espionage than to deny it or try to shift the blame? One might argue that plenty of CEOs could learn a lesson from how Tilghman handled this PR nightmare. Hey, Martha Stewart: Next time talk to Shirley.
All correct. But that fusillade of apologies also obscured two noteworthy observations by Tilghman:
First that Princeton University will create a new position, the information technology security officer. "Properly protecting privacy and insuring the security of data are challenges for all universities, as for many other institutions," said Tilghman.
Second that "even individuals with a high degree of sensitivity to ethical principles in traditional settings can fail to be equally sensitive when technology is involved (as when someone who would never open a sealed envelope addressed to another person enters a secured website)."
Good point. Maybe it’s time for Yale and Princeton to quit pointing fingers, stop apologizing, and begin the work needed to make the brave new world also a better one.