Finally, random admissions: How one Yale class chooses its students

Editor’s Note: Vikram Mansharamani is a lecturer in the Program on Ethics, Politics & Economics at Yale University and a senior fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also the author of “Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst.” To subscribe to his mailing list or read his weekly commentary, visit his website. He can also be followed on twitter @mansharamani.

He joins Making Sen$e today for an inside look at admission to his business ethics class at Yale. It was so oversubscribed this semester that he let the students decide who’d gain entry. What followed was a true lesson in business ethics, where random selection was the final arbiter, and transparency was the take-home message. Not a bad learning experience for business and econ majors — or anyone else.

— Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

Last month, I greeted a Yale classroom overflowing with students interested in taking an undergraduate business ethics class I was teaching this semester. I’d targeted 20 students for the seminar, but more than 140 students expressed interest via email or the pre-registration process and by showing up for the first class.

I walked into the room with a list of 10 students whom I had accepted, as per Yale’s guidelines for programs sponsoring a course. Seven showed up — six females, one male. I wrote their names on the board in what would become a real-time list of the class roster. Thirteen slots left for the other 50-some-odd students in the room.

Since this was a business ethics course, I thought we might start it by modeling transparency and fairness. So I told the students to guide the selection process themselves. Disappointed students would then consider the outcome legitimate, I figured; all would engage in ethical decision-making. “This may just seem like logistics,” I said, “but it’s the essence of ethics – making tough choices. First lesson – selecting the accepted students.”

At that point, the one accepted male student got up, put on his coat, and started to walk out. Yale’s “shopping period” allows students to change selections until a week after classes begin, so I wished the student well.

“But I have my seat…my name is on the board,” he said. I asked if he would be shopping for another class. “Nope, getting breakfast. Don’t need to waste my time here.”

But this was an ethics lesson; classroom participation and group process would be part of the grade. My reaction was simple: I erased his name. Why bother wasting any more of his time? His fellow students’? Mine?

Yes, I was a disgruntled instructor, annoyed by an entitled student. But wasn’t this true to the power of process? How would his peers who stayed feel?

They, it turns out, were mainly concerned with constructing arguments to justify their selection.

“The class should have a diversity of majors, as it’s important to get unique perspectives,” noted an art major.

“I think it’s critical that seniors get priority as they will not have another opportunity to take the course,” said a senior.

An Australian student then reminded the class, “We all live in an increasingly interconnected world and as such, the class really should have some foreign students.”

One student who had tried to get into the class last year suggested, “Those who have tried in prior years should be given preference.”

And with an argument that we may hear more frequently as women pass men in college attendance, a male student, noting no seats had been given to males so far, added, “We should not discriminate against either gender.”

All were valid arguments, justifiable as legitimate criteria – and each could be used to fill the remaining seats. How could one choose between them? I let the class take the lead.

Everyone agreed that seniors in the sponsoring majors deserved the 10 seats originally allocated. We were now down to six, so the remaining four seats were assigned randomly among the 15 eligible (because of their major) seniors. Ten down, 10 to go.

Given that only two of the students accepted so far were male, the class now agreed that gender and seniority mattered. Meanwhile, the previously-admitted student who had been un-admitted politely raised his hand and asked, apologetically, if he might be eligible for consideration in the selection process for senior males.

I suggested it would be fine, but before we commenced further selection, I turned to the class. After some discussion, the class collectively felt that he had suffered his penalty. He was allowed to join the pool. “After all,” noted one student, “if a similar person entered the class right now, we’d let them put their name in the hat.”

Two names were randomly chosen from the seven senior men in the room. Diversity of major was the next criterion, and the class allocated five seats to the 23 students who were studying biology, film, history, art, environmental studies, architecture, etc.

While most of the students in the room had at least one chance of being drawn, there was rising discomfort with the process. So with five minutes remaining in the class, I asked the students to finish the process by selecting the remaining three seats and left the room.

Outside, I could hear loud debate. I went to the restroom, and upon returning, found the students had ultimately decided on truly random selection and put all the remaining names into a hat and drawn for the three spots left.

Unfortunately or not, depending on your rooting interest, Mr. admitted-then-unadmitted didn’t make the cut. But as far as I can tell, everyone else (and perhaps he too) felt fairly treated, despite the fact that many went away disappointed. And while random allocation seems, well, random, it may be the most legitimate method when facing indistinguishably worthy selection criteria…just as the students themselves concluded.

Ultimately, all seemed to understand that business ethics, like economics more generally, is a world of tradeoffs and ambiguities, most fairly dealt with when made transparent.

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