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Reporting with clarity, accuracy on difficult tracking issue

INTERVIEWING is a tricky business and the normal difficulty inherent in asking the right people the right questions is made even more problematic during investigative reporting. It's hard to phrase questions that won't limit the scope of your interviewees' answers while still ensuring that those answers are fully accurate. Some readers are concerned that this difficulty led to unclear and possibly inaccurate information in The Cavalier Daily's series of articles on admissions and donor tracking.

The basic concern is this: Readers worry reporters were not precise enough in asking their questions and interpreting the answers they received. This especially seems to have been a problem when reporters talked to people (both within the University and at other universities) who had no involvement in the College's tracking system, hadn't seen the memos, and had no idea how they fit into the University's admissions process. From reading the subsequent articles, readers gathered the reporters asked if the person had ever heard of anything "like this." Many answered no, but this may not be entirely accurate.

To be fair, readers admit the interviewees themselves probably have not always made the effort to clarify who the "you" is or what they mean by "this" in their answers. I cannot speak on this and the important issue isn't how confusing statements got into the articles. Readers are concerned that the tracking stories said - or, at least, strongly implied - that long-time University administrators and development officers outside the College weren't aware of the Development Office's tracking system. While it is true that these individuals interviewed may not have known how the Development Office forwarded its recommendations, this is not the same thing as not knowing in general that there is a central system. Some readers believe the paper's reporting didn't make this clear.

Readers also worry that stories quoting admission officers at other universities to the effect that nothing "like this" (forwarded tracking memos) occurs there. If what was asked is whether memos like those from the College go to admission offices elsewhere, it is not surprising the interviewers received negative responses. After all, the memos aren't sent to admissions at the University either. But this obviously does not mean that the president's and development offices at those schools don't have a system for handling recommendations from legislators, active alumni, and Board members. Coverage of this issue in The Washington Post and other papers has made it clear that other selective universities have procedures similar to the central tracking process used at the University.

I believe the criticisms given above are fair. Certainly, some additional clarification needed to take place during the interviewing process. However, I think it highly unlikely that those interviewed universally mistook what was meant when they were asked whether they knew of any tracking process involving memos noting the potential worth of admissions candidates. I similarly distrust the "oh, no, nothing like that happens here" answers received from other schools. Admissions tracking, I believe, is rightfully recognized as a potentially problematic, yet necessary, process at a selective university. No one would have been interested in The Cavalier Daily's articles if the University's central liaison tracking system was common knowledge and it seems pretty clear that even those "in the know" preferred to keep their knowledge secret.

Still, in the interest of maintaining The Cavalier Daily's journalistic integrity, I believe the following clarifications are important and should be printed: First, here at the University, as at the University of Wisconsin, the Office of Admissions does not track applicants' giving potential, according to University Relations Director Louise Dudley. Dean of Admissions John A. Blackburn does not receive development officers' memos or recommendations. Decisions on whether to admit students indeed are made on a need-blind basis, without knowledge of a family's ability to pay even the cost of enrolling.

Second, Dudley also said that at the University, development officers do not go looking for high school applicants to track. Their job is to research, track, and assist donors to the University, a process completely separate from admission. When a parent, an alumna/alumnus, or other friend of the University contacts a development officer on behalf of an applicant, the development office is asked to forward any relevant information to the President's Office. This could include information on someone's past support, as well as future possibilities and family ties to the University.

Third, Dudley said the President's Office does track applicants centrally, after they have been recommended by an alumnus, a politician, a Board member, or in about one quarter of the cases, by a donor. This system is designed to protect the integrity of the admission process and to make sure that friends of the University get a personal explanation of why an applicant they care about has been denied admission. Interestingly, the secrecy of the process is meant to help protect the integrity of the University.

Singing A Cappella

On a totally different topic, one reader sent in a question regarding the proper spelling of "a cappella." In "Students plan for Awareness Week Activities," (Nov. 5), the word, which is usually spelled with two 'p's in The Cavalier Daily, was instead spelled 'A Capella' ("Alcohol Awareness Week kicks off Sunday with the A Capella Sing in Newcomb Plaza.").

What, asks the reader, is the correct spelling? Apparently, some word processors accept either spelling (not the latest Word, however). The simple truth is that both spellings are technically correct. A cappella is taken from the Italian words ad, meaning "according to," andcapella, meaning "chapel." Thus, a capella, with one "p", in Italian literally means "in the church style." In turning the Italian into the now common musical term, however, we've added an extra "p" and a cappella is the usual spelling.

Do you have any questions or clarifications to raise? E-mail me at and let me know.


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