Increasingly, admissions departments and universities are using social media to their benefit by connecting with students and becoming more accessible. A recent Chronicle article even discussed how more students are turning to social media to inform their college search. Social media is becoming an obvious means of information and collaboration within higher education and admissions. But living in the age of social media can be a detriment when the social media profile of an individual undermines the larger efforts on an organization, as in the case of Nadirah Farah Foley, a former admissions employee at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ms. Foley lost her job at Penn soon after screenshots from her personal Facebook page were anonymously sent to the Dean of Admissions, Eric Furda, and the school newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. The screenshots showed posts in which Ms. Foley mocked prospective students. Penn has a strict policy of not making public statements on personnel issues, so officials will not comment as to whether her firing was a direct result of her Facebook posts. However, this is assumed to be the case.
In her posts, Ms. Foley shared excerpts from essays that she found amusing. For example, one post cited an essay in which a student shared his experience in overcoming a fear of (ahem) relieving himself outdoors. Another essay told of a student who had “deep” roots at Penn because he was circumcised at the campus Hillel. She also shared photos of gifts that she received from prospective students, as well as poking fun at a Midwestern student who expressed interest in Penn because of the proximity to the ocean, saying “Gotta love recruiting in Kansas!”
Although Ms. Foley seems to have been fired as a result of these posts, Penn currently does not have a written policy addressing admissions confidentiality. However, the topic is ostensibly covered in the school’s “Principles of Responsible Conduct,” under the heading “Respect for Privacy and Confidentiality.” Currently, the Office of the Provost is in the process of creating a clear policy that specifically accounts for the privacy of applicant data in admissions.
It is interesting to note that Penn has publicly shared excerpts from student essays in their own orientation activities. In 2010, current student Kai Tang was attending an accepted student’s event when the speaker shared an excerpt from his essay (and others) to playfully demonstrate the diversity of the incoming class. But the students didn’t seem to mind the breach in privacy as long as their words were painted in a positive light. “I wasn’t angry or anything, but I definitely wasn’t expecting that,” said Kai.
The ghostwriter behind the “Admissions Problems” tumblr page (the champion of higher education admissions satire) has also weighed in on the topic. While most admissions officers say that joking about applicants is common, but that those jokes should not leave the admissions department, the voice of “Admissions Problems” defends Ms. Foley’s right to post whatever she pleases on her private profile page. Indeed, she defends the right of admissions officers to say whatever they please to whomever they please, whenever they please;
Isn’t it a little ridiculous to think we can sit around and giggle at those silly things internally, but people outside of admission offices can’t be privy to those laughable moments? How elitist you sound. What if we went home and shared stories with our spouses? Unethical? What if our spouses tweeted about it? Really unethical?
An admissions officer from Penn has anonymously admitted to submitting content to the blog. But I have to point out that there is a very clear distinction between what the tumblr page does and what Ms. Foley did. The Tumblr page is painstakingly anonymous; contributors do not identify themselves, schools are never named, and students are never named. All contributors, schools, and students are protected by a veil of anonymity.
The major concern in Ms. Foley’s case is that she is a direct representative of the University of Pennsylvania. By posting applicant information and making fun of prospective students, she has brought bad press to her employer and jeopardized the reputation of their admissions department. Ms. Foley posted this information on a page under her own name. Some may argue – “But her Facebook settings were private!” To which I would say; “Don’t be naive.” Although her settings are “private,” it should be assumed that anything shared online under your name can easily be made public.
In short, this is simply a case of poor judgment and bad business sense. People in any profession can learn from Ms. Foley’s mistake. Joking about your workplace anonymously, with friends, or with co-workers is one thing – but putting it in writing? Online? Under your name? Where anyone could snap a screenshot and get you fired? That’s just silly. Like my dad always says - “Think before you act.”