Turnovers in college admissions offices prompt questions about matriculation

Dean Beth Slattery was surprised to find out that Lee Stetson, the long-time dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, who signed her letter of acceptance to the school, would not return to the university for another year, after saying that he would.

Stetson’s departure is one of two major turnovers in college admissions offices; the other is the replacement of Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale Robert Jackson, who was replaced by Assistant Director of Admissions Leah Kelley.

Both schools and both representatives have had strong relationships with Harvard-Westlake in the past, prompting questions from some, as to whether the school will be as successful in admissions, Slattery said. Last year some 30 students were accepted to Penn and 24 matriculated there. While Slattery is unsure about the coming year, she did say last year was somewhat of an “anomaly.”

“Some people have heard this rumor, ‘oh I’ve heard we are not going to get as many kids in because our connection is gone,’” Slattery said. “And I have tried to kind of disabuse them of this notion, although I have said it’s hard for us to predict, not because the connection is gone but because policies might change or there are different strategies that a new person is bringing in.”

Stetson had been the Dean of Admission at Penn for 29 years. President Thomas C. Hudnut’s relationship with him stems from when Hudnut was running the Branson School in northern California, Hudnut said.

According to an article in Penn’s newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, applicants from California applied to Penn over the last 29 years because of Lee Stetson.

“He was instrumental in hiring people that would live in California,” Dean Vanna Cairns said. “He was one of the first deans of admissions to think that that was a good idea, and since then there are other regional reps, people who live in California but represent schools in other parts of the country.”

Hudnut said that because of Stetson, Penn had an advantage over other Ivy League schools in attracting California applicants.

“California is too important for the Ivy League’s schools for them not to continue to pay attention to this state,” Hudnut said.

Kaplan is already familiar with the deans and the school. The interim dean of admissions at Penn, Eric Kaplan, previously worked at Penn and Lehigh College. Dean Jason Honsel was a colleague at Lehigh and Dean Cahn Oxelson worked with him at Penn.

“It doesn’t change anything,” Kaplan said when he visited Harvard-Westlake with regional director Alex Santiago. “Our goal is exactly the same. Some years you may have a really strong admit rate, some you may not. It depends on who applies.”

Hudnut said he would be surprised if anything was radically different in Harvard-Westlake students’ admissions.

“We benefit from the fact that a lot of colleges and universities know that they get really great kids from us, so they have made Harvard-Westlake a priority” Slattery said. 

Deans also develop relationships with admissions officers and representatives through their experience and by attending conferences. Slattery said their relationships bridge turnovers in departments.

“I recognize what the historical relationship is,” Kelley said. “At the same time I’m not Rob.”

“Most schools are cognizant of what they have done in the past,” Slattery said.  “Even when there is turnover of this magnitude and a new person replaces a seasoned person in an office, they are certainly going to look and see how the history with that high school has been.”

Slattery said the deans try to build trustworthy relationships with colleges, and both she and Cairns emphasized that relationships with admissions officers cannot influence which students are accepted. She also said the deans try to give admissions representatives an overview of the school and lifestyle.

“It’s lovely to have continuity in an admissions officer because again, that person knows our school, knows the trends, they can put a particular grade or score in context,” Slattery said. “But I do think that especially in the case of Yale, Leah Kelley has been in contact with Rob Jackson.  She knows what the relationship was like. I don’t think we lose that entirely.”

In both cases, Slattery said it is too early to tell.