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The Nation

High-Tech Snooping Puzzles Ivy League

July 27, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN and JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PRINCETON, N.J. — From its towering trees to its Gothic arches, the normally tranquil campus of Princeton University was abuzz Friday with one question: Why?

Why would an admissions officer at the august institution hack into a Yale University Web site designed to tell high school students whether they had been admitted to the campus in New Haven, Conn?

Sophomore Chris Greenman, heading up a leafy pathway on his way to Firestone Library, rolled his eyes when asked about the electronic break-in.

"The first thing I thought was, there goes our No. 1 rating," said Greenman, referring to Princeton's ranking in an annual survey of U.S. campuses. "But seriously, this is a pretty terrible thing to do. It's potentially criminal. And the guy who did it should be fired.

"You can't uphold high standards at a place like Princeton and do this. I only wonder what his motivation could have been."

As the FBI launched an investigation that could cost Princeton a chunk of federal funds, that same question ricocheted across the Ivy League. Ethics scandals have rocked the worlds of business, religion and politics in recent months, but with its lofty insistence of intellectual integrity, the ivory tower seemed somehow immune.

Then, Princeton University Admissions Director Stephen E. LeMenager admitted he repeatedly broke into a Web site for Yale applicants. Many marveled at why one elite school would resort to Internet chicanery to snoop on another.

Others said the technological trespassing was an indication of just how cutthroat competition in the Ivy League has become.

"This is the kind of thing I would expect from a corporation nowadays--you know, a real disregard for ethics," said John Rogers, touring the campus here Friday from the Midwest with his two daughters. "It's not what I would expect from a great university."

LeMenager, immediately placed on paid academic leave, did not respond Friday to interview requests. University spokeswoman Marilyn Marks reiterated an acknowledgment of "a serious lapse of judgment by at least one member of our admissions staff," and she announced that a lawyer hired by Princeton arrived on campus Friday to conduct an independent inquiry.

Marks said she did not know what amount of federal funds could be at risk because the improper entry of the Yale Web site involved the use of students' Social Security numbers, a possible violation of the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act.

"This is a very, very sad day for Princeton," said a history professor--every inch the academic in his bow tie, seersucker suit and dapper straw hat--who was too upset to give his name. "Whatever happened to standards and honesty?"

According to one report, LeMenager--an admissions officer at Princeton since 1983--said he was exploring the idea of setting up a Web site similar to the site designed by a Yale senior to enable applicants to learn their admission status. But Chris Michel, a senior who is editor in chief of the Yale Daily News, said LeMenager's contention that he wanted only to find out how vulnerable the site really was sounded flimsy.

"If Princeton was that concerned about the security, they could have sent their [information technology] people to talk to us," said Michel, who spent Friday fending off e-mails from around the country after his publication broke the story Thursday.

The incident included 18 improper visits to the Web site and involved 11 students who apparently applied to both Princeton and Yale. Michel said that along with ethics implications, the episode carried a heavy "psychological impact."

Ivy League schools compete fiercely for a narrow fraction of superstar students. The application process is grueling and, as Michel pointed out, "This certainly doesn't make it any easier."

Schools of the caliber of Princeton and Yale "talk about trust a lot, and they talk about integrity," Michel said. "The sense that pervades these campuses is that these are students who are not only academically talented but are being trained to be the leaders of tomorrow. If we are giving them this kind of message at this stage of the application, then it is very troubling."

At his office outside Boston, college planning consultant Lloyd Peterson said Friday that he was mystified why Princeton would find it necessary to troll for information about students already accepted to Yale.

"The intellectual firepower is about the same in both places," said Peterson, a former associate director of admissions at Yale who now advises high school students. "Everybody's competing with everybody now, but has it reached the point where poor Princeton is poaching on Yale? Everybody's got enough A-average, 1,600-SAT score kids in the pool to where this isn't necessary. I guess a certain paranoia just slipped into the Princeton folks."

Peterson said he was disturbed because "in the [Ivy] league, we always felt whether a student or an employee, you set the tone. You set the standard with regard to integrity and fair play and practice."

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