Notes on academic veracity

Keith David:

At the American university where I teach, one of my assigned tasks is to advise undergraduates—mostly freshmen and sophomores. This essay describes a conversation I had in 2017 with one of those advisees. I will call him Daniel.

Daniel was a sophomore at the time. He had been an advisee of mine for a year already, and I’d come to understand that he was a prodigy. I’d also formed a hypothesis, based on a certain bluntness and lack of social tact he exhibited, that Daniel might be on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum. He seemed weak on interpersonal skills and narrowly, even obsessively, focused on math and science. During his first year of university studies, Daniel had taken a number of upper-level math and physics courses that none of my other advisees had taken, and had earned flat As in almost all of them. His GPA probably would have been a perfect 4.0 if the university had allowed him to take only math and science courses. As it was, it was a 3.85.

At the end of his freshman year, Daniel applied for admission to a competitive honors program that our university runs, but he was rejected. He came to my office to discuss this—or, rather, to complain about it. I soon realized that he was not just disappointed; he was angry. Daniel believed he’d been treated unfairly. He believed he was the victim of reverse racism.

I told Daniel that I understood why he was upset, but I reminded him that the program he’d applied to is highly competitive. The admissions committee presumably received many strong applications. There is always some subjectivity in admissions decisions, I noted, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Subjectivity isn’t the same as unfairness.