Following a petition that reached nearly 1,300 signatures, New College of Florida’s president has agreed to some of the demands outlined by the students in regards to admissions practices for applicants with mental health issues.
“We are aware of complaints about the admissions process and the climate in the admissions office. We take these VERY seriously,” President Donal O’Shea wrote in a statement on Twitter.
New College was facing discrimination allegations after Eugenia Quintanilla and Maria Simmerling, former admissions office staffers and New College alumni, came forward that the school was flagging applications for additional review if prospective students discussed mental health struggles in their entrance essays.
“It’s the definition of bias or discrimination to through an extra barrier to get where someone else is,” Quintanilla told the Herald Tribune.
According to Quintanilla and Simmerling, Dr. Joy Hamm, the dean of admissions enrollment management, was responsible for implementing the “red flag” system.
In a 2018 letter to New College Board of Trustees, Quintanilla and Simmerling wrote, “Dr. Hamm explicitly changed the way that admissions deals with applications. She instituted a ‘red flag’ system for application review. If applications had any unusual or concerning details, they would be reviewed twice by the admissions committee she created for this purpose. This appears reasonable in and of itself. It is valid that some applications may need additional screening for various reasons. However, Dr. Hamm explicitly stated that she was trying to ‘weed out’ people with disabilities and mental health problems in our prospective student pool. She said this in meetings, as well as casually to admissions department workers. She actively instructed people to red-flag essays where students disclosed mental health issues and disabilities. We believe this may be a violation of the ADA. If it is indeed illegal behavior, she was making others complicit in the process.”
The Herald Tribune reported that the letter sparked an internal investigation by Barbara Stier, the school’s chief compliance officer, who confirmed the “red flag” practices, but concluded that New College had not committed any discriminatory actions.
Stier’s investigation revealed that a total of 33 applicants with scores high enough for automatic acceptance had their files pulled for further review. According to the Herald Tribune, of those 33 applicants, 13 were accepted, 11 were denied and the rest were “either wait-listed, told they needed to submit additional materials or were waiting on the committee’s decision.”
Michael A. Olivas, a law professor who reviewed the college’s practices and investigation notes for the Herald Tribune, said he didn’t find “anything is amiss here.”
“I would be astounded if any state or federal agency found anything wrong under these facts,” he told the news organization.
While O’Shea agreed with the internal investigation’s findings, he is making some concessions outlined in the petition started by Alexandria Brown, a former New College of Florida student. Once such demand was an external investigation, which will now be conducted by the state’s Office of the Inspector General and Director of Compliance for the Board of Governors.
“There will be an external investigation in May. We welcome that investigation and will cooperate fully with the investigators,” O’Shea said.
However, O’Shea did want to clarify that the admissions office was only singling out applicants whose essays showed dangerous behaviour.
“Where I believe they were looking at is if students were inclined to self-harm or harm to others,” O’Shea said. “The last thing you want is another (Virginia Tech-like campus shooting)… The safety of the community trumps everything.”
That said, the internal investigation did not reveal the mental struggles the essays. Neither did an email chain between Hamm and Melanie Cleveland, the associate director of new student recruitment.
“In reading (redacted) essay I found (redacted) ability to embrace (redacted) and deal with (redacted) in a positive way through writing quite inspirational,” Cleveland wrote. “I will go back and adjust (redacted) rhetorical score and flag (redacted) application.”
Quintanilla took issue with that, saying, “We can’t know what kind of essays were flagged and not flagged. (The investigation) really didn’t get into the nitty gritty of what these essays had. The biggest issue is that because of the internal investigation not really doing what it meant to do. It kind of puts New College in a position where they can say we did an investigation, we found nothing.”
For O’Shea, he wants to make sure what’s flagged is “if a student said something about harming someone, or any number of other things” in which case “that sort of thing is not only acceptable but the duty of the institution to look into it.”
Chris began his writing as a hobby while attending Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. Today he and his wife live in the Orlando area with their three children and dog.