It might have appeared to be an early holiday present when almost 300 prospective Johns Hopkins University students previously denied early admission or deferred for later consideration recently received an email welcoming them to the fold.
The trouble was, the welcome email was sent in error.
Johns Hopkins subsequently sent another email expressing regrets that the welcome was sent in error and that these students were indeed still rejected or deferred.
This wasn't the first time a college or university had made such a mistake. And it certainly wasn't the largest such mistake ever made. In 2009, The Los Angeles Times reported that instead of sending a "congratulations on your acceptance" email to the 18,000 students who'd been accepted to the University of California-San Diego, the message was mistakenly sent to all 47,000 students who'd applied.
Over the years, it's been reported that erroneous acceptances have gone out from University of California-Davis, Goucher College, University of Georgia, University of California-Berkeley, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, George Washington University, Christopher Newport University, Vassar College, Fordham University and others. Some of these notifications arrived via email, others via old-fashioned post
After Cornell University made such an error in 1995 by mistakenly sending a welcome letter to 44 prospective students who'd applied for early decision and been deferred, at least one parent retained a lawyer and threatened to sue. While the prospective student involved later indicated she had other options and needed to "go on with her own life privately," the threat of legal action suggests how harrowing such mistakes can be to the recipients.
When faced with such a colossal mistake, what's the right thing for both the school and the applicant to do?
Occasionally, when an institution makes a mistake, it will try to make good on it. If an online company sends a duplicate order of a product, for example, the right thing is for the recipient to report the error. The company should certainly pay the cost of returning the extra goods. If it decides to tell the customer to simply keep the extra shipment, that's not necessary, but acceptable.
It would be wrong, however, to require an academic institution to accept a student it had really rejected simply because an errant email or welcoming brochure was sent. Particularly if the student didn't meet the academic standards of the institution, such a move could set him or her up to fail.
The right thing for the disappointed student to do is move on. And the right thing is for the institution to do is to send a correction and apology as soon as the error is discovered. Ideally, measures would be taken to make sure the problem didn't happen again.
If the school truly wanted to express its regrets, it might consider refunding whatever application fee the student paid. Returning the money might send a clear message to the prospective student of just how sorry the school was for creating unnecessary discomfort at an already highly anxious time of year.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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(c) 2014 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.