The virtues of the personal touch are legion. Everyone likes being greeted by name. We like getting presents that demonstrate the giver knows our preferences. Going into my favorite café and knowing that the barista anticipates my order of a half-caf skim double brown sugar sea salt latte makes me feel well taken care of (and only occasionally makes me feel like I must be stuck in a rut). And I’m often told by people to whom I’ve offered admission that they really appreciate a personal note I’ve written on their offer letters, commenting on something that struck me about their applications. But I think there may be limits to the joys engendered by up-close and personal interactions.
Earlier this week, my office had our annual retreat. Now, this is not a GSA-style lavish Las Vegas junket, nor should you be envisioning a full-blown Ann-Arbor-hippie-inspired love-in circa 1968. We go to the vastly utilitarian meeting room at Gallup Park (mind you, the web photos are actually portraying it in slightly unrealistic glory) and talk at length about such scintillating topics as, “Logging transcripts—process change for transfers,” while occasionally shooing out the wandering toddler in search of a place to pee. (“Other door—thanks—sorry.”) It’s heady stuff.
One agenda item hearkened back to an email we received back in February, in which the writer expressed disappointment at having received an impersonal denial letter. As a UM undergraduate student, he felt a strong connection to the Law School, and the form letter we sent made him “feel marginalized and unimportant”; he said he would have preferred a letter that “acknowledge[d] the difficult decision associated with denying a member of the Michigan community,” and urged us to consider changing our process. No one had ever actually made this complaint before, and I really wrestled with it—ultimately concluding I needed more time and space to think about it if I were going to reach a sensible decision. In other words, I punted to a mythical future date when process-planning would seem achievable.
And in fact, this is exactly the sort of decision that a retreat is good for: gathering all members of the admissions staff together to figure out what practical difficulties might be implicated by such a change (could we reliably separate out letters going to candidates who had attended one institution? How much time would be involved in creating two separate pools of letters?), how we might want to institute such a policy (just UM undergrads? What about people from the state of Michigan more generally, given that we’re a public institution? What about people with relatives who are Law alumni, or who have a letter of recommendation from an alum?), and, not inconsequentially, whether it should be done at all.
We breezed through considerations 1 & 2. Actually identifying potential recipients of a special letter would not be too difficult, and processing two separate pools would involve a little, but not a lot, more time. And if we chose to go down this path, we’d want to go beyond Michigan undergrads to at least some other special constituencies.
But we stumbled at the more abstract notion of whether we ought to do this. Objections and concerns were manifold and from contradictory directions. One perspective questioned whether simply sending what would be, in essence, just a new and different form letter actually effected the goal of personalizing the communication. After all, as one staffmember elegantly put it, the UM family is a “big-a** family”—with, at last count, upwards of half a million living alumni. Getting a letter that could theoretically be addressed to a group that size doesn’t seem too cozy, when you think about it. Related to that was the point that whatever group or groups we targeted would be under- and over-inclusive; we could use “UM undergrad” as a proxy for “someone who feels a strong connection to the Law School,” but of course that won’t always be true; some UM undergrads apply while nonetheless feeling a strong conviction that they are ready for new venues—and many other applicants feel a very strong connection for reasons we aren’t necessarily aware of.
These points gave me some pause about the advisability of the undertaking, but what stopped me altogether was the question, “What, exactly, would you say?” As we bandied about different possibilities, we realized they all came down to some version of, “We thought really hard about this decision and gave you special consideration, but still, no, it’s not happening.” Isn’t that actually a deeply discomforting message? When you’re being told no, isn’t there some comfort in thinking that you’re one of a crowd—that this isn’t personal to you?
Bottom-line, we concluded, the real problem, and the real source of the negative feelings on the part of our email correspondent, was the substance of the decision. Being denied by a place you want to go feels cruddy. We have an obligation to make those decisions carefully, and we have a desire to communicate the decision courteously. But attempting to make the recipient of the decision feel individual may well be exactly the wrong thing to do.