I was disappointed to read the The New York Times article yesterday reporting that Vassar mistakenly told 76 applicants that they were accepted. Of course I’m disappointed in my college, but I’m more disappointed by this quote from the NYT article:
Kareen Troussard, a student in Paris, said the episode might have saved her. “I want to major in computer science,” she said in an e-mail, “and Vassar doesn’t even know how to use a computer on the biggest day of our lives.”
I know it’s just a quip, but it unfairly blames the computer science department for a mistake in the admissions office. The quote stems from three common misconceptions:
Misconception #1: The computer science department is responsible for all of the college’s electronic activities.
Reality: Very few, if any, college computer science departments are also responsible for IT at the school. Teaching computer science and maintaining a system are very different jobs, and Vassar has an entire Computing and Information Services department to handle their IT. (Even Vassar students don’t understand this distinction. The CS department had to put a sign on the door saying saying visitors looking for IT help were in the wrong building.)
Misconception #2: Learning computer science is the same as learning to use a computer.
Reality: Writing software and using software require vastly different skill sets. Computer science students learn about math, logic, algorithms, and programming languages, not how to use Microsoft Word or admissions software. You can’t assume that a “good computer scientist” is “good with computers,” or vice versa. (As I’ve blogged before, this is one of the misconceptions that keeps people away from studying CS.)
Misconception #3: The mistake arose from someone not knowing how to “use a computer.”
Reality: Someone “used a computer” very successfully to send an admissions decision to 76 applicants. However, they neglected to update the text that the candidates would see. The culprit is forgetful, not technically-impaired. Moreover, using “You’re accepted” in filler text rather than, “This is a test,” was just asking for trouble.
While I certainly came upon cases in school when it seemed like “Vassar didn’t even know how to use a computer,” I hate this vague accusation that my department is somehow responsible for the error. Vassar students and faculty are amazing people, and studying computer science with them was a blast. Even though a Vassar website was at fault, I’d hate to think a student passed over studying computer science there because of it. Go ahead and blame the institution, but leave my department out of it.