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UC San Diego sends wrong e-mail to rejected students

March 31, 2009 | 10:48 am

UC San Diego Admissions Director Mae Brown said this morning that an “administrative error” was responsible for  a bogus e-mail that went out to 28,000 students congratulating them on their admission and welcoming them to the campus.

The applicants had been denied admission by the university earlier in the month. Someone accidentally sent the e-mail to the entire applicant pool of 47,000 although it was intended for only the 18,000 students who got in, Brown said.

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Cornell University and Northwestern University’s prestigious Kellogg School of Management have experienced similar goof-ups in recent years, but the UCSD incident Monday was by far the largest.

“I take full responsibility for the error,” said Brown, who was in the office Monday until midnight preparing an apology and answering e-mails and phone calls from disappointed students and their parents. “We accessed the wrong database.

“We recognized the incredible pain receiving this false encouragement caused," she continued. "It was not our intent.”

One parent, who asked to remain anonymous because he didn’t want to intensify his daughter’s college admissions stress, called it a “colossal screw-up” and said the family had been thinking of attending “Admit Day” Saturday, as the e-mail encouraged them to do, before learning the invitation was fake.

“It was kind of a shock,”  he said.

The mistake was all the more dire because this year is shaping up as one of the toughest in recent years at San Diego and other UC campuses. In response to a UC-wide enrollment cap ordered because of the state’s budget crisis, San Diego reduced its freshman enrollment target by 520 students, to 3,775, Brown said. 

The campus, like many throughout the United States, handles most of its application process online.  Brown said the e-mail mistake would be reviewed, but she doubted the university would back off from  communications technology.

“All our research tells us students are most comfortable with online communications,” she said.

“Ouch!” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, when he heard about the failure. “I feel terrible for the applicants.”

 “This is a source of constant worry at colleges," he said. "They use extremely sophisticated systems of communication from the front end of applications all the way to alumni relations for all kinds of high-stake business, and bad things can happen all the way.”

Nassirian said, however, that the advantages of technology outweigh the risk, and he doubted colleges would go back to paper-based systems.

Brown said she and her staff would spend the day answering every phone complaint and e-mail from parents and students.

-- Gale Holland