Young Scholars Debate Gay Rights

College admission officer helps officiate reality program for aspiring high school students

On the surface, it might not be clear how the gay marriage debate involves ten high-school seniors and a gay Ivy League admissions officer.

The common thread is in this summer’s new reality TV show “The Scholar,” which airs Monday night at 8 p.m. on ABC and is produced by Bunim Murray Produc

The premise of the show is that ten high school seniors compete for a full scholarship to the college of their choice. ABC describes the teenage competitors as among America’s best and brightest students, but adds they “might not otherwise have an opportunity to attend one of America’s top universities.”

The scholarship awarded on the show will be donated by philanthropist Eli Broad, who became one of the wealthiest men in the world in the home construction and insurance industries.

Shawn Abbott, 34, an admissions officer at an Ivy League university who is gay and lives in Hell’s Kitchen, is one of the three judges on “The Scholar,” giving him responsibility for helping to decide which of these ten highly accomplished young students is worthy of the scholarship.

In the July 11 episode, Abbott gets a unique look at the candidates as they debate the issue of gay marriage. Abbott said he was personally heartened by the marriage debate because of the effort it took the five students assigned to the “con” team to make a compelling argument against gay mar

“It was gratifying for me as a gay man to see the individuals who had to take the position against gay marriage struggle with it as mightily as they did,” Abbott said.

All of the members of the con team acknowledged having a difficult time piecing together a compelling case against same-sex marriage. One candidate in particular, Jeremy from Westminster, California, visibly struggled with the debate, constantly commenting on how “hard it was” to oppose the idea. The pro team ultimately won the debate.

The debate was held in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, which some will see as ironic given the gay community’s anger at the late former president over his silence during the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

For Abbott, his role as a judge on “The Scholar ”is of a piece with his work in the college admissions process and higher education. Fifteen minutes of fame as a reality TV star have certainly been fun for Abbott, but he explained that he went on the show because he believes deeply in helping send youth who might not otherwise have the financial resources to college. His passion for these issues comes from his own background.

“My dad never graduated from high school and was a factory worker and my mom was an x-ray

technician,” he said. “I went to public universities that I paid for myself.”

About to earn his Ph.D., Abbott acknowledges that he has come a long way in his own education. He also said he hopes to dispel the stereotype that the admissions process at leading American universities are simply a matter of the privileged judging the privileged.

Abbott said he is repeatedly reminded of the importance that a top quality college education can play in the life of a gay or lesbian applicant. He is also aware, however, that his job requires that he apply the same standards to everyone, and that his personal views must be kept separate.

“One of the things I struggle with, as a gay man, is when to advocate or not advocate for a gay applicant,” Abbott said. “For example, as a gay admissions officer, when you read an application from a guy from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who wrote his essay about coming out of the closet and here is this very liberal institution where you know he could be very at home at, you identify personally with him, but at the same time you don’t want to be seen as favoring people or furthering reverse discrimination.”

And, Abbott acknowledged that in his effort to play things down the middle, he “struggles with holding gay men and women to a higher standard.”

Dina Epstein, a colleague of Abbot’s, said this is a common thing in the admissions process where professionals at universities are often toughest on those who share their personal background.

“It is often times,” Epstein explained, “someone from the complete opposite background pushing for the kid who is most unlike them.”

The issue of sexual orientation, particularly for gay men, has become very visible in the college admissions process.

“I have been in college admissions for nearly a decade,” Abbott said, “and a day hardly goes by where you don’t read an application from a guy that doesn’t talk about his sexual identity.”

However, Abbott said, it is rare for lesbians to talk about their sexual orientation with the same openness. He said that he “can count on one hand the number of women who have mentioned it in their application.”

In turn, colleges are being more aggressive at reaching out to both gay men and lesbians in their recruiting efforts. This phenomenon has spurred cities, such as Boston and Washington, to hold exclusively gay and lesbian college fairs. Abbott, who attended the inaugural gay and lesbian college fair in Boston two years ago, said, “it was very well attended and over 100 colleges and universities were represented.”

“It was very gratifying, as a gay man, that institutions of higher education have acknowledged that this is a population that can be cultivated for recruitment processes,” he stated.

With the attention he is receiving as a judge on a reality program, Abbott is poised to call attention to a lot of the issues that he finds problematic about higher education. Specifically, he wants to speak on a more national level about the economic disparities in access to higher education in America. Abbott is currently finishing up his dissertation about the relationship between urban universities and the neighborhoods in which they are located, an issue that periodically rears its head in a high profile manner.

Beyond his television appearance, Abbott said he has an important role to play in modeling his career as an out gay professional for students at his school.

“Being a gay person who is comfortable in his identity is an important role I play here on campus,” Abbott said.

When Abbott visits high schools as part of the university’s recruiting efforts, he speaks openly about being gay.

“I’m open about my own identity and when college and high school students see that they are comforted because they feel like they have someone in the admissions process that can identify with them,” he said.