Admission to a university should not be for sale, and University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers certainly betrayed the public trust when he used his office to usher the children of the rich and influential into the people’s university.
Now the board must decide whether he should remain in office.
The alarm was first sounded by Wallace Hall, a regent who, ironically, was censured last year by a Texas House committee for asking too many questions on behalf of the public. Today, he still faces a criminal investigation in front of the Travis County grand jury.
But a trustee has the responsibility to work on behalf of the taxpayer to ensure transparency and accountability—and that’s exactly what Hall did. He suspected wrongdoing in the application process and made open records requests to get to the bottom of it.
He was right to be vigilant. According to a report by Kroll consulting firm, not only are notes between the president’s office and the admission’s office “typically shredded,” but less-qualified applicants have been admitted to UT through a cozy system that prioritizes certain students at the request of Powers, board members, donors and others. The report found that well-connected students had been admitted over the strenuous objections of the admissions office.
Our colleges and universities are responsible for educating the next generation of leaders. The example they set is critical to the development of moral and ethical standards – and the institutional integrity of the entire system is at stake. Today it’s Texas, but in recent years we’ve seen presidents fall and schools rocked over corrupt practices in Illinois, West Virginia, North Dakota, New York and the District of Columbia. Powers’ defense that everybody does it and that it serves the best interests of the institutions, must, to quote Abraham Lincoln, “stink in the nostrils of the American People.”
It shouldn’t take a private investigator to bring accountability to higher education. A chancellor shouldn’t have to look outside the university community as a last resort to stop suspected wrongdoing. Regents should have the access, data and transparency from the administration necessary to do their jobs as fiduciaries. Unfortunately, in Texas and around the country, that is too often not the case.
Too many trustees are little more than rubber stamps who smile, play nice and shake hands to avoid rocking the boat. Ask too many questions and you risk ending up like Hall—on the wrong end of a criminal investigation. But that’s not the way to treat the people’s advocates.
Today, student debt tops $1.3 billion and employers are dissatisfied with the skills of our nation’s college graduates. Now more than ever, the students and taxpayers need trustees who ask tough questions, demand clear metrics and work on behalf of the public interest.
Last summer, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni sponsored a summit of some of the nation’s leading scholars, trustees, presidents, policymakers and the business community to provide a roadmap for higher ed—”Governance for a New Era.” Among the findings is that “leadership of higher education is out of balance.
“Trustees should take a more active role in reviewing and benchmarking the work of faculty and administrators and monitoring outcomes… They must not be intermittent or passive fiduciaries of a billion-dollar industry critical to the preparation of America’s next leaders.”
It’s a shame that Hall was subjected to public criticism and legislative strong-arming as he performed his duties for the unpaid position of regent. It’s a bigger shame if accountability falters in Texas, and a scandal if trustees around the country don’t wake up and realize they must address admissions, yes, and more broadly the integrity and accountability of their institutions.