Some group, logically the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, should create the Wallace J. Hall Award for Academic Courage. Hall doggedly has pursued what he suspected was wrongdoing and waste at the University of Texas, where he is a Regent. For his efforts, he has been bitterly attacked, with legislators trying to get him impeached, prosecutors hinting at criminal charges, and the legislature even at one point trying to reduce the power of the UT Board of Regents.
Yesterday’s report from the investigative firm Kroll, commissioned by the former chancellor of the entire UT system, vindicates Hall in spades. UT Austin President Bill Powers is exposed: he overruled admissions office personnel and admitted into UT Austin the kids of favored, powerful persons. Moreover, he did not tell previous investigators about the extent and nature of his meddling. Whether he is a liar is perhaps subject to debate, but there is no question he is an influence peddler. Powers, who has had little Regents support and is being eased out in a few months anyhow, used the pathetic argument “Everyone else does it,” meaning that preferential admissions on non-meritorious grounds is commonplace in American higher education.
In a factual sense, I suspect Powers is right. All universities have preferential admissions standards, meaning that some non-academic criterion is fairly often used to overcome a student’s otherwise inadequate record based on high school performance, test scores, letters of recommendation, etc. Some of these preferential, standards are (controversially) sanctioned by law, specifically affirmative action criteria favoring students based on biological characteristics such as the color of their skin or the nature of their reproductive organs. Others are admitted because they are proficient at throwing or catching balls or some other talent. In a nation where success has always been based almost exclusively on merit, higher education has long had an arguably morally and economically dubious dimension where the rich and the famous are sometimes admitted to the club (of university students) in preference to those who better qualify to meet the academic standards which should govern admission decisions. Where the “club” is truly private, then there is little wrong with it, but that is not the case these days. The affaire Powers, of course, is not unique. A few years ago, the University of Illinois forced out a president for participating in a preferential admissions scheme, and the ability of very wealthy persons to, in effect, buy admissions for their relatives at prestigious private schools was documented long ago by Daniel Golden (The Price of Admission) and Jerome Karabel (The Chosen).
Does the public have any business in determining or policing the admission standards of universities? Should governments, representing “the people,” put constraints on crony admission policies favoring the rich and politically connected? Philosophically, I am strongly opposed to most governmental intervention, but in reality almost all American universities (Hillsdale College and perhaps a couple of others are exceptions) are effectively public, government supported institutions, including the so-called “private” schools. If you take government money, you must play by its rules.
What should happen? Accepting students outside normal admission rules and procedures should be outlawed. To be sure, some schools perhaps legitimately give admissions officers and committees a fair amount of leeway in these matters, basing decisions sometimes partially on the basis of interviews where individual subjective assessments of student quality are important. But as Karabel pointed out, the elite schools historically have used vague “potential leader” or “high character” type criteria to systematically discriminate against (e.g., Jews in the early 20th century, arguably Asians today) or in favor of certain groups. Standardized tests and high school grades are far less prone to criticism on grounds of favoring certain groups than alternative admissions criteria.
The University of Texas is a public university heavily dependent on public largess, and should be prohibited by law from favoring students on the basis on family background or political criteria. A more difficult issue relates to so-called private schools like Harvard that take hundreds of millions annually in federal research grants, have students receive governmental student assistance, and benefit enormously from tax preferences that allow them to accumulate sinfully large endowments. Should schools receiving so much governmental support be allowed to have legacy admissions – showing explicit preference to the children of alumni? Should a billionaire be allowed to give the school millions of dollars in return for the admission of a friend or relative? For a true private school like Hillsdale that in no way takes any governmental funds, it is no one’s business what admission criteria are used. But that is not the case for schools like Harvard who receive more government support per student than most so-called “state” universities.
Finally, three cheers for Wallace Hall. University trustees, on average, are too trusting, too co-opted, too deferential. They have a responsibility to ask tough questions and, occasionally, disrupt practices that are offensive to those outside the immediate university community. University governing boards are quasi-outside forces that can help bring reform to higher education that will certainly not happen from within.