Something extraordinary happened recently in Austin. As the Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the flagship campus of the University of Texas, headline put it, “Student Government members propose legislation supporting apology to Wallace Hall.” The legislation asserted that Hall was “one of the few University administrators genuinely acting on behalf of students and fairness in admissions” during an era of scandalous admission policies that was probably at least as large as that revealed in the Varsity Blues capers of recent weeks. It was all the worse because top university administrators enacted policies favoring politically well-connected applicants, and then behaved despicably trying to cover up their misdeeds. It ranks just below the Penn State child molestation and the University of North Carolina phantom course scandal as the worst major 21st century collegiate moral transgression in America.
Unlike at Penn State, however, the bad guys aren’t going to jail. Some indeed, are elected politicians. When Winston Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government, except all others,” I suspect he had not been to Texas. Wallace Hall recently opined, “Do we still have an admissions problem at the University of Texas at Austin? Unequivocally….higher ed is not capable of managing themselves in this regard.”
Graduate student Connor Ellington noted, as an example, “at UT Law, there was someone with a 128 on the LSAT who ended up getting in….which is in the 1.5 percentile” [from the bottom]. “So the fact that Mr. Hall was punished…just for asking for that information is absolutely appalling and… there needs to be an apology made.” Hall was appointed by Governor Rick Perry to the Board of Regents in 2011 and demanded documents relating to several purported irregularities, including a forgivable loan program, but of which the admissions improprieties was the largest. The administration fought his requests, tried to block his getting information and worked with misguided UT alumni and others to try to get Hall impeached as a regent. A legislative committee did ultimately censure him. Hall left the board at the end of his term in 2017. Unfortunately, current governor Greg Abbott, who did not aggressively pursue the admissions scandal at UT when he was Attorney General, did reappoint Hall and has put anti-Hall partisans on the UT governing board.
As Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni put it, “It is refreshing to see students take a moral stand and exhibit such leadership.” American colleges have lost large amounts of public support, partly I think because they are looked at as somewhat untrustworthy special interests more than forces for promoting truth, beauty and progress. Would you buy a used car from a university president?
The broader issue is: what is the role of a university trustee? Yes, some trustees use their positions inappropriately, trying to get contracts for relatives or unduly influence the selection of the new football coach. Occasionally, they commit the sin that Wallace Hall fought, trying to get admissions for friends or relatives. But a much larger problem is the opposite: clueless trustees, ones who rubber stamps the agenda given to them by the president, putting in relatively little time on college business. Trustees desperately need alternative sources of information. University presidents are human: they want their ostensible bosses to like, admire and richly reward them. Thus they try, usually successfully, to keep the governing board from hearing bad news –the decline in applications, fall in college rankings, rise in campus crime or scandals involving an inappropriate relationship between a professor and a college student.
In my new book Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America (recently out from the Independent Institute), I devote a chapter to governance issues, arguing that governing boards should have a completely independent (of the president) staff person who provides them with news around campus–good, bad and indifferent. Indeed, that individual should fill in the board on things the president is not telling them. Other things are needed too: some boards are much too large (with literally scores of trustees), or terms are too short (such as in Virginia, where members of the Board of Visitors serve only four years). But above all, we need more Wallace Halls serving America.