Yesterday's ruling by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding race as a criterion for admissions to the University of Texas at Austin comes on the heels of another big UT-Austin story -- the alleged role of under-the-table political influence in admissions at UT and the precipitous resignation of UT President Bill Powers. Are the two stories in any way linked?
Maybe. UT Regent Wallace Hall of Dallas has dug up evidence of what he says may be a kind of black market in UT admissions. He and a small group of investigative reporters have suggested that powerful legislators are able to get unqualified applicants admitted to UT and its graduate schools through the back door.
Admissions policies aimed at achieving student diversity, especially the 10 percent rule guaranteeing admission to students in the top 10 percent of Texas high school graduating classes, have worked a bitter irony for kids and families trying to get into UT. The kid who attends a hyper-competitive private school where getting into the top 10 percent is just shy of impossible may be able to get into Harvard or Stanford more easily than UT. On the other hand a kid who attends a less competitive public high school where it's easy to get into the top 10 can make it to UT but might not even register a blip on the radar for the top private universities.
Fisher v. University of Texas, the suit in the 5th Circuit ruling, can be viewed as reflecting that competitive pressure. Abigail Fisher, who was denied admission to UT in 2008, complained that UT's "holistic" admissions policies rendered her less competitive for admission because she was white. The 5th Circuit ruled that UT has a right to use so-called holistic standards in which race is only one of many factors.
But here's what the Wallace Hall/Bill Powers story has in common with Abigail Fisher: The value of a University of Texas education is going nowhere but up. U.S. News now ranks UT-Austin 52nd among all American private and public universities; Forbes puts it at 66 overall but 12th among big schools; The Washington Post says the University of Texas system has the biggest endowment of any public higher education system in the country; College Database puts UT at 22nd in the nation for the earnings premium enjoyed by graduates.
In figuring the true value of a UT admission, you also have to weigh the less quantifiable factor of extreme Texanism. Among the state's most powerful families, a certain number would much rather see their kid off in the fall to Austin than to Cambridge or Stanford. Some of those families may feel their generous support of UT in the past entitles them to a little something special in the way of access. It's got to be a bitter kick in the ass when it doesn't.
On the positive side, Texas has created an enormous value in admission to the University of Texas. But on the complicating side, Texas also has created a bitter scarcity of admissions for exactly the kind of people who aren't used to having to worry about scarcities -- white people, rich people and people with connections.
As a reaction to that scarcity, the Fisher case is at least head-on, public and transparent. Let's all go to court, all put our cards on the table, all say our piece and may the best man or woman win.
The allegations in the Hall/Powers matter are from the dark side of the same ledger, the things that go bump in the night side. The evidence presented so far, to say nothing of Powers' sudden resignation, suggest that some or all of Hall's allegations may be borne out in months ahead.
If so, it will be an indication that not everybody is going to go the aboveboard but expensive route taken by Fisher. Some people whose kids can't get into UT under the rules are going to do what it takes and get 'er done no matter what, which is, after all, another Texas tradition.
The unifying theme is that we shouldn't be naïve about any of it. You stack that much value on the table and then announce a set of rules for who gets a piece, you have to expect some serious pushing and shoving. It's one instance where we should count ourselves lucky for getting sued. At least you can see that one coming.