In the end, everything about Hollywood is basically absurd, so the same is true for the prosecution of two actresses, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, on charges they paid bribes to get their kids into college. But a story based right here in Dallas reminds us that stupid Hollywood tricks may be only the absurd tip of an ugly national iceberg.
In a letter published this week, Dallas businessman Wallace Hall, who was a regent of the University of Texas System from 2011 to 2017, argues that the actress trials mask much deeper, more pernicious corruption in American college and university admissions. And even worse, he says, admissions corruption is the grease that enables runaway inflation of college costs and an ever narrowing window of opportunity for kids whose parents are not Hollywood rich.
Shortly after Hall was appointed to the board that oversees a vast system of universities and medical schools in Texas, he stumbled on business practices that his own business experience told him could not be right. An example would be a half-million-dollar “non-recourse” loan (that would be a gift) that the dean of the University of Texas law school gave to himself as an incentive to keep himself from leaving UT. And that was just an example.
Beginning with that breadcrumb trail, Hall found himself traipsing into a dark forest of dubious practice centered mainly on admissions. The window there, less than perfectly opaque perhaps because it was political, was the university president’s habit of giving away admissions to the law school in exchange for political favors from powerful state legislators.
The university didn’t just resist Hall’s inquiries. Top brass and hostile members of the board of regents stirred up key legislators to launch an impeachment proceeding against Hall as regent. That was pretty hilarious in a state that never impeached anybody for wife-beating, stealing or being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But the effort fizzled anyway, as did an even more ludicrous attempt to get Hall criminally indicted.
In a letter this week to Real Clear Education, a business-conservative website (as opposed to nutso-conservative), Hall said the important thing to know now is that eventually the UT System won. The UT System persuaded the Supreme Court of Texas that it had a proprietary right and a need to continue to conceal detailed findings of an outside investigative report on its admissions practices.
By winning its ultimate fight against him, Hall says UT has helped to enable a national culture of corruption around admissions: “The problem is,” Hall writes, “our university president teamed up with a new Chancellor and the state’s most powerful elected officials to keep the findings sealed.
“The un-redacted report, which explains how hundreds of unqualified students manage to occupy spots in UT programs — including our law school — is locked in a courtroom after my lawsuit to make it public was challenged by the university. Every one of those students owes his or her presence on campus to a politician who controls state spending at the university, or to a well-connected donor or faculty member.”
When Hall began uncovering things, part of the university’s defense of itself was that a few bogus admissions could be offset merely by adding more students to the rolls. That way, the university argued, the kids who didn’t deserve to get in on their own merits could be admitted without taking the places of kids who did deserve to be. But again, Hall’s business analytical skills caused him to balk.
No student at UT pays his or her own way. All students are subsidized by taxpayers to some extent. Adding students to the rolls willy-nilly, without planning, even secretly, creates an added cost that must be paid somewhere by somebody. It was Hall’s clear impression that the costs were being made up by raising everybody’s tuition.
He didn’t contend that admissions cheating was the sole factor driving tuition increases of 115% in a decade and fee increases of 61%. His argument was that an under-the-table, back-scratching culture has enabled a terrible callousness toward the corrosive effect these soaring costs have on the pool of students who can afford even to think of applying for admission to UT.
“The real cause of these abuses,” he says in his letter published this week, “is failure of university trustees to meet their fiduciary obligations, which in the case of public schools is to taxpayers. Weak boards allow university administrators to limit oversight of admissions.
“The administrators are allowed to see admissions criteria, but not the trustees who are supposed to be in charge. Board members who want admission favors for their own children or their friends go along, while others turn their heads to avoid the wrath of powerful alumni and politicians who benefit from the workarounds.”
Another argument in Hall’s letter puts me personally somewhere on the fence: “The failure of trustees to regain control over their universities,” he says, “results in more than corrupt admissions.
“It is also the reason for unrelenting tuition inflation, $1.6 trillion in national student debt, illegal racial preference schemes, political diversity problems, and the failure to defend freedom of speech and the Constitution on college campuses.”
The racially diverse admissions scheme at the University of Texas has been to court and back several times, and last time I heard about it, the courts had agreed the university was within the law and the Constitution in its efforts to render its student body more diverse. I have always thought my own alma mater’s argument for diversity is the best; the University of Michigan has long defended diversity as a way to improve everybody’s educational experience and help white kids get smarter.
But the core message in Hall’s letter is that we should ask why the University of Texas System is still so adamant that the details of its admissions scheme must be kept secret, even from members of the university’s own oversight board.
When an institution of higher learning goes to these lengths to resist transparency — when it has this much at stake in secrecy — then maybe we should look again at its willingness to bend on diversity. How do we know the diversity posture isn’t really just political steam control to keep prying eyes off a crooked admissions scheme for rich kids?
In all of this, there is a certain amount of objective reality we can look to as a way to test what’s really going on. Let’s take the UT law school, nominally one of the best in the nation.
In 2017, reporter Jon Cassidy at Watchdog.org compiled a list of 29 UT law school graduates between 2006 and 20013 who had failed the bar exam three or more times. The names of the students were a who’s who of sons and daughters of powerful legislators and lobbyists, shoehorned in through the law school’s back door by powerful patrons.
It made me think. If I have to hire a lawyer and the ones I’m looking at all went to UT law school, I’m going to look for the one whose dad repaired lawnmowers in the garage for a living. I want some indication she was sober some days when she went to class.
So what is the larger picture? We see a university system willing to expend millions and fight to the bitter end to protect the secrecy of its admissions scheme for privileged applicants but also willing to bend a lot for minority applicants. Is it coincidence then that the overall design of the system winds up working best for very rich kids and for scholarship kids but prices out the kids in the middle, the ones with the least social or political clout?
When I attended a state university 100 years ago, it was almost free. My father already knew I was living in Ann Arbor, but he was pleasantly surprised when he found out I was actually attending the university there. That was in the blessed era before cellphones, when a responsible parent could reasonably go a month or so without having to talk to his kid. We shall never recover those halcyon days of parental serenity.
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What I hear Hall saying in this recent letter is that the Hollywood admissions trials are a dangerous diversion, almost a subterfuge. He suggests a series of reforms he thinks are what we should focus on instead.
The thumbnail version would be this: Use the almighty power of the tax dollar, grants, subsidies, tax breaks on endowments, research funds, everything that comes from the public coffer as a stick. To get any of that money, require universities and colleges, public and private, to open up their admissions practices to total transparency.
It strikes me that this is a fairly conservative guy speaking. I have never heard him mention his political affiliation and I have never asked, so I won’t guess here. But he sees enough inequity and enough harm to the society in this picture to make him recommend using government money to bring about a social outcome.
My guess is that he’s got to see something pretty bad going on for that to happen. And I know he’s in a good position to see it.