Things in Texas sure look better from inside Texas than from outside. Judging by the news coverage at home, a recently released report on an admissions controversy at the University of Texas found a few minor hickeys but a generally clean bill of health for the university.
People looking at the same report from outside the state see something more like cancer.
Writing in the The Texas Tribune, the online Austin-based news service for whom the university is a financial sponsor, Ross Ramsey depicted the report as sort of a tie score between UT and its principal accuser, UT Regent Wallace Hall, who Ramsey said won only on minor technical points:
"It means Hall was right when he maintained that the admissions process was not blind to pleas and pressure and recommendations from people with clout," Ramsey said. But he said the report was also "vindication for UT, if you want to read it that way: Top-level interference in admissions is relatively rare."
A few days later The Washington Post devoted an editorial to the same report, castigating UT for the admissions practices it revealed, for the relentless personal hounding of Hall and for the shoulder-shrug response to the report of University of Texas Chancellor William McRaven.
"That these students had political and social connections may not be a surprise, but such influence-peddling -- and the unseemly effort to conceal it -- should come as an embarrassment to the university system" the Post said. "That its officials are so lackadaisical in response is almost as alarming as the original sin."
Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, described the finding of the report as an indictment of UT President Bill Powers' core integrity on larger admissions issues related to affirmative action:
"Now we have the revelations of Powers's special program of admissions for wealthy and well-connected students," Kahlenberg wrote. "In both cases-- Powers's special program for the well-connected and his program of discretionary admissions for affirmative action -- his argument was: Give me discretion and 'trust me' to do what's best. But given his record of using discretion for those who least need it, why should we?"
Kahlenberg's arguent came close to an area I have been wondering about ever since the report came out. Abigail Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz filed suit against UT for reverse discrimination in 2008. Ever since, UT has been on a litigative roller coaster ride from federal district court up to the Supreme Court and back down to the appeals court, now maybe back up to the Supreme Court since lawyers for Fisher last week filed a writ for new consideration.
The arguments about UT's use of race in admissions criteria have centered on something called "strict scrutiny." Last time the Supreme Court looked at the Fisher case, the justices wanted the university to get much more specific about the way it uses racial criteria to promote diversity and provide a better education to students.
That means UT has been obligated to go to court and make detailed sworn promises about its admissions criteria and practices. In arguing before the Supreme Court, as Kahlenberg recounts, UT told the court that the "10 percent rule" (if you graduate in the top 10 percent of your high school class, you're guaranteed admission) wasn't bringing in enough rich black kids.
"Texas was left with the awkward argument before the U.S. Supreme Court," Kahlanberg writes, "that the problem with the top-10-percent plan was that it was admitting the 'wrong' kind of minority students. Texas said it needed discretion to admit 'the African American or Hispanic child of successful professionals in Dallas.'"
Really? And now we're all trying to think: Is that like a new protected class? Rich black kids in Dallas? And if it is, wouldn't you just know that would be Dallas's contribution to civil rights history?
Anyway, I had been wondering what effect the report might have on the Fisher litigation. UT devoted all of its energies before the report was released to hounding Hall to the four corners of the Earth. When the report was released, Powers' reaction was a sullen 15-minute press conference in which he said even if he lied everybody else does it, too. And McRaven said he found nothing in that to punish. So basically as Kahlenberg asked, why would the court or anyone else trust anything at all that the university has said so far about strict scrutiny?
The day the report was released, I called Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, which has sponsored the Fisher litigation, and asked him if the report would have an effect on the case. He suggested it probably would not.
But I called him back two days ago, figuring he had had more time to chew on it, and asked him the same thing again. He read me a prepared statement:
"The Fisher case is about the unconsitutional reintroduction of racial and ethnic preferences in admissions, and that issue seems mostly distinct from the political and financial preferences President Powers unfairly extended to unqualified applicants.
"All in all, this scandal is emblematic of an admissions process at UT that has been tainted on multiple fronts. It appears that for UT, Abby Fisher and many others just like her were not only the wrong race when they applied but also not politically or financially connected.
"Reports such as this do not go unnoticed by students, taxpayers or judges."
Yeah. I don't know exactly what that means. Blum is not a man who can be enticed to ad-lib. I'm sort of stuck with the statement. But if I were UT -- especially if I were a lawyer for UT -- I wouldn't take it as good.
And it does make me wonder this. I have noticed in the comments here and certainly in coverage like the Tribune's a certain cynical assumption that back-scratching and special favors must be an aspect of college admissions systems everywhere. I concede that that's maybe an OK speculative theory.
But what about this for another speculative theory? When the hamfisted politicians and the sharp-taloned moneybags came calling on Powers to demand that some sub-par rich kid be admitted, why couldn't he have told them the truth about the university's position?
Instead of caving, instead of creating an organized market for under-the-radar admissions, he could have said this: "Son of a bitch, man, give me a break. We're all up and down the federal court system right now including the Supreme Court making all kinds of specific promises about how we admit kids. Don't ask me to do stuff that will make liars of us. We can't afford to look as if we're playing SCOTUS for chumps. Think about what that could do to the university's name and longterm interests."
Is it too late to think about it now?