Last month after federal sleuths in Massachusetts rolled up 16 well-heeled parents in an alleged college admissions and exam scam that included the University of Texas, four members of the UT-Austin student government proposed that some kind of formal apology be tendered to former UT system regent Wallace Hall of Dallas. The spirit of it was, “He told us so.”
And he did. Big time. And he was denounced and persecuted to within an inch of his freedom for doing it. Now with a dramatic personal vindication unfolding in this new university scandal, Hall seems disinclined to gloat. Instead, with some years to think about it under his belt, he has deep thoughts to offer on what this new scandal really means about the state of higher education.
Eight years ago, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed Hall, a wealthy Dallas businessman, to the board that oversees eight universities, two medical schools and four hospital research centers. Thinking it was his job as a regent, Hall, who says he had never met Perry before he was appointed, set off on a simple search for efficiency. That quickly became an adventure in inefficiency, instead, and then Hall began stumbling on clear evidence of something even more dark at UT.
Hall found strong evidence of outright corruption, a back-scratching good-old-boy system in which admissions to the law school and the undergraduate school were traded like poker chips in a sleazy game of influence, privilege and arrogance. Even though his findings were later confirmed by outside investigators, Hall was attacked by a cabal of furious politicians and wealthy power-wielders who wanted not just to shut him up but to put him in jail for embarrassing them.
That didn’t work. In answer to pressure from the get-Wallace-Hall posse, Gov. Greg Abbott finally got him off the board of regents in 2017 by not reappointing him. Since then he’s been quiet.
The students on the student government at UT are right. He did point to exactly this same corrosion at the heart of higher learning that federal prosecutors in Massachusetts are unearthing now on a national scale. He did tell us so. But while he seems appreciative of efforts like the apology initiative at UT, I found in speaking to Hall last week that he was more animated by underlying problems in higher education than by personal vindication.
For that, it may help to remember how Hall got started on this path in the first place. Perry, who appointed him, had an abiding interest in bringing down the cost of college and making it available to more students. But Perry, in his last iteration as governor, had embraced Tea Party anti-government radicals in a successful move to fend off a reelection challenge from the white-shoe country club wing of the Republican Party.
After that, everything Perry said and did as governor was painted by the white shoes as a bunch of exploitative Tea Party know-nothing nonsense, which, on occasion, it was. But in retrospect it’s clear that the general anti-Perry climate in high circles gave some very convenient cover to former UT President Bill Powers and former UT System chancellor, Admiral William H. McRaven. The moment Hall began raising questions about crooked admissions policies and secret faculty compensation, first Powers and then later McRaven sided with regents and legislators desperate to silence Hall.
Now, with some years of reflection behind him and this new scandal erupting, the point Hall seems urgently compelled to make is that the soaring costs and stubborn exclusivity of higher education are flip sides, part and parcel of the admissions scandal. Greasing those wheels, he says, is a deliberate strategy. At the top are trustees and administrators who have decided they can do better for themselves selling a prestigious credential — one worth almost any amount of money to an ambitious parent — than by working to provide the best education possible to the most students.
“The people that control this whole racket decide that the strategy they are going to go for is prestige,” Hall said last week. “They’re going to go for exclusivity. They’re going to go for (annual best college ratings in) U.S. News and World Report, and to do that, we can’t get big, because that would make us look like we’re a puppy mill. So we restrict.”
Hall doesn’t have a problem with restrictions truly aimed at accepting the most accomplished applicants, but he says competitive admissions policies too often are a cover story hiding an under-the-table commerce in corrupt admissions. When administrators say they only take the most accomplished people, Hall said, what they are not saying is that they are also accepting academically under-qualified applicants who come from families that can help the administration and its board keep their back-room game going.
“It’s really, ‘We are going to take the young people from families who can help us keep up our walls, keep up our defense, our governance and not have anybody tell us what we’re going to do. They don’t want any oversight.”
Part of keeping the game going, he said, is making sure the chairman and the rest of the trustees have complicity — that they are able to shoehorn their less than stellar nieces and nephews through the admissions process. “It’s getting a chairman who is politically well-connected in the state or in Washington to buy in, to take the crack, and now they’re one of them. The administrators try at the upper levels of the board to make sure that nobody touches them. It’s a protection racket. It’s all it is.”
Even though the Massachusetts investigation has found numerous instances of what federal prosecutors say are parents willing to pay big money for their kids’ crooked admissions, the game is not always a straight-up money deal, Hall believes. At UT five years ago, Hall found overwhelming evidence that former President Powers was trading admissions to powerful state legislators in exchange for political and legislative favors. That probably explains why the Legislature wanted to treat Hall as public enemy No. 1.
It all comes out in more or less the same locus of self-interest. One of the things Powers most wanted protection from was the pressure from Perry to lower costs and broaden admissions. Hall said that’s still the bull’s-eye we should be looking at. The easier game for unprincipled administrators and trustees, he said, is exclusivity. It’s making money by rejecting more people, not by accepting them.
“I don’t pretend to have a bunch of answers to a bunch of the world’s problems,” he said, “but I do fundamentally believe that we here in Texas and in the United States and the world are better off by educating more people.
“You can’t do it by layering debt on these poor young people and their families and charging too much. But where is pressure from these people who are the smartest people in the world? They will tell you they are. Why haven’t they been able to figure out how to educate more kids and to do it more cost-effectively? They don’t even ask the question.”
Hall told me he has sympathy for the parents rolled up in the recent federal dragnet, because they basically took the crack, too. They bought the story that education is not about education. It’s about kids getting their hands on the credential that will make them made-men and made-women, no matter what their parents had to do to make it happen.
“These poor people have ruined their lives in trying to cheat and get the kid in through the backdoor. I have sympathy for them, right, because they have been sold, ‘This is the dream. Buy it, and you’re in,’” he said.
Apart from watering down the actual performance value of a degree from Harvard, the most pernicious effect of the cult of prestige-for-sale, he said, is that it operates in direct opposition to the promise of broadened access to higher education: “Once you open the doors and a lot people can get educated, then what kind of club is that? It’s not exclusive anymore.”
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I have always found talking to Wallace Hall challenging and thought-provoking, even though we probably come from the North and South Poles, politically, and even though we don’t agree about everything, not even this. I probably have a tendency to conclude that every problem means the world is headed for hell in a hand basket and I wish everybody bon voyage. Hall, a businessman, typically has a less alarmist more pragmatic take.
In the cultic worship of an unearned, undeserved prestigious credential, a bought credential, I smell serious rot. It seems to me the whole fabric is fraying in what I thought was supposed to be a meritocratic democracy.
Hall, not so much. He thinks there are still tons of people out there who work their butts off, who derive a sense of personal fulfillment through difficult mastery. The problem is that there are also crooks, and the crooks find each other and set up rackets. What is more important, Hall said, is reaching those ambitious huddled masses yearning to be educated.
“I just want folks to be able to get a good education and be able to afford it,” he said.