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Commonplace Corruption

As the Chicago Tribune reported a couple of days ago, University of Illinois trustee Lawrence Eppley has resigned “against the backdrop of a state investigation of a shadow admissions system that gave preferential treatment to students with ties to trustees, politicians and deep-pocketed donors. About 800 undergraduate applicants had their names placed on clout lists, known internally as Category I, at the Urbana-Champaign campus during the last five years, a Tribune investigation found. Dozens more received special consideration from the law school and other graduate programs.”

Now, it’d be easy enough to use this merely as a point for Illinois in the Great American Corrupt-o-Thon it seems to be contesting against the state of New Jersey , or to chuckle at the inevitable appearance of the words “whose law firm donated $105,000 to Blagojevich’s campaigns.” But really, isn’t the only out-of-the-ordinary thing here that the people in Illinois were dumb enough to give their list an official name? It’s been well-documented that many selective colleges and universities use their admissions processes in all manner of self-serving and untoward ways as a means of garnering money, fame, and political power. Admissions are the coin of the realm in elite higher education and it’s not surprising that institutions can, if they so decide, spend it for corrupt purposes. What’s surprising is that they usually get away with it and manage to keep their elevated reputations intact.

The justifications for this kind of behavior are always the same, and always absurd. In no particular order:

The students admitted through our corrupt process were qualified (variant: they can “do the work.”

Any selective college turns away tons of students who were, in theory, “qualified” to attend, in the sense that they met some absolute minimum standard (not that you’d be able to actually find said standard if you asked.) That’s more or less the definition of “selective.” The best 500 students Urbana-Champaign rejected last year were probably all but indistinguishable from the worst 500 students they accepted. All if this happens well inside the margins of “qualified,” however defined. The question is who was most qualified, and admissions is a zero-sum game. The whole point of accessing the corrupt process is to bump out someone more qualified than you, otherwise why spend the money and/or political capital?

Only a small number of students were admitted through our corrupt process (variant #1: “they only get a little push”; variant #2 “only if all else was equal”). Being a little bit corrupt is like being a little bit pregnant. If you only break the law a couple of days a year, you still go to prison. Etc. I imagine most colleges and universities have someone in the philosophy department who could explain the ethics here.

Admitting students through our corrupt process benefits the university financially via donations and state appropriations, which are in turn used for virtuous purposes such as need-based financial aid. College admissions is, again, a zero-sum game, and I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that well-qualified low-income students generally don’t have a special in with the governor or the trustees or the development office. It doesn’t do a low-income students much good to drop extra money into the need-based aid fund if they can’t access it because they weren’t accepted because their slot went to the less-qualified child of some guy who wrote some other guy a big fat check. Education Sector could do all kinds of wonderful new education policy things if I robbed a bank this evening and deposited the money in our account, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

There’s no official list or policy, our development people and admissions people just, you know, sit down to talk from time to time. Over coffee. To talk about the weather. And things. Right.

In the end, these practices persist because they’re a kind of genteel, behind-closed-doors corruption, veiled by the deliberate vagueness of the admissions process and given a sheen of respectability by institutions that we look to for intellectual and cultural leadership. A lot of the people in positions of power within the government and certain business circles benefitted from these policies and hope their children will too. I imagine they think of themselves as generally moral people and aren’t all that interested in thinking otherwise.

But that doesn’t make it any less wrong. There’s a pretty simple test to apply here. Pretty much all selective colleges and universities have Web sites with information for applicants that include admissions criteria. My alma mater, for example, includes things like “strength of high school record,” “depth and overall quality of application essay,” “standardized test scores,” “extracurricular activities,” and “proven ability to think and act independently.” Colleges should ask themselves: is this a complete list? Does it include items like “father runs a hedge fund” or “uncle recently gave the governor a lot of money” or “mother is long-time majority leader of state senate”? No? Then those kinds of things shouldn’t matter in admissions. If you’d be embarrassed to write it down and put it on your Web site, there’s a reason.

And, since you asked: No, I don’t think affirmative action is a corrupt process per above. There’s a difference between naked bribe-taking and contributing to larger social goals of diversity and justice.

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