Illinois, the state where Senate seats are sometimes sold, has now scandalized higher education with the revelation that hundreds of applicants to the University of Illinois were placed on a special “clout” list, many receiving favorable treatment. According to a series of investigative reports by The Chicago Tribune, state legislators, university trustees, and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich successfully pressured University of Illinois officials to admit less qualified applicants, including a relative of influence peddler Antoin (Tony) Rezko.
Examining email correspondence obtained through the state Freedom of Information Act, the Tribune found that decisions to deny admissions were reversed through a secret appeals process following intervention by top officials. In some cases, notification of admissions for “clouted” candidates with dubious credentials were delayed until the end of the school year in order to minimize attention from more qualified classmates who were denied admissions. In the wake of the publicity, the university has temporarily suspended the clout list and Governor Pat Quinn established an independent panel to investigate the practice.
Illinois state legislators are not the first to push for special treatment in university admissions for favored candidates. In the 1990s, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that then-California governor Pete Wilson, and other state officials and prominent citizens made requests on behalf of applicants to institutions such as UCLA and U.C. Berkeley. These applicants, who were placed on a special “VIP” list, had a significantly higher rate of acceptance than regular applicants. Indeed, between 1980 and 1996, more than 200 VIP students were admitted after initially being rejected.
Cynics might ask: what did you expect? Universities have long departed from meritocractic admissions, often on behalf of the wealthy and well connected. A few years ago, former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden detailed the systematic preferences provided to applicants whose parents were wealthy alumni, potential donors, or simply famous, in his riveting book, The Price of Admission. A Notre Dame official told Golden, “the poor schmuck who has to get in on his own has to walk on water.”
Clout admissions at public universities, however, are even more outrageous than these other preferences. A rich alumnus who threatens to withhold donations if his son is not admitted to a private university is bad enough. But a legislator, who holds the purse strings for a public university, betrays the public trust when he uses that power to push particular candidates for admissions at taxpayer-funded institutions. In one case, Illinois legislators seeking favorable treatment for a student who was rejected said they were considering drafting legislation to require “automatic admissions standards for the university,” a requirement university officials feared. The decision to reject the student was reversed in a clear abuse of public power. Significantly, requests for special treatment were often funneled through University of Illinois lobbyists, the very people who sought university funding from legislators.
In response to the crisis, the University of Illinois President, B. Joseph White – who had personally passed on Gov. Blagojevich’s support for Rezko’s relative – flatly declared, “all admissions to the University of Illinois should be based on merit.” The sentiment, though dubious as a description of reality, is, in fact, what the American people appear to want in college admissions and what universities should strive to achieve in practice.
The commitment to merit, quaint as it may seem to sophisticated university officials, helps explain strong public opposition to racial preferences in higher education. Affirmative action – back in the news again as U.S. Senators seek to examine Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s views on the question – remains highly unpopular, according to a new Quinnipiac Poll. The survey found that by a 55%-36% margin, Americans believe affirmative action programs that give minorities a preference in hiring, promotion and college admissions, should be abolished.
By contrast, polls have consistently shown that by a 2:1 margin, Americans favor giving a preference in admissions to low-income students of all races, presumably because such consideration is not seen as a deviation from merit but rather a better fulfillment of it. Considering what obstacles a low-income student has faced combined with consideration of her academic record, is to many Americans a better indicator of a student’s long-run potential than SAT scores and grades divorced of context.
Of course, this type of reasoning hardly justifies clout or legacy preferences, which tend to help the most advantaged. Not surprisingly, a 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education polls found that 75% of Americans oppose legacy preferences in college admissions.
One question conservatives in particular must ask themselves is why so many voice strong opposition to affirmative action and (presumably) to clout admissions, but not to legacy preferences? There are exceptions, like the Reason Foundation’s Shikha Dalmia, but as Dalmia points out, most conservatives are either supportive or silent on the issue. More than a hundred books have been written on affirmative action (including one by me) but not a single volume is devoted solely to legacy admissions – a vacuum that The Century Foundation hopes to fill next year when it will publish a book of essays on this practice.
It is significant to note that all three sets of preferences – clout admissions, legacy preferences and affirmative action – ultimately subordinate the interests of individual applicants to the larger interests of the university. Clout preferences may help sustain higher levels of public funding for universities; alumni preferences claim to boost private funding; and affirmative action provides a racially diverse learning environment. Under this world view, students are admitted not because there is anything intrinsically worthy about them but because they fit the needs of the university at a particular point in time. Some might argue that these are reasonable real-world compromises, but such considerations are strikingly out of touch with deeply held and important beliefs about the American Dream. Most Americans seem to see college admissions as rewarding talent and hard work and justifiably believe certain students deserve to be admitted over others.
If any good is to come out of the University of Illinois’s tawdry clout list, it may be that public outrage will help university leaders to recognize that President White’s statement – that “merit” should be the basis of university admissions – shouldn’t be dismissed as a naive platitude. Rather, it is a value to which the public may and should demand adherence with increasingly intensity.