University Admissions Scandals Go Deeper Than You Think
Early this year the FBI arrested the University of Texas tennis coach for selling spots on the school’s national championship team. Coaches at 10 other universities were arrested for the same scheme. What makes the story interesting is that none of the students involved ever showed up for practice or were even competitive athletes. They bought the spots to gain admission to the universities.
The real cause of these abuses 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.
I witnessed this while serving as a member of the University of Texas System Board of Regents. My actions to expose the admissions scandal at UT-Austin, our flagship campus, resulted in impeachment hearings against me by the state legislature and even efforts to convince a grand jury to indict me. While neither worked, the university continues to hide all of the documents that would have exposed the scandal. Even the FBI knows only a fraction of the real corruption.
Details of the larger problem at the Austin campus were uncovered in a private investigation commissioned by our then-Chancellor and a minority of Board members. The problem is, 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.
What lesson does this provide for students? They see their less talented peers admitted to schools in front of them and hear parents brag about backdoor access. They can also identify every “athlete” who was enrolled because his or her parent was a donor, politician, or member of the school’s board. For parents who participate in the corruption to gain access for their kids, we know who you are, whether the FBI does or not.
The failure of trustees to regain control over their universities 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.
Two reforms would help. First, expand the number of accreditors overseeing universities and remove the geographic restrictions that limit free market competition. Second, make university access to financial aid funds, tax-exemptions on endowments, and research funding contingent on transparency in admissions practices. This means private schools could opt out if they were willing to get off of the public dole.
The headlines about cheating admissions systems will capture attention as long as the celebrity show trials continue. But the real scandal is that university trustees are allowing the abuses to go on, and the corruption is deeper and more widespread than you think.