When there are standards for admission, there are always a few challengers who would like to be let in even though they don’t qualify. This is as true of the situation faced by the bouncer at the door of the nightclub as of heads of educational institutions. Of course, when the latter sometimes behave like they are only operating with the standards of the former, then we are all in deep trouble!
The state-run University of Texas (UT) in the US was caught in such a situation. The UT system is massive, with nine universities and six health institutions under its ambit, and catering to about 214,000 students. Several of its constituent units are ranked highly in their disciplines. The whole system is headed by a Chancellor, assisted by a Board of Regents and each individual university headed by a President.
The University of Texas at Austin, one of the units, found itself in a situation where well-connected students and with poor entry scores, were being admitted at an unusually high rate compared to the general population. The President of the unit, Bill Powers, who didn’t think there was anything unusual, was bending backward to accommodate the requests from the members of the legislature. When one of the members of the Board of Regents, Wallace Hall, began raising the issue, investigating and questioning the admissions’ officials, the state legislature decided to swing right back and initiate impeachment proceedings against Mr. Hall! After all, Mr. Powers seemed to be an equal opportunity cooperator, helping members of both major political parties.
Things got messy and after a while, an inquiry was held with outside consultants brought in, and now Mr. Powers has stepped down from his position. We don’t know if the politicians have agreed to stop making those recommendations. But what is interesting is Mr. Powers’ explanation for his behavior, that he intervened on behalf of some students ‘in the best interests of the university’ and that such practices were common at most selective universities in America.
Well, it is possible that the people to whom Mr. Powers said yes may have had a hand in releasing the remaining tranche of funds for research, and so on, so his actions may have benefited the university. It is also true that many so-called prestigious and highly ranked universities in America do have quotas to admit the children of alumni, and of major donors, and admission requirements in these cases may be more sympathetic than for the general population. Presumably these are also decisions being made in the best interests of the university.
The problem at UT Austin was that news reports began appearing about how politically connected students admitted in programs such as the well-regarded law school were not being able to pass the bar exam after multiple attempts. Thus, it began casting doubts that the quality of the law school was in decline due to poor admissions, raising concerns among students, alumni and the faculty.
Surely, there is usually one leader (or a small number) at the head of an institution who may have to override the decisions of others, or violate rules set, all in the larger interests of the institution. Perhaps they take these decisions to their grave, and we don’t get to know if the quality of the organization was compromised.
But when it comes to educational institutions, none of us likes to add when talking about our alma mater, ‘when I was there, it was reputed.’ This requires constant vigilance over quality. There are always pressures over admission and the scrupulous institution head would do well to install a firewall between his or her office and the admissions office so the Head’s office does not become a post-office forwarding preferred admission applications. Educational institutions, where we expect people to go to learn, among other things, ethics and standards need to be at the forefront in showing how standards can be maintained. This is part of institutional building.
The writer is on the faculty of Suffolk University, Boston, and the Jindal Global Business School, Delhi NCR
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