On Bono, Favoritism and College Admissions

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Harvard.jpgIt seems apt to open an exploration into favoritism by dropping a name: Bono.

Because of a friendship with him, I got complimentary tickets to a recent U-2 concert in Chicago where, shortly before he went on stage, we discussed a topic not traditionally associated with rock stars or their lyrics, namely private school admissions in New York City.

He told a funny tale of how his wife was grilled at one school about their "family philosophy" and how a son was interrogated as to any "special skills" he possessed; prompting the boy to apparently get up from a chair and humorously hop on one leg and bang his head with a hand. According to Bono, they were rejected at this school which, says its website, charges about $32,000 a year and aims to produce "global ethical leaders."

But the two sons of Bono, who himself inarguably rates as a global ethical leader, did get into a very fine place, nonetheless. While I suspect that the couple's offspring are as talented and decent as the parents, it obviously doesn't hurt if a parent or other sponsor is wealthy, talented and famous. And if the kids aren't somehow future Nobel Prize biochemists, would one be surprised that they'd be accepted most anywhere, even over boys and girls with better test scores?


Some folks clearly would be chagrined. Indeed, the whole business of admissions is touchy and what can pass for scandal in modern media has surrounded the University of Illinois in recent months. My old paper, the Chicago Tribune, disclosed that certain applicants were clearly admitted to the university as a result of odious "clout"; namely familial and other ties to trustees, politicians and various different species of citizens with influence (including Tony Rezko, the jailed real estate developer and onetime chum of a then-rising Illinois politician, Barack Obama).

There was a separate list of such insider applicants. Emails and phone conversations went public and, in the end, there were a bunch of resignations, including that of the university president.

There's a rich journalistic tradition of milking one's own expose and, here, the paper provided a daily dairy, apparently convinced that a higher education Watergate had been discovered. There were dozens of stories, many self-reverential, with editorials calling for the heads of much of the university hierarchy and board of trustees (most of whom split, though at least two didn't succumb to public relations pressure, refusing to quit and will remain).

Now, part of me felt like Claude Rains' Captain Renault in "Casablanca" ("I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"). If I stop to think about all that happens in our lives as a direct function of whom we know, I'd be thinking a very long time. I probably could dine at Chicago's Alinea (deemed America's best restaurant by the dying bastion of fine dining, Gourmet magazine) if I only had a buck for each of my friends' kids whom I've helped get either summer or full-time employment, never knowing how they rated against competitors. More often than not, I'm happy to put in a good word with somebody relevant whom I know. 

I suspect that a Tribune editor or two, now outraged over the University of Illinois, might have to confess to a child or other relative having been accepted into a position due to the editor's own network of chums. Stop. I know that to be a fact.

At the same time, one is miffed when the shoe's on the other foot; when you, personally, or a spouse or child is seemingly aced out of an opportunity by somebody who appears inferior but has "connections." In Illinois, for more than 100 years members of the General Assembly have had the right to actually give out full scholarships to the state's public universities (the original theory had to do with assuring some statewide, geographical equity in admissions). In some cases, those tuition waivers go to kids of donors and of those who've worked on a politician's campaigns.

 In Chicago, principals at nine elite, so-called "selective enrollment" public high schools can choose five percent of the slots. That is a function of a belief that there should be room for talented and unusual kids who just don't test well. A federal investigation is underway, apparently based on the suspicion that there's a gulf between the theory and actual practice.

We're naturally aghast because this is, after all, a meritocracy, isn't it?

Isn't it?

Shouldn't it be? And shouldn't all be fully transparent?

Bob Steele, an ethics specialist at DePauw University in Indiana and the Poynter Institute in Florida, concedes that there's no true meritocracy in most of our lives and that connections will always open doors to opportunities, including admissions and jobs. And even if one reflexively assumes that such ties largely benefit the most well-to-do, door-opening has always been rife, whatever one's location on the socio-economic ladder. Just consider all the kids who followed (mostly) fathers into the well-paying mills and auto plants, and into the trades. Ditto those who found coveted public sector positions in police stations and fire houses.

That's not to say that fairness doesn't, and shouldn't, remain a core value in professional and personal relationships, and in decision-making in general. It's just an early reminder that the matter is more nuanced than some might assume.

And it might indirectly remind us that American culture is different than many others in which reliance on friendship and family is not seen as suspect. Indeed, nepotism is not especially unusual elsewhere. It helps explain why international organizations, populated with officials from many nations, can become bollixed up over the definition of conflict of interest; a point broached by Rushworth Kidder, president and founder of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Me.

"In these countries, nepotism is part of the culture and not anything especially unusual. It's a standard of loyalty and trust. You need not take a chance on a stranger. It's a family member. He'll work hard," says Kidder. "But we've taken to the opposite extreme. Perhaps it's our old Puritan heritage. We want to take personal [ties] right out of the mix."

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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