On Bono, Favoritism and College Admissions

It 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."

The Illinois disclosures at least raise doubts about what Jeffrey Seglin, an associate professor and ethics specialist at Emerson College, notes is a frequent argument of college administrators; namely that "'preference' doesn't tip the scale to let in an otherwise unqualified candidate but adds to his or her overall profile when admission is considered." It's an argument hard to analyze from the outside since so little information is provided to the public, in part due to federal privacy rules when it comes to higher education records.

There was, too, the explicit suggestion in much of the reporting on the Illinois mess that public universities are essentially different than private ones. The existence of "secret political privilege," as one of the newspaper's editors puts it, is all the more unseemly since these are public dollars at play. The well-known "legacy" admissions of Yale, Harvard, Amherst, and other private institutions are not a basis of comparison since the private schools don't feed from the public trough, the assertion goes.

Of course, that borders on folderol, as widely-accepted as the differentiation seems to be. The little-understood reality is that nonprofits, like the Ivy League schools, essentially use lots of taxpayer dollars; or at least get to keep a lot of money that would have otherwise gone into government coffers were it not for the nonprofit status. If you rationalize a supposed lack of fairness in the admissions' processes of private schools, don't do it on the back of their non-public funding sources. In addition, what about the federal dollars those private schools may get for, say, scientific research, among other endeavors? A friend of mine, a former top official at a private Big Ten university, was especially proud of his effective lobbying for Defense Department dollars.

Missed, too, can be how economic necessity is eroding the demarcation between private and public institutions of higher learning. With state budgets in trouble, public universities are taking on the look and tactics of private institutions when it comes to fundraising. If the Harvards of the world have always been sharply focused on the cultivation of alumni loyalty, their public counterparts didn't have to be. Now, the public institutions surely have a greater appreciation of the longer term self-interest in being solicitous to sons and daughters of graduates in the quest for increasingly important donations.

So where might this leave the admissions process at the University of Illinois and elsewhere? Do we want to make test scores so important that any computer can spit out the winners and losers? Do we think that we can somehow make a quasi-science out of the system, putting aside the many reasons a kid with lower scores and seemingly fewer achievements might be a more valuable assets to the institution? And should we be blind to how a politician, wealthy individual or family ties could positively advantage the institution in the long run?

"I'm not sure that we're going to be a better country if, in some draconian way, we say that some kind of personal acknowledgment or understanding of individuals is something we should rule off the turf in the admissions process," says Kidder. "There's a level of intuition and wisdom that comes from sitting down with somebody, or knowing them for many years, that can't get manifested in numbers. I'm worried that we may be making too much of a science of this application process."

Finally, there's the matter of transparency.

"I have often believed that if an institution wants to engage in such practices, it should be forthcoming and transparent that it does so and how it does so," says Seglin, who also writes a weekly ethics column for the New York Times Syndicate. He cited the controversial, brief tenure of Lawrence Summers, President Obama's chief economic adviser, as president of Harvard.

"For all his other issues, Summers was pretty clear that he saw no issue with admitting legacy students," says Seglin. Some estimates suggest that 10 percent or more of the student body at some schools result from legacy admissions, with no real way to speculate how many of them would have gotten in purely on their own merits. "If the leaders of these institutions have no problem with showing such preferences, they should be willing to be transparent about the process. And, if they don't want people to know about the process, what does that say about the practice?"

But there just might be some justifiable qualms about substantial, even full, public inspection. The qualms reporters have in going public with their sources, or that lawyers have in disclosing client matters, might have some counterpart here.  Do we truly want everything that's said about an applicant to be known? Do we want the world to learn that fair-minded admissions officers thought Mr. and Mrs. Smith's daughter--- the one with the great grades and SATs and laundry list of extracurricular activities--- was a total, arrogant jerk?

Kidder has committed himself professionally "to a life in which the more transparency, the better." But he knows that leads him into thorny areas where Right may not faceoff so much against Wrong as it does against Right.

"The question beyond this is what happens when we face a situation in which both sides are right; if a powerful moral case is to be made for both Person A and Person B and we have to choose."

"I'm not calling for under-the-table activities," says Kidder. "But I want to be sure that people don't get treated unfairly because, somewhere in their past, there was a whiff that somebody who was a politician may have recommended them. There has to be flexibility. Maybe not much, but some."

(Photo: Flickr/Chaval Brasil)