30 May 2009


I'm pissed at the Illinois papers — including (but not limited to) the Nazi-Zeitung — for their current flagwaving over the admissions process at the University of Illinois.1

Most "premier" universities — and, sadly, for many of its undergraduate programs the University of Illinois probably does not qualify as such — have this little thing called a "letter of recommendation" in each candidate's admissions file, and often more than one; the University of Illinois does not. One might plausibly view the "pressure" being applied as the equivalent. And, for those of you who've been to/currently attend a university (or selective liberal arts college), honestly think about your classmates: You surely knew/know at least one who didn't belong... and I'm not excluding Ivy League schools, with their "legacy admissions" (such as a recent President who didn't get into Yale based on merit!).

This points toward the far-more-serious problem with university admissions: athletic scholarships. The data that has thus far come out from the current contretemps at the University of Illinois indicates that as many as thirteen (13) students benefitted from "political pressure" in the admissions process at a state university2 over a period of several years, out of at least 30,000 acceptances (not just candidates). At any Division I school — including the U of I — there are more than that every year just on the bloody football teams. Throw in men's and women's basketball, baseball, etc., and there's a much more significant problem. <SARCASM> Of course, as an undergraduate I went to a Division III school (no athletic scholarships) that did not have a racially offensive mascot for its athletic programs to shame the university as a whole, so what the hell do I know about it (aside from actually participating in sport)? <SARCASM> Don't get me wrong — I enjoy college sports, and I think that in many circumstances they add to the university's value and experience — but the almost complete absence of athletes from the "revenue sports" in premier graduate programs, and particularly those who completed their undergraduate programs in only four years from a premier university, should tell you all you need to know about whether there's undue pressure being applied for admissions. It's even statistically significant among well-run Division III programs at premier universities like Washington University, the University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins, and premier liberal arts colleges like Macalester, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore.

And there are other admissions problems out there that dwarf the problem of state legislators (and other political figures) putting pressure on the overworked admissions staff at the University of Illinois. Consider, for example, the problem of noncomparable GPAs and use of class rank as a proxy, whether we're considering high school or college; the utter failure of the education system to deal effectively with students who are simultaneously gifted and disabled; the continuing prejudice against real-world experience as a component of graduate admissions, let alone getting a job afterward; legacy admissions; paying for a university education once admitted; the absence of tenured faculty from undergraduate classrooms at many colleges and universities because they're spending their time filling out grant applications instead of researching and teaching; I could go on for a while longer, if you'd like.

Finally, consider this: Do you really think that the only state school in this state that has problems with political pressure being applied to influence admission is the University of Illinois? One of this state's medical schools is associated with Southern Illinois University, and I'd be absolutely shocked if there were fewer than thirteen applicants for that program every year who were the subject of "political pressure" of this nature. Similarly, there is no undergraduate nursing (RN) program on the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois, so pressure of this nature gets applied elsewhere. And that's just the medical professions!

In the end, though, I'm less shocked to find political pressure influencing admission to any public university than Captain Renault was to find gambling in Rick's saloon. Get over it and look at the whole picture; don't focus on patching the crack in the bedroom's plaster while ignoring the hole in the roof and rotting foundation.

Two last notes: There's a reason that I titled this post with the ideal gas law — no pressure occurs in a vacuum. And I can't imagine any of this taking place under John Cribbet... or at least not once he knew of it; off to the memorial service.

  1. It is not at all a coincidence that it's Illinois's right-wing papers that are continuing to "report" this "story" today; the center/moderate papers have moved on to other crises after covering it yesterday, like the inability of the state to pass a budget, the legislative gridlock over increasing the state's income tax from 3% to 4.5%, the collapse of the US auto industry, and North Korea's nuclear program.
  2. The less said about "honorary degrees" and selection of commencement speakers on political grounds, the better; the maroon who spoke at my law-school graduation did so, while receiving his honorary Doctor of Laws degree, because he was a politician with substantial clout... and then proceeded to demonstrate, both in the speech and immediately afterward on the job, that he had no concept of the "rule of law."