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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Selling Admissions on the Open Market

I've caught up with a truly shocking story that was broken last fall by UCLA's student paper the Daily Bruin. Since the university is one of my main areas of research I like to assume I'm not naive, but this piece took my breath away. It has the elements of deep corruption, and not just of aberration - large donations followed by admissions to super-competitive programs for OK-to-good relatives of the donors; open boasting by beneficiaries, suggesting there's no climate of prohibition around seats-for-sale; a leak; an inside investigation that finds no abuses and holds no one accountable; scattered outcries, resignations, and protests; a wall of administrative silence.

For a long time the for-sale sign on academia was seen as an isolated problem. It went with mediocrity, desperation, or individual corruption. As recently as 2003, Harvard's president emertius Derek Bok could write a book called The University in the Marketplace, express muffled rage at medical faculty for their arrogant obliviousness to the conflicts of interests they eagerly pursued, and still insist knowledge was not being corrupted. But the continuous pursuit of major and minor donors - as a central academic activity - is starting to change the focus, goals, metrics, etc of the institution.

Actually there's lots of evidence that this has already happened. Slaughter and Leslie's 1997 classic Academic Capitalism clearly explained the iron logic of income substitution. Jennifer Washburn's University Inc. was a well-documented cry for help that still needs to be addressed. Longtime science reporter Daniel S. Greenberg has a new book called Science for Sale that tells a nuanced story about mixed motives. All of it calls for better connections between the new dominance of fundraising culture and changes in both the directions of research and their results.

What we have to avoid is this: a new hybrid in which ultra-selective admissions generate small numbers of brilliant and economically diverse students that offer a front for lucrative academic influence-peddling. But this is what happens when fundraising gets woven into the research and teaching life of departments. It's the business version of Potomac Fever in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where every new project seems pitched to presidential candidates and the conclusions are written for their leading aides. We have enough knowledge for hire already - aka the major media. The university has to sound different from CNN or why not cut its public revenues to zero?

We Senate types are all out here pumping for public higher ed and yet we look more and more like the folks who run the plumbing-supplies store for Tony Soprano. That is, our corruption is looking less and less like an occasional accident and more and more systematic.

In May, the resident who went on the record for the November Daily Bruin story resigned from the department.
In his resignation letter, Kent Ochiai blamed the program’s chair for making his residency unbearable after the Daily Bruin published an article last November exposing preferential admissions within the orthodontics program for donors and their relatives.

Ochiai’s refusal as an applicant to donate a large sum in order to secure his own admission prompted The Bruin’s investigation.

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