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Analysis: Clout is Only Clout if It Can Be Used

Questions about insiders getting students into top state universities raises a question about power: Would it be more surprising if they had the clout to get people into school, or if they didn't?

The Texas Capitol on the left, and the University of Texas tower on the right.

People run for public office — or, for that matter, vie for private positions — to get things done. Politics is built around a supersize notion of friendship and community.

Favors and other kindnesses are part of the deal.

But givers of favors have to step carefully, especially when they are giving away things that do not belong to them. It is the difference between giving up your seat on the bus and offering someone else’s to your friend. The first gesture is a courtesy, the second an appropriation.

Letting students who do not qualify into college — or who qualify but are ranked lower than some who are rejected — is an appropriation.

Wallace Hall, a University of Texas System regent, has been poking at this for more than a year, in a way that has prosecutors and impeachment-minded lawmakers questioning what he has done and why he has done it.

Hall’s complaint, which he has not publicly detailed, is that University of Texas at Austin officials have, at the request of lawmakers, admitted students who would not have gotten in on their own merits. If he is right, it means that some students who deserved to get in were deprived of that opportunity.

This plays out differently across various institutions. No one is surprised at the achievements of the sons and daughters of the successful; sometimes the surprise is that they are capable on their own and turn out to deserve what they obtained because of their names and positions. The distinction is that family businesses belong to families, and they can dole out the chairs in the executive suites as they wish.

State universities are full of legacies and generational loyalties, but they are not family businesses.

The big shots at the big schools give football and basketball tickets to people they want to impress or schmooze with. The tickets are worth something — a state judge got in trouble for trying to sell his free Texas football tickets outside the stadium before the kickoff. But the practice continues, and a steady stream of officials, friends and patrons of the universities enjoy the perk, while the colleges enjoy the contact and the chance to bolster their relationships with the powerful.

The private world analogue is the corporate suite at Reliant Stadium or Minute Maid Park in Houston. Watch a game, do a little business, and network. It is not available to everyone, but it is not unusual, either.

And Hall finds himself questioning what many assume has always been customary, if not fair and honorable. While the populists among the 99 percent may deplore the practice, what is the point of having power and political juice if you cannot get someone’s child into Texas or Texas A&M?

Would it be more surprising that elected state officials can get people into top schools according to a kind of time-honored friends and family plan, or that they do not have the clout to get someone who is marginally qualified into, say, a state college of law or business?

Hall’s inquiries have unearthed letters from lawmakers urging favorable consideration for constituents and their relatives who are trying to win admission. Helping the people back home is the essence of representative politics; who would not write one of those letters?

And what would be the point of writing a letter like that if it did no good? That might make some constituents feel warm and fuzzy, but taking the step of asking for legislative help is a sign that the requester is hoping for some results.

Admission to the state’s top public universities is incredibly competitive, especially with the law that requires a preference for students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Those public institutions are supposed to remain blind to influence, but they are part of a political system designed to be responsive to the public, to reward winners.

Hall is critical of UT-Austin for allegedly having done the bidding of lawmakers, but the real threat is to the lawmakers themselves. It is their clout that he is questioning.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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