Thursday, June 11, 2009

Equal Opportunity?

At the start of each city council meeting we pledge allegiance to a Republic that provides “liberty and justice for all”. That’s not quite the same thing as equal opportunity for all, but many of us believe America should at least strive to provide equal opportunity. (Does this belief make me a liberal? Perhaps.)

The New York Times has just published two disturbing articles about the lack of equal opportunity in higher education.

First, Reed College (about as liberal as they get) has begun to base its admission decisions on ability to pay. Until now they practiced “need-blind” admissions, then provided adequate financial aid to every admitted student with demonstrated need. Now, as a result of the recession, they’ve decided to reject more than 100 students solely because they can’t afford to pay full tuition, and to accept 100 well-off students who otherwise wouldn’t have made the cut.

(My own liberal arts alma mater, Carleton College, began a similar practice about a year after I graduated--and I’ve protested by withholding charitable contributions to the them ever since. I’d rather see them spend money on financial aid than on fancy new buildings and higher faculty salaries.)

Second, the State of Illinois has launched a formal investigation into whether the University of Illinois (its most prestigious public university) has admitted hundreds of unqualified applicants in response to political pressure from state legislators and university trustees. If the allegations are true, this would be an egregious example of how it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Fortunately, my own employer can’t possibly suffer from these particular problems. Weber State University admits anyone with a high school diploma. (To borrow a cynical old Tom Lehrer quip, we’ve banned discrimination even on the basis of ability.) Does this mean we provide equal opportunity in every way? Of course not; there’s no way to be completely fair to everyone, and occasionally I hear allegations that students have been given special treatment for reasons such as family connections or gender. But overall, WSU and America’s other colleges and universities uphold much higher standards of fairness than you’ll find in the rest of our society.

Perhaps my background in higher education is part of why I get so outraged about politics, where you can almost always buy better opportunities with either money or political loyalty. Although high-profile corruption scandals draw attention to this system of unequal opportunity, for the most part the system is completely legal.

Ogden’s recent campaign finance revelations are a case in point (and a case that I’ve been obsessed with for the last few months). Just look down the list of Mayor Godfrey’s biggest campaign contributors, and you’ll see a list of people and companies who are doing business with the city. Or look at how the city attorney has the discretion to enforce campaign laws against one political faction but not against another. This is a system based on power, not equal opportunity.

Fortunately, Ogden just took a small, incremental step toward fairness, by passing a new campaign finance ordinance that will limit the largest contributions and provide more complete disclosure. Let’s hope we’ll see many more steps in the same direction.

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