Campus Scenes

One Fewer Good Ol’ Boy at the University of Texas

Skewering the academy with Dostoevsky.

By 7.9.14

Bill Powers (The Texas Tribune, Creative Commons 2.0)
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He fondly loved, for instance, his position as a "persecuted" man and, so to speak, an "exile." There is a sort of traditional glamour about those two little words that fascinated him once for all and, exalting him gradually in his own opinion, raised him in the course of years to a lofty pedestal very gratifying to vanity.

Demons rarely gets the respect accorded Dostoevsky’s other masterpieces, in part because its merciless satire of academic dissidents is so unflattering to many of the people who dispense that respect.

His Stepan Trofimovitch publishes a few obscure journal articles early on, then slips into a comfortable life of no significance tutoring rich kids. He still regards himself a dangerous revolutionary, a persona based on some faded associations from his youth and a dumb “allegory in lyrical-dramatic form” published in a collection of revolutionary verse. When that publication outs him, he writes “a noble letter in self-defence to Petersburg,” but in “his heart he was enormously flattered.”

It shows Dostoevsky’s genius that we recognize this type today: the professor who wants you to see through his facade of respectability to the Che beneath. The proto-commies of Dostoevsky’s day are defunct, but their rage against the machine endures; its present form is the complaint about “white privilege” and the unjust system of unconscious domination and oppression that it represents. Or maybe it’s the unconscious dominance of oppressive injustice. I’m never quite sure where to hang all the jargon.

“Privilege,” though, is the great evil of the age, according to the academy. So it’s no small absurdity that the academy itself is one of the biggest perpetrators. To the extent such a thing exists, it’s not found in the peeves that are now termed “microaggressions.” It’s found in the life-shaping advantages enjoyed by the rich, well-connected, and usually white — stuff like daddy knowing a big-shot politician who can get you into law school, despite your sorry grades and test scores.

What’s a country club membership or a nice car compared to that sort of hookup?

While the academics fancy themselves subversive, they are responsible for condoning and upholding massive systems of privilege. Take the case of the University of Texas at Austin, where President Bill Powers is about to get fired for orchestrating what will likely prove to be the biggest Good Ol’ Boy network the state has ever seen.

His biggest defenders are the faculty, who worry that his replacement will push them to spend more time teaching, even teaching freshmen. While there’s a strong case to be made that the tenure system is nothing but an institution of privilege, I’ll leave that to others. Let’s focus on the question of rich dummies benefitting from who daddy knows.

For months, evidence has been mounting that Powers has been doing admissions favors for lawmakers and their children, and the children of donors and lobbyists.

The move to fire Powers comes days after Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa authorized a thorough investigation by outside auditors of the university’s admissions practices. At the same time, the school’s director of admissions resigned to take another job.

That decision followed my own reports on the underwhelming performance of dozens of politically connected students at UT Law, as well as their abysmal scores on the Law School Admissions Test.

In May, the chancellor’s office published the results of a preliminary inquiry into favoritism, finding clear evidence that lawmakers were pulling strings on behalf of unqualified applicants, many of whom they didn’t even know. The report concluded it was a “widely common practice among legislators” to ask the university’s president to intercede for these applicants, and that “it is not unreasonable to conclude that these letters of recommendation influenced the admissions decisions for some or all of these applicants.”

For months Powers’s defenders denied the allegations, which were first made by a university regent named Wallace Hall, who had come across a trove of favor-seeking correspondence between lawmakers and Powers. The lawmakers tried to impeach Hall for blowing the whistle, but their pursuit has died down in the face of all the evidence that supports him.

Now that they can’t deny the allegations any longer, they’ve switched to a new line, seen in news articles and comments sections across Texas media: “Everyone does it.” It’s a perfect good ol’ boy excuse, the sort of thing you’d expect from someone who would never harsh your mellow. It might even be true, but you won’t find any admissions directors to quote saying the same thing, because it’s just as true that the practice is indefensible. It’s straight privilege, when college is supposed to be all about merit.

There’s no need for me to make a case against privilege, when I can just quote an argument by a local Stepan Trofimovitch: UT Austin professor Robert Jensen. Jensen says his professorial respectability lets him push “for the most radical analysis possible,” as in, “the United States remains a white-supremacist society” and “a predatory imperial nation-state within a pathological capitalist economic system.” So radical!

I don’t mean to indulge Jensen’s fantasies, but I’d like to quote his remarks from a talk on white privilege last year, as it’s uncanny how well they apply here:

Most people’s philosophical and theological systems are rooted in basic concepts of fairness, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people. Most of us endorse values that—if we took them seriously—should lead to an ethics and politics that reject the violence, exploitation, and oppression that defines the modern world. If only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths—incapable of empathy, those who for some reason enjoy cruel and oppressive behavior—then a radical analysis should make sense to lots of people.

But it is not, of course, that easy, because of the rewards available to us when we are willing to subordinate our stated principles in service of oppressive systems. I think that process works something like this:

• The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.
• Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits, and some limited number of people in subordinated classes will be allowed access to most of those same rewards. 
• People are typically hesitant to give up privileges, pleasures, and benefits that make us feel good.
• But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of the vast majority of those in the subordinated classes. 
• Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.
• One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are ‘natural’ and therefore inevitable, immutable. There’s no point getting all worked up about this—it’s just the way things are.

If this analysis is accurate, that’s actually good news. I would rather believe that people take pains to rationalize a situation they understand to be morally problematic than to celebrate injustice. When people know they have to rationalize, it means they at least understand the problems of the systems, even if they won’t confront them.

There are some very cushy gigs at UT for professors willing to subordinate their stated principles, and there are plenty of rationalizations along the lines of “everyone does it.”

But isn’t it funny that the only real radicals at UT might be a couple of wealthy businessmen and women on the board and the unfailingly polite surgeon they employ as chancellor?

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About the Author

Jon Cassidy is the Texas bureau chief for Watchdog.org.