This story airs the dirty little secret of the pressures under which state law schools operate all the time: state legislators, who of course vote on university budgets, make special pleas to admit friends, relatives, and constituents. Mostly they weigh in on behalf of weak candidates. The subtext of these "recommendations" and "phone calls" is always clear: your legislative agenda items will fare better with me if you admit so-and-so. The story linked above recounts one such exchange at the University of Illinois a few years back:
An e-mail dispatched by the former law dean at the University of Illinois is less than enthusiastic about a state senator’s recommendation for the admission of one applicant.
"She won't hurt us terribly, but she certainly won't help us," Dean Heidi Hurd wrote in reference to the applicant, in an e-mail to Chancellor Richard Herman. "She will almost certainly be denied admission if the process unfolds as we predict. But she can probably do the work. If you tell me we need to do this one, we will. We'll remember it though!"
"Please admit," Herman replied. "I understand no harm."
The Chicago Tribune obtained Hurd’s e-mail and hundreds others under a Freedom of Information Act request that showed “an ongoing power struggle between educators who want to protect the integrity of the state's most prestigious public university and administrators who also feel compelled to appease powerful lawmakers.” The article notes that lawmakers making requests on behalf of constituents oversee educational budgets, creating pressure to acquiesce.
Herman said not everyone who is recommended by clout-heavy officials wins admission to the university.
No surprises here, and Hurd's posture was the totally normal one. Deans know the pressure that university administrators are under from unscrupulous legislators, but when they try to be accomodating they also expect solicitude on the issues their unit confronts.
Of course I'm being sarcastic. Everyone but the most naive knows that it's much easier to get into the school, or get the job, you want if you know someone influential. It's not so typically brazen and corrupt as this, where state legislators who control a school's purse strings will blatantly pressure school administrators to admit their favorites. But it's so common that we have a well-known phrase for it: "it's not what you know, it's who you know." Which is why I can never understand the giant freak-out the right-wing experiences anytime there's a possibility that a slightly less qualified minority might have gotten a position over a slightly more qualified white student. To them it is completely unreasonable that an institution might formalize a system in which equally placed minorities might gain admission (or get a job) where equally placed whites might not, but if you can game the system on a personal and informal level, that's not a problem.
Now of course I understand that producing a system where a candidate's qualifications are the sole measuring stick by which admissions decisions are made would be ideal, but might also be extraordinarily difficult to enact. After all people are people, and both liberals and conservatives and non-political types will use whatever advantages they can to get ahead at school or at work. And I understand that there is a difference between a government program and informal networking. But still, can you really make a fair comparison of scale between the good ol' boy network and affirmative action programs that provide a slight benefit to minorities?