07/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Education in Chicago: Thoughts on 'Clout University'

For more than a week, we've been reading articles in the Chicago Tribune about the admissions scandal at the University of Illinois.

Sunday, June 7th, a Tribune editorial writer called attention to the farce of the university administration delegating itself to pick a "task force" to investigate--itself.

In doing this, the University of Illinois was simply borrowing a trick from those supreme hypocrites and experienced practitioners of How Not to Do It, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. It was the NCAA which many years ago pioneered the delicate art of investigating oneself, and taught this valuable art to its university members.

We all know how well that's worked out: In this same issue of the Tribune, the venerable sportswriter Bob Verdi refers to the NCAA and college sports as "our intercollegiate sewer system."

Yes, the Clout University scandal is shady, shabby, ridiculous, pathetic, disgusting, despicable, etc. But what irritates and baffles me is the public's indifference to our wasteful, unconscionable, unfair, unreasonable practice of giving, not dozens, but tens of thousands of tickets of admission into our universities to young people many of whom would have no chance of being accepted into a higher-ranking university, or any university at all, strictly on their intellectual merits.

Of course I'm talking about the so-called "student-athletes." Our Illinois politicians, dastardly sneaks as they undoubtedly are, were not the first, nor the most culpable, offenders against intellect. We all decided long ago that many qualities were more important than mind in deciding who goes to college.

For example, community service. And extra-curricular activities. And exotic hobbies. And "a wide range of interests." And being closely related to a previous graduate of the college. And, most important by far, performance in organized high school sports.

The truth is that none of these activities and qualities should enter into a decision about who gets into college. That's right, none.

To deny the validity of what I've just said and to tacitly endorse a "system" which awards seats in an institution of teaching and scholarship to the stupid, the indifferent, the anti-intellectual, and the duffers is to take a low revenge on Intellect, cultivate mediocrity, and degrade and prostitute the Alma Mater we say we cherish.

As indefensible as the custom of letting politicians decide who goes to school and who gets scholarship money may be, it does far less harm to higher education than our worship of sports and athletes.

"Beer and circus." That's what Murray Sperber, Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies at Indiana University, called the sports-spectacle atmosphere of college athletics two decades ago. That's what we've turned our colleges and universities into.

College presidents and faculties aren't running higher education. (How many letters to the editor decrying the politicians' influence on admissions have you read from faculty members at the University of Illinois?)

Young, male, beer-sodden dolts and screeching ESPN announcers give the predominant tone to our universities. And this is a far more serious problem than Speaker Madigan pulling wires to get the sons and daughters of a few of his political vassals admitted to the U. of I.