Washington, D.C.

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UT officials are in Washington, D.C., today for oral arguments in a Supreme Court case whose outcome will have implications for how universities can factor race into admission decisions.

Abigail Fisher sued the University in 2008, claiming its consideration of race as a factor for some students’ admission unfairly discriminated against her as a white applicant. The case has reached the Supreme Court, and the court will likely rule by the summer. Oral arguments Wednesday will include statements from attorneys representing both sides of the case and from U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., who will represent the federal government in supporting the University’s position.

UT admits three quarters of each freshman class automatically based on high school class rank. It admits the remaining quarter under a system that considers an applicant’s race, among many other factors.
The court’s newest member, Justice Elena Kagan, has removed herself from any role in deciding the case because of her previous involvement as U.S. Solicitor General. If the remaining eight justices split the decision four to four, race-inclusive admissions will remain constitutional as the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger established.   

Watch The Update blog today for posts from Washington by Daily Texan reporter Andrew Messamore.

Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff speaks Wednesday evening at the AT&T Conference Center about his recent efforts to reform politics and the lobbying system. Abramoff served four years in prison after being sentenced for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Wednesday evening, an audience at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center was confronted with a rare dilemma. If the speaker is an ex-convict, do you clap when they take the stage?

Ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff was invited to UT to launch the McCombs School of Business’ “Ethics Unwrapped” speakers series, and spoke to audience members about the dilemmas of legality and morality in the lobbying industry in an event titled “You Don’t Know Jack”.

One of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C. during the presidency of George W. Bush, Abramoff served three and a half years in prison after a scandal involving Indian casino interests found him and 21 other White House officials guilty of corruption.

He now claims he is on a campaign to bring hard change to the lobbying industry after realizing in prison that a government allowing corruption to go unchallenged is a failure.

After some deliberation, UT officials decided paying Abramoff an estimated $10,000 was worth it if students could learn about the dark side of ethics, said Howard Prince, director of the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

“The first question I had when I was told we could have [Abramoff] come to campus, was ‘Why should we pay a failure to talk about moral failure,’” Prince said. “After some deliberation, we realized there could be value from learning from the mistakes of others, especially when the failure was from a man of considerable talent, like Mr. Abramoff.”

Abramoff, who is still on parole and cannot travel or make phone calls without approval, will not immediately receive the payment. A third party will monitor the fund, which is being paid for by sponsors in McCombs school, Deloitte Foundation and Bates Family Foundation, said business professor Robert Prentice.

Being questioned by Prentice and advertising professor Minette Drumwright, Abramoff engaged in a conversation about the difference between moral and legal problems in Washington.

“I used everything that was ‘legal’ to build a lobbying empire, and it was an empire on behalf of clients to support their product,” Abramoff said. “The problem was that I wasn’t judging what I was doing morally. I was judging it legally, and there was big difference.”

The only reason he was caught for corruption was due to his political battle with Senator John McCain, Abramoff said, who “dumped the emails” that led the exposure of his crimes.

Being cast out of Washington, D.C. didn’t solve the institutional practices that continue to intertwine money and politics, Abramoff said.

“So I got assassinated and sent off to prison, and they threw their hats in the air and said they had fixed the system and that the devil was cast out,” Abramoff said. “But they didn’t change anything, the system kept on going.”

Now writing for the Republic Report and asking for “effective reforms” that stop lobbyists from giving any contributions to public officials, Abramoff said he reflects on his own experiences as a lobbyist to craft his demands.

“They passed a law in Washington saying a lobbyist can’t legally go to dinner with a congressman,” Abramoff said. “Legally, a dinner counts as a sit down meal with cutlery. When I had a restaurant we would put in bar stools for meetings, so the meals counted as standing up. We need laws that close those loopholes.”

After a question and answer session, Prentice closed the event to an audience’s applause, asking them to reflect on their own failures and the lessons they had learned.

“I read three books on psychopaths before meeting Mr. Abramoff, and I was kind of hoping that when I met him I was going to meet my first psychopath,” Prentice said. “The reality was that when I met Mr. Abramoff, it was much like meeting other white collar criminals. He’s a man closer to me, and that’s a sobering lesson.”

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: Ex-convict gives talk on morality and ethics

If you are graduating from college in May, there is one thing on your mind: life post-graduation. More than ten years ago, graduating with a college degree was sure to give you an edge in the work force. A high GPA was thought of as a plus and almost your golden ticket to a post-graduation job. However, despite the honor of being a Longhorn and graduating with a 4.0 GPA, these things will only get you so far in today's job market.

What sets students apart from their peers in the current seemingly impenetrable job market? The answer is internships.

A 2010 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 42.3 percent of the seniors who had internship experience and applied for a job received at least one job offer, while only 30.7 percent of seniors without internship experience who applied for a job received an offer.

Various universities have realized the importance of internship experience and have taken serious initiatives to motivate students to intern. Some universities have even made internship experience a graduation requirement for all students. It would seem unfeasible for a large university such as UT to require internship experience among all graduates, but is the University doing enough to promote internship experience and make interning accessible to all students?

Over the last decade, UT developed programs such as the Bill Archer Fellowship Program, where UT students live and intern in Washington, D.C., for a semester while earning in-residence credit, and the UT Semester in Los Angeles Program. Such programs offer students some of the best experiences of their college careers. However, they are limited to only a small number of students per semester.

As paid internships are rare, one of the biggest drawbacks to interning is the lack of pay for students. Many students cannot afford to spend a summer or a semester working for free, as they have tuition and other finances to pay. Although many universities promote the importance of internships, few discuss this critical aspect interning.

One may say that as an intern, a student can earn college credit for their work, which will make up for the lack of pay. Although this may be true for internships during the school year, summer internships are not always counted as course credit. In order for an internship to translate into summer course credit, many students must enroll into the summer session and pay for summer tuition. In other words, some students will work for free and then have to pay almost $2,000 to the University to obtain the credit.

To preach the importance of internships and genuinely promote this experience among students, UT must find a way to bridge the gap between unpaid work and gaining experience. One way to do this is to develop a program where a student receives a salary or even a stipend from the University while working in an unpaid internship. This would truly promote internship experience among students and therefore increase the opportunity of post-graduation employment. However in times such as these, where University funds are short, UT could also allow all summer interns to receive credit without paying the full summer tuition.

These measures are key to promoting internship experience among students. In addition to the natural competitive edge in the job market that comes with being a Longhorn, UT students will gain increased attention from future employers with internship experiences.

Dafashy is a Plan II senior.


Last week at a town hall at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama decried the use of standardized testing. “Too often what we have been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools,” Obama said. He went on to comment on how standardized testing forces teachers into “teaching to the test.”

What’s confusing about these remarks is not that they are untrue but that they are at odds with his administration’s own policies, which reward federal education funding to states that institute reforms tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores.

For an example of these efforts, look no further than Thursday’s announcement that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has contracted with UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs to develop a new metric to measure teacher effectiveness. That venture, which falls under the direction of the school’s Project on Educator Effectiveness and Quality (PEEQ), will include analysis of “student performance on state standardized exams.”

Why is Texas doing this? According to the University’s press release, “federal grant requirements for measuring educator effectiveness” necessitate the creation of a student achievement standard, which, in Texas’ case will be the PEEQ metric. In other words: money.

In a year in which Texas is facing a much-publicized multibillion dollar budget shortfall, of which education takes a great share, any available federal funding is vital. Unfortunately, depending whether Obama is right (or wrong depending on your interpretation of his views) about standardized testing, this support may come at the expense of public education in Texas.

The real problem with standardized testing is not its existence but in the insistence on the primacy of its usage in evaluating teacher effectiveness. That point is best exemplified in the conversation surrounding the newest method of evaluating teacher effectiveness, value-added modeling.

Value-added modeling began as a way to improve the way we look at standardized test scores. Traditionally, schools have rated the effectiveness of a teacher by comparing the performance of his or her students to some sort of national average. But with value-added measures, students are compared to themselves. Specifically, statisticians use a student’s past test scores to predict future test scores.
Then the student’s actual test score is compared to that prediction in order to calculate the impact or “value” the teacher has added.

It seems like a good idea, and value-added measures have been championed by the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, a multi-year study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But the conclusions drawn from the preliminary report released this past December have been widely criticized, most notably by respected Berkeley economist Jesse Rothstein. Among the criticisms to value-added measures are the ideas that the same score gains might not be equivalent for high and low-achieving students and the effects of principal quality are not considered.

Ultimately, standardized test scores should be used as a small piece in a larger, more comprehensive method of evaluating teacher effectiveness that includes performance-based assessments, classroom observations, student surveys and teacher-reflection among other variables. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will be able to effectively distill this down to one number as PEEQ has been tasked to do by the TEA.

As much as we may hope for some magic bullet that will efficiently rank our nation’s teachers from least to most effective, we will have to go about it the hard way, and that means qualitatively evaluating teacher effectiveness from every angle. 

China’s rising prominence is likely to encourage greater enrollment of UT students in study abroad programs to the country, said Tracy Dahlby, the journalism professor with the Reporting China Maymester program.

The growing interest among UT students coincides with the Obama administration’s goal of doubling the number of students studying abroad in the largest Asian country by 2014. First lady Michelle Obama also stressed student travel to China at a Wednesday speech at Howard University in Washington, D.C., which came shortly after the Obamas welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao at a state dinner at the White House.

Currently, 18 UT students are enrolled in the 2011 Maymester program, which runs from May to June. Dahlby said he expects student interest in China to increase because of general curiosity and the country’s greater presence in the professional world.

Dahlby said study abroad programs help young individuals understand the relationship between the United States and rising superpowers. He said the programs are long-term investments, not institutions designed to generate immediate results.

“We won’t see the exact shape of things to come,” he said. “But we can see the vector.”
He said China is emerging as a world superpower because of its technological and economic expansion.

Foreign exchange programs allow students to view different nations and cultures on an individual level in lieu of viewing different countries on a collective level, Dahlby said.

“Study abroad programs are beneficial because it gives students the opportunity to experience different countries and cultural values,” said Tommy Ward, China program coordinator of UT’s International Office.

Multimedia journalism and economics senior Simrat Sharma, who participated in the China Maymester in 2009, said she gained experience in the country by witnessing different cultural interactions.

Sharma said Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, D.C. signified improvement in the often strained relationship between the U.S. and China.

“Simply engaging in talks is a great step into U.S.-China relations,” Sharma said.

Advertising junior Suchada Sutasirisap said she saw the changing nature of China as well as its traditional roots when she studied there in fall 2010.

“In a city like Shanghai, there is a mix of Chinese and Western culture,” Sutasirisap said. “It is a very developed city but you also see people hanging clothes. In some ways, you see China is still China.”

Election 2010

If elected as state attorney general, Houston lawyer Barbara Ann Radnofsky, a Democrat, promises to sue Wall Street firms. But Republican incumbent Greg Abbott is already involved in a suit against the federal government over individual mandates in the national health care reform law.

Like many other Republican candidates this election cycle, Abbott is seeking to make regulations and Washington, D.C., mandates central to the campaign, while also talking about border security and sexual crimes. The two-term attorney general leads his Democratic rival 55 to 35 percent in the latest UT/Texas Tribune poll, released Monday.

The attorney general enforces Texas laws and challenges state boards and agencies who do not adhere to them. The office also holds one of five seats on the state legislative redistricting board, a group designated to redraw district lines every decade if the state legislature fails to do so.

Abbott served as district court judge in Harris County and a state Supreme Court justice before reaching the attorney general’s office in 2002. During his two four-year terms, he has focused on protecting families and children through programs such as the Cyber Crimes Unit and the Fugitive Unit. For the November 2010 election, Abbott said he wants to add programs targeting money laundering and other crimes associated with the drug trade.

“I have a proven record of fighting crime, having arrested more criminals than any other attorney general in Texas history,” he said. “This race puts someone with a proven record of fighting against government mandates from Washington, D.C., and myself versus someone who embraces growing government.”

Despite the lead, Democratic candidate Barbara Ann Radnofsky said she remains optimistic that her campaign, which is based on suing Wall Street firms such as AIG for fraud — the true reason for the state’s massive budget shortfalls, she said. Radnofsky said the proposed lawsuit will send billions of dollars back to the state.

“My proposal is not novel nor unusual,” she said. “It’s just Mr. Abbott doesn’t want to do it. While I’m proposing to fight Wall Street, he has filed a number of pointless lawsuits that won’t bring a penny to Texas.”

Abbott also faces opposition from Libertarian candidate Jon Roland, who promises to expand the role of grand juries to include investigation of complaints of local public corruption. Roland said the other candidates are not proposing to do anything about the issue of local corruption, but hopes the future attorney general will bring his agenda forward.

“The main purpose of a candidacy like ours is to shift the direction of public discourse and of public office,” said Roland, who has run against Abbott twice before. “It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about shaping policy. If a third-party candidate gets 5 to 10 percent of the vote, the other two parties are going to be scrambling to adopt their issues.”

Abbott has nearly $9.3 million cash on hand, while Radnofsky has about $354,000. Radnofsky criticized Abbott for accepting donations and later defending the same donors in state lawsuits, claims which Abbott denied.

“It’s a kind of desperate claim you see by the person behind in the polls by 20 percentage points,” he said. “They just cast lies about their opponents, and that’s the kind of situation that she’s in.”

Texans for Public Justice research director Andrew Wheat said the majority of Texas politicians do not recuse themselves because of campaign contributions. Texas does not have a high standard for disqualification, he said.

“The problem of course is politicians in our system have two constituencies,” Wheat said. “One is the voters, and arguably the more important one are the people that pay the campaign bills. I haven’t seen him aggressively going after the oil and gas industry, but that’s something that doesn’t happen in this state.”

UT public affairs lecturer Sherri Greenberg said Abbott seemed to have a pretty firm hold on the race in spite of Radnofsky’s accusations.

“First of all, he has the power of incumbency,” she said. “He’s running in a Republican state during a Republican year. He’s had the real advantage on the get go.”