When the high cost of higher education is too high

Judge Sarah Evans BarkerBy Sarah Evans Barker

Following Glasnost, the government of Russia implemented a broad series of reforms. One of the most hopeful was to create, for the first time, a constitutionally-based judiciary. My friend and former Indiana judge, Betty Barteau, headed a USAID-funded project to provide education programs for Russian judges. Betty enlisted a number of U.S. judges to travel to Russia to share their knowledge and insights at conferences she was organizing. I was one of them.

One afternoon, our group visited a well known museum. The planners had lined up an interpreter to help us understand the exhibits. She was a woman about my age, was business-like and a bit reserved, and had a perfect command of English. She was also surprisingly—even shockingly—candid.

“I was not expecting to hear about a planned bribe and I admit to having been a bit taken aback.”

It must have been the combination of her candor and her proficiency in English that led me to broach a more personal exchange with her. At one point, when she and I found ourselves alone, I asked if she had a family; and she replied matter-of-factly that she and her husband had one son.

“How old is he?”
“In school?”
“Yes,” she said; “His final year of high school.”

Without going too far, I asked what I thought would be a final question: “And after high school, then will he go to college or university?”

“We hope so,” she said. And I replied, “I hope so, too.”

To my surprise, she went on. “My husband works and I work, too, at this job as an interpreter, and we save the money I earn to get our son into the university.” I asked if it was expensive to go to college, and she said hedged a bit, saying, “Well, sort of.”

I asked if it was difficult to get in to the university, and she replied, “Yes, very.”

She then explained that there are only two options for young men in Russia—they either go to the university or to the military—and the military is extremely dangerous because the government provides insufficient support for the soldiers. Besides the risk of battle in dangerous places, they have inadequate clothing and supplies and even lack decent food. Many soldiers, she said, are housed in unheated quarters in bitterly cold climates; more than a few get sick and die during their long tours of duty. Even if they live through these conditions, many young Russian soldiers return home in very poor health. So, she stressed, getting her son get into the university was absolutely essential. As a result, she and her husband had decided that the money she earned would go to pay the university admissions officials to ensure his selection.

“If there are no rules, if society comes to run only on whims, wiliness, personalities, and money; then social predictability evaporates.”

I was not expecting to hear about a planned bribe and I admit to having been a bit taken aback. When I finally found words to respond, I naively asked whether the process of paying off admissions officials was so open and well established that she knew whom to approach and how much to pay.

I’ll never forget her reply: “Of course not. It is very risky. If I misjudge the situation and offer to pay the wrong person or the wrong amount, I know I will be arrested and sent to prison. But if I don’t do this, my son will not be admitted to university, and he will have a very difficult life.”

Since that trip to Russia more than twelve years ago, I have thought often about my encounter with this courageous Russian mother. Her terrible dilemma should in fact cause all of us to appreciate the basic nature of law and rulemaking. If there are no rules, if society comes to run only on whims, wiliness, personalities, and money; then social predictability evaporates. And without predictability, life becomes surrounded by severe and unmanageable risks.

This endangered woman, shouldering such extraordinary risks in order to keep her son protected, has over and over made me glad that our legal system, with its body of administrative rules and its guarantees of due process for every citizen, is alive and vibrant. It’s not perfect, but it’s surely better than the terrible alternative.

Sarah Evans Barker, Judge

Sarah Evans Barker was appointed judge of the United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, in March 1984 and served as chief judge between 1994 and 2001. Judge Barker is active in numerous civic, educational, cultural and religious organizations, including the State of Indiana Bicentennial Commission, having been appointed by Governor Mitch Daniels; the board of directors of Indiana University Health Partners, Inc.; and the board of the Indiana Historical Society. Judge Barker was born in Mishawaka, Indiana, and is a graduate of Indiana University and the American University College of Law. She and her attorney husband, Kenneth R. Barker, have three grown children and five grandchildren.

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