Would I, he asked, bring whatever influence I had to bear on the admissions tutor to ensure his son a place. It was a long time ago now so that I cannot recall how I felt about this request. I do remember that I did nothing about it, because I believed that to intervene in this way would cut no ice with those involved in the selection process and might even have proved counter-productive. I knew also that he could never find out one way or another.
When I say that I cannot recall my reaction, I mean that I do not remember whether I took any kind of moral stance on the issue. A colleague has been put in a similar position recently, and he is undergoing a crisis of conscience.
The pros and cons of his case are rather more clearly etched than they were in mine since it is a relative on whose behalf he was being cajoled to intercede and in my colleague's judgment she does not merit a place. It too is one of the most attractive and the admissions tutors are consequently able to sustain their target intake without compromising standards.
He believed that if he were to succeed in promoting her interests, somebody more deserving would be denied a place. But the unease he expressed as he wrestled with the problem has attracted little sympathy. The majority view seems to be that if there are strings to be pulled he should go right ahead and pull them and to blazes with the consequences for others unknown.
And yet . . . When a member of the surveying department in an English polytechnic was commissioned by a potential buyer to carry out a survey of a house which belonged to a member of the executive, it was made clear that a glowing report would be expected.
When he followed his professional ethic and gave an honestly unfavourable report, he knew it was time to leave. Nowadays, that option is less available and in similar circumstances, his professional integrity might not prove so strong.
Anyway, my colleague pressed ahead in spite of his doubts and put in a word with the admissions tutor. He came away not knowing what he had achieved. The response had been noncommittal and equivocal. Determined now to follow the matter to a conclusion, he took advantage of a chance semi-social encounter with the head of the department concerned.
This was altogether more encouraging. Of course you must use your influence, he was told. There are precious few perks in this business, so it is only right that you should exploit the odd one that presents itself. Write down your relative's name and I shall instruct my man to give the application priority.
When subsequently he met the admissions tutor and reported his encounter with the head, the response this time was considerably more definite. He was left in no doubt that if there had been a slight chance of favourable treatment before, it had gone now.
In pursuing the matter, my colleague has gained nothing and lost a certain amount of self-respect, and, worst of all, he still does not know if he has acted in the morally correct manner.
I don't know either. Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.