Every time new revelations come to light about the UT Admissions Scandal, they’ve always proven that UT regent Wallace Hall was right to launch his investigation, and that his critics were wrong to attempt to bury it (and him). The latest revelations are no exception:
University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers used his authority to get “must have” applicants admitted to the state’s flagship school and misled internal lawyers looking into influence peddling in the admissions process in both the undergraduate college and UT’s top-ranked law school, an independent investigation obtained by The Dallas Morning News has found.
The wide-ranging investigation ordered by former Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa found that Powers overruled his admissions office and exercised broad control when it came to favored applicants – some of whom had the recommendation of powerful people in this state.
That report is the Kroll Report. What they found was what Wallace Hall alleged: That there was one admissions process for ordinary applicants, and another for the well-connected. “Applicants with special connections had a 72% acceptance rate compared to 40% overall.”
Let’s look at some details of the process from the Kroll report summary:
Review of Undergraduate Admissions Process
When an inquiry or recommendation concerning a candidate for admission is forwarded to the President’s Office from a “friend of the university” or other “person of influence” – which may include a public official, a member of the Board of Regents or UT-System official, an important alumnus or alumna, a major donor, a faculty member or other UT-Austin official – a long-standing practice has been to place a “hold” on that candidate’s application. The purpose of a hold is to indicate that a negative decision may not become final until the party which placed the hold is notified.
Since 2009, certain hold designations have been entered on UT-Austin’s mainframe computer with the designation of “Q,” “L,” or “B.” A designation of “Q hold” indicates the application is being monitored by the President’s Office. An “L hold” indicates that the application is of interest to one of the college Deans. When both the President’s Office and a college Dean request a hold, the file is designated as a “B hold” applicant. (Several other types of holds exist for a variety of reasons; however, as explained later in this report, the only holds within the scope of Kroll’s investigation, and thus of interest for purposes of this report, are Q, L, and B holds.)
Due in part to the increased competitiveness of undergraduate admissions at UT-Austin, and in part because recordkeeping is now computerized, Q-hold volumes have escalated considerably 13 over the past several years. Under President Powers, Q holds have totaled as many as 300 applicants of interest per year. The majority of holds appear to be based on requests from Texas legislators and members of the Board of Regents, while others are instigated by requests from the Chancellor’s Office, donors and alumni.
The existence of holds combined with end-of-cycle meetings between the Admissions Office and the President’s Office, during which final decisions are made on all hold candidates not already admitted, has caused increasing levels of tension between the Admissions Office and the President’s Office. In recent years, President Powers, acting through his Chief of Staff, has at times made holistic determinations that differed from that of the Admissions Office. Consequently, it appears that a select handful of applicants each year are admitted over the objection of the Admissions Office. The President’s Office has acknowledged to Kroll that this has occurred, but insists that decisions are always made with the “best interests of the university” in mind.
Based on our investigation, there is no evidence that any applicants have been admitted as a result of a quid pro quo or other inappropriate promise or exchange. There also is no evidence that efforts were made to “save spots” for certain applicants or that a dual system of admissions has been informally established. However, it is acknowledged that additional acceptances are sent out each year to accommodate special cases. With certain “must have” applicants, the President’s Office ordered applicants admitted over the objection of the Admissions Office.
Because written records or notes of meetings and discussions between the President’s Office and Admissions are not maintained and are typically shredded, it is not known in particular cases why some applicants with sub-par academic credentials were placed on a hold list and eventually admitted. Rarely was it discussed why particular applicants needed to be admitted, or what, if any, connections the applicants had with persons of influence. But President Powers acknowledged to Kroll that “relational factors” do occasionally play an important role in determinations to admit some applicants who might not have otherwise been admitted.
Over a six-year period, applicants on whom a hold of any type was placed were admitted 72% of the time, compared to an overall admission rate of approximately 40%. Texas residents accounted for 82% of all applicants placed on a hold list. Email correspondence reviewed by Kroll further confirmed that a relationship with university officials has on occasion provided applicants a competitive boost in the admissions process.
The total number of arguably less-qualified applicants who have benefitted from the hold system and the President’s oversight of the hold candidates appears to be relatively small. Indeed, from 2009 to 2014, Kroll identified a total of only 73 enrolled applicants who were admitted with both a combined SAT score of less than 1100 and a high school GPA of less than 2.9. Kroll’s review of the available “outlier” files found that political connections may have influenced the admission decision in a small number of cases, while other cases suggested the possibility of alumni/legacy influence despite the prohibition under Texas law against legacy admissions. Several other cases, however, suggested a demonstrated commitment to ethnic and racial diversity and the consideration of other appropriate criteria.
While it is often not clear why a particular applicant was placed on hold or received special consideration, the President’s Office acknowledged to Kroll that legislative letters and calls are typically accorded more weight than other letters and calls because legislative oversight impacts the university.
In short, while it is impossible to conclude with absolute certainty from a review of the data and selected files alone that any one particular applicant benefitted from undue influence or pressure exerted on the admissions process, it is readily apparent that certain applicants are admitted at the instigation of the President over the assessment of the Admissions Office. The end-of-cycle meeting between the President’s Office and Admissions Office results each year in certain applicants receiving a competitive boost or special consideration in the admissions process. The data reviewed by Kroll confirms what President Powers and others have acknowledged, that relationships matter and are the deciding factor in admissions decisions for a select handful of applicants each year.
Although the practice of holds and exercise of presidential discretion over Admissions may not violate any existing law, rule, or policy, it is an aspect of the admissions process that does not appear in UT-Austin’s public representations.
Several other important constituents are at least partially complicit for this ad-hoc system of special admissions. For example, the Board of Regents sends approximately 50 to 70 names of applicants to the President’s Office each year. Similarly, many names are placed on a hold list as a result of requests from the Chancellor’s Office, the UT-System Office of Government Relations, major donors and alumni. In most years, there are certain legislators and Regents whose names are noted more than others. It would appear that these other bodies send inquiries concerning student applicants to the President’s Office with the expectation that such applicants be closely monitored by that office.
Kroll notes that the existence of holds and watch lists, and the end-of-cycle meetings between the President’s Office and the Admissions Office, were not disclosed or specifically addressed by President Powers and his Chief of Staff during an internal Admissions Inquiry previously conducted by the UT-System. Although President Powers and his Chief of Staff appear to have answered the specific questions asked of them with technical precision, it appears that by their material omissions they misled the inquiry. At minimum, each failed to speak with the candor and forthrightness expected of people in their respective positions of trust and leadership.
Review of Law School Admissions Process
By design and practice, UT Law School also utilizes a holistic admissions process. Although the law school requires no minimum LSAT score and only a 2.2 undergraduate GPA from an accredited institution, it is apparent that GPA and LSAT scores play a prominent role in admissions decisions. This fact, which is true of virtually all nationally ranked law schools, is driven in large part by the importance of GPA and LSAT in the perceived competitiveness of the law school and how it affects national rankings.
Unlike many law schools, UT Law School does not rely on an Admissions Committee to review application files or to render individual admissions decisions. Instead, almost all individual admissions decisions are made by either the Assistant Dean for Admission and Financial Aid or by the Director of Admission Programs. Consequently, although Kroll found that the professionals in these positions perform their jobs with expertise and integrity, the system as designed insufficiently prevents final admissions decisions from potentially being influenced by external factors, including informal discussions with the Dean after receiving letters, phone calls or contacts from persons of influence. For example, members of the Texas legislature and other persons of influence frequently call or write in support of particular law school candidates outside of normal application procedures, and the Dean’s Office receives numerous calls from legislators urging the admission of certain applicants.
Kroll found no evidence that the Dean or others at the law school acted improperly or in any way compromised the integrity of the admissions process. Nevertheless, the system as designed presents these well-intentioned professionals with potentially difficult balancing acts and ethical quandaries. When the Dean’s Office receives information about a law school applicant from a trusted source, the recent practice has been for the Dean to informally review the applicant’s credentials and determine whether a case for admission is plausible. If so, the Dean discusses the matter with the Assistant Dean for Admission and Financial Aid. As long as a final decision has not been made and communicated to the applicant, the Dean feels free to discuss any information received about an applicant with the Assistant Dean. In some instances, the resulting discussions have changed the mind of the Assistant Dean regarding a candidate for admission.
The President of UT-Austin also receives calls and letters from persons of influence concerning law school applicants. When this occurs, the President’s Office advises the law school (usually the Dean) of these interests. From 2006 to 2012, former Dean Larry Sager received 10 to 20 calls a year from Nancy Brazzil about President Powers’ interest in certain law school applicants. Brazzil made clear she spoke for the President’s Office. Sager acknowledged that the intensity of Brazzil’s interest in a candidate may “have on occasion swayed my decision.”
There’s a good bit more, but those are some of the highlights.
Indeed, Cigarroa admitted that “Fairness has at times been compromised in the admission of students into the University of Texas at Austin.”
Over at Watchdog.org, Jon Cassidy puts the total admissions number of unqualified applicants as in the thousands.
He’s not the only one who thinks it’s a big deal. Over at The Dallas Observer, Jim Schutze says “To every single applicant who ever got turned down by UT, I say this: Your wildest most paranoid imagining of why you got screwed and how they really do admissions at UT was nowhere near wild or paranoid enough. We’re talking about admissions meetings where university officials shred all their notes before leaving the room.” He also notes, yet again, what a horrific whitewash job UT’s own internal investigation was.
Also this: “Kroll looked at a sample of 73 smelly admissions files tied to legislators. In that sample, four affluent high schools in Texas accounted for 45 percent of the sample. Among the four, Highland Park High School was way out ahead at No. 1 with a third of all the dicey admissions in the whole sample.”
Well, who could possibly object to rich, well-connected kids getting to cut into the admissions line ahead of mere commoners?
While UT defenders are quick to assert that “no criminal activity occurred,” Cassidy believes that the blatant favoritism for legacy admissions may have violated the state education code, which states “the university must continue its practice of not considering an applicant’s legacy status as a factor in the university’s decisions relating to admissions for that academic year.”
The Dallas Morning News piece notes:
Many of Powers’ current problems can be traced to the work of UT Regent Wallace Hall, a man who has been pilloried for personally examining the admissions process.
The Kroll report appears to vindicate Hall’s work and add weight to his concerns that political and financial influence dictated some admissions decisions.
Hall’s inquiries into the admissions process led to him being targeted by state legislators, including House Speaker Joe Straus and former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Dewhurst was forcibly retired by Dan Patrick. Straus, have course, has been one of Hall’s staunchest foes, and shows every sign of desiring to continue UT’s culture of admissions favors for the well-connected indefinitely…