Report Validates UT Admissions Scandal, Texas Tribune Downplays Findings

The Texas Tribune downplayed the deception in reporting only a small slice of the findings of a report commissioned by the University of Texas (UT) System Board of Regents that was just released on February 12. The much anticipated independent report by Kroll Associates detailed an elaborate “coding” scheme through which University President William Powers misled an earlier internal inquiry into the UT-Austin admissions process.

This scandal is one that the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org dubbed “a secret affirmative action program for the advantaged that dwarfs prior scandals” at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Illinois. “Undeniably, the report showed that Powers opened a wide back channel into the Texas university for thousands of under qualified students, usually ‘from private schools or elite public schools’ and that he did so to build political and financial support,” also according to Texas Watchdog.

In a press conference, Powers insisted that he never misled anyone at any time during the investigation, although the Dallas Morning News reported that when university “lawyers asked him how recommendations from lawmakers were handled, Powers said he was truthful and not evasive.”

Powers also issued a statement in which he held firm to his claims that, “over a five-year period, my office intervened on behalf of ‘a relatively small’ number of students. In particular, the report cited 73 applicants who normally would not have been admitted, or fewer than one in 1,000 admitted students.” He insisted that in every case, he acted “in what I believed was the best interest of the University.”

The Kroll report uncovered that Powers did use his authority to get certain high priority 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,” according to the Dallas Morning News.

Kroll looked at undergraduate, the law school and the business school admissions, the latter where no evidence of political or financial influence emerged. However, in the undergraduate school, Powers created a system of putting application on “hold” and they were labeled “Q”.  A secondary “B” hold code signaled applicants that came from Powers and a dean. An “L” code signaled interest from one of the college deans.

During his tenure, Powers placed almost 300 “Q” code holds on applications each year, according to page 42 of the report. The Kroll report stated that Powers hid his coding system from the investigators.

“The majority of “Q” holds appeared 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, or other persons of influence,” the report stated.

Legislators and members of the Board of Regents requested the holds most commonly, Powers told investigators, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Applicants who had holds placed on their files had a far better chance of being admitted to UT than other applicants.

The Texas Tribune reported on 73 enrolled applicants in the Kroll report who were admitted into UT with both a combined SAT score of less than 1100 and a high school GPA of less than 2.9,” tip-toeing around the “coding” scheme.

They claimed Kroll “found some cases where high officials put their thumbs on the scale on behalf of applicants who might not otherwise have been admitted. It didn’t happen much, but it happened some. And for UT’s defenders, “some” is hard to swallow.

It happened more than “some.” Texas Watchdog also reported that “Powers singled out 163 undergraduate applications for special consideration and 105 of them were admitted. In preceding years Powers had an admission rate above 80 percent for more than 300 special cases he fielded a school year.”

The majority of “Q” holds appeared to be requests from Texas legislators and members of the Board of Regents, while others are came from the Chancellor’s Office, donors and alumni, or other persons of influence.

Kroll analyzed the coded “hold” data in numerous configurations including on page 54 where the — Q, B, and L — categories reflected foreign and Texas non-residents, Texas residents and the grand total for all students . What emerged was that from 2009-14, there were 366 non-residents, 1,719 residents and a total of 2,085 undergraduate holds of which “applicants that received a hold of any type were admitted 72% of the time.” That percentage is found on page 56 of the report.  Relevant substantiating data is broken down through a variety of criteria on pages 54-63 of the report.

Texas Watchdog pointed out that the 1,719 Texas residents among the undergraduate applicants that received special consideration because of their connections. They were admitted at a rate of 71%. “Compare that to the key number from last year’s study: Texas residents who weren’t entitled to automatic admission got into UT at a rate of just 15.8%. That’s a staggering boost of 55 percentage points,” they added.

In their report, Kroll Associates also stated that in recent years “President Powers, acting through his Chief of Staff, has made certain holistic determinations that differed from the Admissions Office. Consequently, a select handful of applicants each year are essentially admitted over the objection of the Admissions Office. President Powers acknowledged to Kroll that this practice occurs, but he insisted that such decisions are made with the “best interests of the university” in mind.

There was no evidence that any applicants were admitted as a result of a quid-pro-quo or other inappropriate promises or exchanges. Nor was there evidence to “save spots” for certain applicants.

Powers and his Chief of Staff “admitted to Kroll that places are added each year to the admitted class in order to accommodate special cases. “We always add to the class,” said Powers. “These last-minute decisions do not affect the standard admissions practice. Adding to the total enrollment numbers is the ‘price we pay’ for exercising this balance,” Texas Watchdog also reported.

The report’s finding have only been “met with a shrug” from the new UT system chancellor Bill McRaven, according to the Texas Watchdog. They stated that McRaven “found nothing in the report that rises to the level of willful misconduct or criminal activity,” as he wrote to the Board of Regents, even though, the report cited 18 cases where the unqualified children of alumni was admitted in “apparent violation of state law forbidding that consideration,” according to the same Watchdog article that chronicled the Kroll report’s findings.

Last year, Texas Watchdog reported on the preliminary investigation into admissions favoritism found compelling statistical evidence that applicants recommended by lawmakers received special treatment by Powers, but it “did not uncover any evidence of a systematic, structured or centralized process of reviewing and admitting applicants recommended by influential individuals,” according to the report from last May.”

On the other hand, while the Tribune acknowledged that Kroll’s findings meant that the much maligned Regent Wallace Hall, who blew the whistle on the admissions process scandal, was right, they still maintained that the “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.'”

“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, the Tribune also reported.

The Tribune summarized that “offers some defense for the folks who work in the UT Tower. They get hundreds of requests for admissions consideration from legislators and others every year, according to the report. Up to 300 per year are put on a “hold list” for the president’s office to monitor.” They chalked the improprieties to only about a “dozen kids per year were admitted over the recommendations of the admissions office.”

“Vindication for UT, if you want to read it that way: Top-level interference in admissions is relatively rare. Vindication for Hall, read another way: He was on to something. It’s not as dirty as Hall said it was, but it’s not squeaky clean, either, the Tribune insisted.

The University of Texas is a corporate sponsor of the Texas Tribune.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.


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