By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
A new report at the University of Texas lays out one of the biggest admissions corruption scandals in U.S. history.
The Kroll Associates report outlines a secret affirmative action program for the advantaged that dwarfs prior scandals at the University of California-Los Angeles and the University of Illinois. The report makes clear that Bill Powers, president of UT, opened a wide back channel into the Texas university for thousands of underqualified students, usually “from private schools or elite public schools,” and that he did so to build political and financial support.
The report, however, has been met with a shrug from Bill McRaven, the new chancellor of the University of Texas System.
While the report cites 18 cases where unqualified “legacy” students — the children of alumni — were admitted in apparent violation of state law forbidding that consideration, 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.
Last May, as evidence of admissions favoritism was surfacing, then-Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Paul Foster, the chairman of the Board of Regents,announced the university system would be implementing a “firewall” between the admissions process and “outside influences,” including university presidents.
Somehow, Powers didn’t get the message.
“Powers also made clear that he does not consider as mandatory the recommendations of the UT-System Best Practices White Paper, which includes a requirement that all universities within UT-System (including UT-Austin) are to implement policies and procedures that put the recommendations, including a firewall between Admissions and other university departments, into effect,” according to the Kroll report.
“Powers said that he believes the white paper to be incorrect. He said that his office has taken actions that are contrary to the white paper’s recommendations since that paper was released,” the report said.
The numbers bear this out. In 2014, 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.
After telling his Board of Regents that he wasn’t going to take any disciplinary action against Powers for either the secret program or all the evasions and document-shredding it required, McRaven explained “the problems of the past were not the result of bad intentions, but of well-meaning people who made mistakes.”
One reason McRaven offered for not taking action was that authority over admissions ultimately rests with Powers. Although Powers admitted students who didn’t deserve their spots, the law concerning admissions lets him take into account not just merit and diversity, but “any other consideration the institution considers necessary to accomplish the institution’s stated mission.”
Last year, a 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.
The new report says Powers hid his system from the investigators.
“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,” the new report concludes.
The mechanism was known as a Q hold. The President’s office would have the code letter “Q” inserted into the file of politically connected applicants, indicating that the application couldn’t be rejected until Powers’ assistant Nancy Brazzil had signed off.
“Under President Powers, Q holds … have totaled as many as 300 applicants of interest per year. The majority of Q 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, or other persons of influence.
Toward the end of each application period, Brazzil and the admissions director would get together to review all the Q holds that hadn’t earned a place.
“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,” the report states.
“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.”
According to the report, in many cases, “a case for admission is plausible.” So, “many candidates are relatively easy to resolve — some are admitted, some are denied, others are placed into a (transfer) program or offered Summer Freshman enrollment. Eventually, the list whittles down to around 50 or 60 files that may need further discussion.”
Those cases were tougher. According to the report:
“For the past several years, the Directors of Admission have provided some push back to the President’s Office on the desired admissions of certain applicants. The Directors of Admission saw it as their job to defend the Admissions Office evaluations and to ensure consistency in and integrity of the admissions process.
“In some instances, when the Admissions Directors stood their ground, Nancy Brazzil would ask, ‘Do we need to talk to Bill (Powers)?’ In a few cases, a Director said yes. Then, sometime after the meeting, the President’s Office called the Admissions Office and said, ‘Nancy talked to Bill and we have to do this.’
“Brazzil acknowledged that Admissions Directors do occasionally provide push back to the perceived interference from the President’s Office in what Admissions believes is its ‘turf.’ ‘Admissions officers are black-and-white,’ noted Brazzil, ‘they see grades, and scores … a student is in or not. They did not like when Bill (Powers) overrode their decisions.’ Brazzil confirmed that she acted on Powers’ behalf at these meetings, having consulted with him prior to the meetings. She further confirmed that Powers ‘absolutely made holistic determinations that differed from the Admissions Office’ and occasionally admitted applicants with ‘lesser’ qualifications based on factors he felt were in ‘the best interests of the university.’”
During the past six years, some 2,085 undergraduate applicants to UT have received special consideration thanks to their connections. Just the 1719 Texas residents among them were admitted at a rate of 71 percent. 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 percent. That’s a staggering boost of 55 percentage points.
Compare that to the infamous University of Illinois scandal. Between 2005 and 2008, according to the Chicago Tribune, “about 800 undergraduate students have landed on the clout list for the Urbana-Champaign campus. It’s unknown how many would qualify for entry on their own, but their acceptance rate is higher than average. For the 2008-09 school year, for example, about 77 percent were accepted, compared with 69 percent of all applicants.”
That’s just an 8-point advantage and a much smaller pool. Yet the Kroll report makes the claim that “the depth of the problems at Illinois were much more pronounced than the conduct at UT-Austin.”
State law granting automatic college admission to the top 10 percent of every high school class — at UT, it’s usually reduced by formula to top 7 or 8 percent — means UT officials have discretion over a quarter of the admission spots, which quickly fill up with athletes, musicians, diversity cases,and others.
According to the report, the number of discretionary spots “is generally set at around 1,500 to 1,800 spaces per year.” Powers has for years been holding 300 spots each year for well-connected candidates.
Those involved in this process, according to the report, insisted that UT expands its class to accommodate those special cases.
“We always add to the class,” Powers says.
“No one was ever misplaced,” Brazzil said, while acknowledging that otherwise, there’s “no real defense of this issue.”
However, as the Dallas Morning News observed in an editorial calling for Powers’ resignation, “if the class could be expanded for the unqualified, then there was that much more room for people who deserved to make the cut on their merits.”
Contact Jon Cassidy at email@example.com or @jpcassidy000. This article is the first in a coming series to analyze the findings of the Kroll report.