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Chancellor is probing favoritism in UT admissions

By   /   December 19, 2013  /   No Comments

Part 9 of 26 in the series Trouble in Texas

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

AUSTIN, Texas — The University of Texas System is conducting a formal inquiry into admissions favoritism at its flagship campus, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said Wednesday.

Attorneys from the Chancellor’s office are looking into the qualifications of 70 undergraduate applicants and 16 law school students who were recommended by lawmakers.

Cigarroa revealed the extent of the inquiry during testimony before a select House committee that’s been drumming up reasons to impeach Wallace Hall, a whistleblowing regent.

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas system, is conducting an inquiry into favoritism in admissions at UT Austin.

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas system, is conducting an inquiry into favoritism in admissions at UT Austin.

“I’ve got concerns that there are external influences involved in the admissions of students,” Cigarroa said. “I’m looking at a cohort of students. I’m looking at the process.”

The revelation follows a report by Watchdog.org that children of three influential state lawmakers — Sen. Judith Zaffirini, Sen. John Carona, and Rep. Jim Pitts — had been admitted to UT Law School, yet unlike their peers, repeatedly struggled to pass the bar exam.

Zaffirini and Carona’s children have failed the bar three times each, and Pitts’ son Ryan has failed it twice.

Ryan Pitts’ qualifications for law school, particularly his poor score on the Law School Admissions Test, have come up several times before in testimony, although his name hadn’t often.

Rep. Ferdinand “Trey” Fischer asked Cigarroa why his office was continuing to look into the qualifications of Ryan Pitts “nine days after Jim Pitts comes to this committee and admits that he helped his son” get into law school. “Nine days later, you are accommodating a request to confirm whether or not he retook the LSAT.”

It wasn’t just about Ryan Pitts, Cigarroa said.

“This is not just a study of one person,” Cigarroa said. “This is a study of a group of people who’ve had a letter of recommendation from people from… outside the university.”

The inquiry started in August, Cigarroa said, after he saw an email concerning whether to admit Pitts.

“There was an email from the (then) dean of the law school, Larry Sager, to Nancy Brazzil (an assistant to UT President Bill Powers) regarding — the student was going to have to retake the LSAT and substantially improve that LSAT score or go to another school. We don’t know what happened,” as Ryan Pitts was admitted, and the school has no record of a better LSAT score.

“Is that an isolated event, or is that more than an isolated event,” Cigarroa asked.

Fischer pressed him to say that Hall was the reason for the inquiry.

“If there are questions about the integrity of an admissions process, this chancellor is going to look at it,” Cigarroa said. “A regent didn’t ask me to do it.”

Cigarroa also set Fischer straight on a number that he’s been misusing. Fischer has repeatedly said that 1,200 out of 1,279 records requests the university had dealt with in recent years were for Hall, when the original testimony was that he had gotten copies of that many records requests, most of them made by other people.

In the past two years, there have been 202 information requests by all nine regents, Cigarroa said.

The hearing began with the committee co-chairs Reps. Dan Flynn and Carol Alvarado expressing mock outrage that Hall had not accepted a disingenuous invitation to testify.

Every previous witness had been subpoenaed, as Rep. Charles Perry noted. That insulated them from any risk of violating a vague but broad federal student privacy law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

Since FERPA doesn’t apply to testimony given under subpoena, Hall would have been free to name names of lawmakers misusing their clout. He had requested a subpoena, but the committee ignored him.

Flynn insisted that Hall had “been afforded every opportunity” to speak but had “voluntarily chosen not to do so,” adding that “the letters from his lawyer have been offensive.”

The committee’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, insisted that the decision not to issue a subpoena was a matter of principal.

“I’ve always thought it was wrong to compel the subject of investigation to testify,” he said.

Powers also testified in general terms about damage to the university’s reputation caused by the controversy.

“It’s been a tremendous distraction and hindrance to moving the university ahead,” he said.

As for his relationship with the Board of Regents, Powers said, “Some of them don’t want me to be the president. That’s not very pleasant. They have their reasons.”

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000

Part of 26 in the series Trouble in Texas
  1. Texas’ Rep. Pitts announces retirement after improper influence story
  2. University of Texas regents show support for Wallace Hall
  3. Case against UT regent Wallace Hall is a sham — here’s proof
  4. Texas senator got $477k for supposed ‘cameo’ appearance in Wallace Hall lawsuit
  5. Lawmaker admits pulling strings on UT admissions
  6. Trustee accused of crime for rejecting dodgy accounting
  7. Longhorns: Senator used clout in UT law school admissions
  8. Children of Texas lawmakers get into UT School of Law, but struggle to pass bar exam
  9. Chancellor is probing favoritism in UT admissions
  10. UT report: Charge against Hall is legally ‘absurd’
  11. Attorney in UT case hides six-figure charges despite terms of contract
  12. University of Texas clout scandal grows as new e-mails surface
  13. Four more get into UT Law despite low LSATs
  14. Reports on UT favoritism, impeachment expected soon
  15. Attorney: Secret tape covered up by lawmakers proves regent’s innocence
  16. Dozens of UT Law’s least qualified students are connected politically
  17. University of Texas uncovers admissions corruption, halts investigation
  18. UT admissions: Straus, Branch, Pitts pulled strings
  19. Who got the 128? UT Law admits students with bad LSAT scores
  20. Patrick’s win may doom Hall impeachment effort
  21. Chancellor promises complete investigation of UT admissions
  22. Board to decide UT president’s fate Thursday
  23. Texas politicians smarten up, ditch UT pres this time around
  24. Tribune story may have doomed UT’s Powers
  25. Academics condone the privilege they denounce
  26. Three essential stories on the UT admissions scandal

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Jon Cassidy is the Texas bureau chief for Watchdog.org. He also writes a weekly column on politics for The American Spectator. He was formerly a reporter and editor for The Orange County Register in California and a reporter at The Hill in Washington, D.C. His work has been published by Fox News, Reason, The Federalist, Human Events, and other publications. He is a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and a graduate of the University of Southern California. He and his wife Michelle live just outside Houston with their two children.