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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org or @jpcassidy000