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University of Texas uncovers admissions corruption, halts investigation

By   /   May 16, 2014  /   No Comments

Part 17 of 32 in the series Trouble in Texas
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THE LEADERS: University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, left, and Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster say they are ready to move forward and away from an investigation.

 

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

AUSTIN — Officials have decided against a full investigation despite a preliminary inquiry finding that the friends and family of state lawmakers are getting special admissions consideration from the University of Texas at Austin.

Applicants for admission as a freshman were nearly four times as likely to be admitted as the general population if they had a legislator appeal directly to University President Bill Powers, an investigation by the chancellor’s office has found.

Fully a quarter of the politically connected applicants to UT’s School of Law were admitted despite grade point averages and Law School Admission Test — LSAT — scores “well below” and “far below” the usual standards. These students produced four of 10 of the worst LSAT scores among all students admitted since 2009, the report found.

The investigation echoes a report by Watchdog.org this week finding dozens of connections between politicians and UT Law’s least qualified graduates.

Pulling strings by sending Powers letters directly, rather than properly to admissions officials, was a “widely common practice among legislators,” the investigation found. The report also stated that other influential people attempt to intervene in admissions, but the investigation strictly concerned lawmakers and their influence.

“When letters from legislators that contain no important substantive information about the applicants are submitted outside that process, particularly those sent to the president of the university, it creates at least an appearance of impropriety,” the investigation found.

University officials, however, have decided to let the matter drop. 

While Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Chairman Paul Foster talked about “best practices” going forward, and “firewalls” between the admissions process and “outside influences,” including presidents, at a Board of Regents meeting Thursday, Foster is plainly done with investigations.

Foster no longer wants to pursue an investigation of the Law School Foundation to determine whether high-dollar foundation donors also get special treatment in admissions.

Last March, the board voted 4-3, with Foster the deciding vote, to bring in an outside investigator, before relenting to legislative pressure and turning the investigation over to Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has since sat on the investigation.

Cigarroa said he plans to consult with the other system presidents about new policies.

A similar scandal in 2009 at the University of Illinois involving a “clout list,” kept by school officials used to track recommendations from political heavyweights cost the president of the school his job. Eventually, seven of the nine trustees on the board at the time resigned.

Foster complained the board has spent 80 percent of its time on issues related to Wallace Hall, a member of the University of Texas System Board of Regents whose inquiries into political favoritism resulted in a political decision to impeach him.

Foster acknowledged Hall has broken no rules or policies of the board, but he nonetheless asked him to resign, drawing attention away from the admissions scandal and inquiry.

After Hall found a trove of correspondence between lawmakers and Powers, Cigarroa’s office took a closer look at 16 applicants to the law school and 63 undergraduate applicants mentioned in those letters.

The report was based on interviews with 11 university officials and analysis of student records, with names left out. There’s no mention of forensic or computer searches. Investigators “did not uncover any evidence of a systematic, structured, or centralized process of reviewing and admitting applicants recommended by influential officials.”

Eight of the 16 law school applicants were admitted, most of them well-connected, four of them with bad grades and test scores.

“In all but 3 cases (the applicant) had either worked for the legislator or was reasonably well-known” to him or her, the inquiry found.

That admission rate was “considerably higher than the approximately 22.5 percent” rate for the rest of Texas, Cigarroa found.

Undergraduate applicants backed by a legislator got into UT at a rate of 58.7 percent, while the acceptance rate for all Texas applicants for nonautomatic admission was 15.8 percent between 2009 and 2013. That’s a 42.9 percentage point improvement. The Illinois scandal was considerably more modest, with applicants on a “clout list” getting just an 8-point bump.

A “disproportionately high number of applicants were admitted notwithstanding the fact that most of the legislator letters did not contain any significant substantive information about the applicant,” the report concluded. In fact, “in more than one-half of them, there is no evidence that the author of the letter even knows the student, much less knows him or her well.”

Powers’ office produced charts showing that most of the politically connected undergrad applicants had scores and grades above the average for all applicants, contending they ought to be compared just to above-average applicants, who had an admission rate of 23 percent.

Even after massaging the numbers, “the only variable left is the letter of admission,” Vice Chancellors Dan Sharphorn and Wanda Mercer wrote in their report.

Abbott’s reason for not moving forward, his office said, is his need for a formal statement from Hall about the scope of his investigation before they can begin. Hall’s attorneys have provided that statement, and Hall has also provided 740 pages of evidence and met for four hours with an investigator.

When Hall on Thursday proposed taking back the investigation and hiring a private firm, a board majority led by Foster rejected it.

“The attorney general has taken the position that they are unable to see any student-identifiable information, which would make their investigation almost impossible,” Hall said.

When Foster said Hall refused to provide a letter, Hall accused him of lying, saying that Foster had earlier said in an executive session closed to the public the attorney general wasn’t going to do an investigation.

Foster’s position on an investigation has changed since March.

“If I were on a public company board and became aware of circumstances similar to these, I would demand an independent investigation,” he said at the time.  “I would be very concerned about my public fiduciary responsibility as a board member.”

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000. If you would like to send him documents or messages anonymously, download the Tor browser and go to our SecureDrop submission page: http://5bygo7e2rpnrh5vo.onion
Part of 32 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
  27. Texas AG Greg Abbott embraces Roe v. Wade
  28. Roe v. Wade is AG’s new pretext for blocking Texas law school investigation
  29. Two UT regents pressed for records destruction
  30. New crime invented for Hall: assisted guesswork
  31. Texas lawmaker failed to disclose his own clout letter in UT flap
  32. Texas legislator Fischer insists on role in UT investigation

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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.

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