By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
HOUSTON — Former U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison sits on a committee tasked with finding the next president of the University of Texas, after Bill Powers submitted his resignation in July amid a scandal over favoritism shown to lawmakers in the admissions process.
If the university is seeking a president less susceptible to political influence than Powers, Hutchison makes an unlikely figure to consult, as she has been an avid string-puller for years.
A public records request turned up a dozen letters Hutchison sent directly to Powers in recent years, asking that he admit the children and grandchildren of her friends.
Though these letters are often termed recommendation letters, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa recently banned universities from considering recommendations sent directly to presidents and deans, rather than admissions officers, because they undermine the proper procedures.
“It is of the utmost importance that all letters of recommendation for any prospective college admissions applicant must be submitted through the established campus process, never directly to a president or a dean,” he wrote in a memo.
A report on admissions favoritism produced by his office this year found the “problem is that submitting such letters to the president, instead of or even in addition to submitting them through the prescribed processes, creates the appearance of an admissions process that gives undue and unfair opportunities to those with connections to state legislators.”
Hutchison’s letters tend to follow a script. First she mentions the personal connection: “She is the granddaughter of my good friend;” “He is the son of my good friend;” “Her grandparents… are good friends,” etc.
Then there is a paragraph reciting some qualifications plainly pulled off a resume: so-and-so is on the honor roll, or served at a soup kitchen, or speaks conversational Spanish — all stuff that’s already in the applicant’s file.
Then she usually adds a handwritten note: “She is terrific and her family is wonderful!” “He is a very special young man,” underlining very.
Two of the applicants had already been rejected, and Hutchison sought to have the decision reversed. All but one of the letters were written on U.S. Senate letterhead.
One important difference between Hutchison’s letter-writing and the clout employed by state lawmakers is that, as a U.S. senator, she didn’t have the direct control of UT’s budget that the education and appropriations committee chairs in the statehouse do.
Hutchison remains influential in other ways, of course. She is president of UT’s alumni association, Texas Exes, which has waged a vigorous campaign in defense of Powers. As president of Texas Exes, she was one of eight people named to the search committee automatically, under the regents’ rules. There are seven others who were chosen by the board.
The dozen letters from Hutchison puts her in first place among others known to have interceded with Powers. Runners up include state House Speaker Joe Straus and two of his lieutenants, Reps. Dan Branch and Jim Pitts, each of whom has sent at least seven letters.
Cigarroa’s inquiry found evidence the letters from state lawmakers were highly effective. 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 non-automatic admission was 15.8 percent between 2009 and 2013.
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.”
Or, as Hutchison added in a personal note to one of her “Dear Bill” letters, “I don’t know her personally, but she comes highly recommended by my friends.”
Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.
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