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UT admissions scandal is 10 times bigger than official report

By   /   July 14, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 56 of 72 in the series Trouble in Texas
The leadership of the University of Texas at Austin has buried the school in scandal with a sweep-it-under-the-rug approach.

The leadership of the University of Texas at Austin has buried the school in scandal with a sweep-it-under-the-rug approach.

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

At least 764 applicants initially denied admission to the University of Texas were admitted thanks to a backdoor program for the wealthy and politically connected administered by former president Bill Powers.

More than 200 of those applicants were admitted despite having their applications cancelled by the Admissions Office.

The total is more than 10 times the 73 applicants widely reported from an investigation paid for by the university and conducted by Kroll Associates. Kroll withheld the full findings from its 107-page final report.

Watchdog.org produced the final number by reassembling a key Kroll database tracking “holds,” or applicants rejected by the admissions office but granted favored status by Powers’ office from 2009 to 2014.

Kroll arrived at its published tally by establishing an arbitrary cutoff point for grades and SAT scores that had nothing to do with finding the total number of admissions rejections Powers overrode, which was the original purpose of the investigation.

The university kept the numbers in the database secret from the public and from regents who have asked to review the Kroll investigation records.

“The reach of this scandal is breathtaking,” said Maribeth Vander Weele, one of the investigators in a similar admissions scandal at the University of Illinois.  “The collapse of ethics in two major institutions – the Law School and the Legislature – will be felt for years to come.”

Jim Miller, a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, called Texas’ system “entirely inappropriate.” The Texas situation, he said, “erodes public confidence in a system that has incredible integrity, generally speaking. All it takes is a few of these situations to lead people to think that’s how it works.”

Some Powers partisans have been arguing just that: everybody does it.

“When I got your email, I was at a conference, and I grabbed five of my friends who’ve worked at flagship public schools,” Miller said. “And in all five of those cases, they said they had not had that experience where there was the sort of organized political pressure system.”

He’d never met anyone else in the business who had, either, Miller added.

The records analyzed by Watchdog show Powers rarely let his favorites be turned away.

Kroll examined the admissions trajectory of 2,085 applicants on hold from 2009 to 2014. Investigators tracked each case and each stage of the admissions review process. For our tally, we simply compared the first impression to the final decision.

Of those 2,085 applications, 834 were put in the “deny” pile and another 249 were cancelled without further processing. By the end of the process, only 84 of those applications were ultimately denied and just 33 remained cancelled.

Of the cancelled applications, 220 gained admission without going through the process.

The Kroll report makes no mention of how anybody got admitted without going through the applications process.

Kroll found 729 applicants initially deemed worthy and 271 who were to be offered one of UT’s conditional transfer programs by the admissions office. But by the end of the process, 1,492 of the applicants were admitted and 474 offered a transfer program.

“From what you’re telling me, it does also sound like the situation is more involved than it first looked, and that it at least rivals (if not exceeds) the situation in Illinois,”  David Hawkins, an NACAC official, told Watchdog.

At Illinois, the previous benchmark for admissions corruption, investigators found roughly five to six dozen applicants out of 800 names on a secret “clout list” over four years who probably wouldn’t have been admitted without their special treatment.

Wallace Hall wants the whole truth.

Wallace Hall wants the whole truth.

Louis Hirsh, the new chair of NACAC’s admissions practices committee, said that the two presidents of the University of Delaware under whom he served as director of admissions never overturned his decisions. But, “over the years, I have sensed that most admissions directors are under more pressure than I was to admit special interest cases.”

School presidents have practical reasons for not overturning admissions decisions, Hirsh said.

“In the long run, if you admit unqualified applicants because donors or politicians want them admitted, then you are going to have an even more unpleasant conversation with these powerful people when their kids flunk out or get into disciplinary problems (which is what weak students often do),” Hirsh wrote in an email to Watchdog.

“A second pragmatic reason is that you can never keep this practice under wraps forever, at least not if it is done on a wholesale basis. One way or another, word gets out. What institution wants the negative publicity that Texas and Illinois experienced?”

The Kroll investigation confirmed what had been common knowledge in the wealthy Dallas-area community of Highland Park, which includes UT Regent Wallace Hall and House Education Committee chair Dan Branch: students were getting into UT at extraordinary rates, despite bad grades.

UT admitted seven Highland Park students with grade point averages below 2.0 and SAT scores below 800.

Bill Shain, who now runs a college admissions consultancy, dealt with many “university interest” special cases during a career in admissions at small private universities, but rarely saw that sort of “disastrously unqualified” applicant admitted.

“I can think of three cases (at two schools where I worked) where the student could not possibly succeed, and none of the three did,” Shain said. “That was something I always opposed.”

The very worst of the students UT admitted, the investigation showed, were clustered in the districts of Branch, House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), and Sen. Kirk Watson, (D-Austin).

Straus has gone to even greater lengths than UT to cover up the abuses. He authorized a special committee operating behind the scenes in an effort to impeach Hall for asking too many questions about the admissions process.

A few days before that committee voted to “censure” Hall and refer the matter to Travis County prosecutors, Straus’ chief of staff reportedly offered to make the case “go away.”

After a Straus spokesman denied any involvement, then-Gov. Rick Perry and his chief of staff publicly contradicted the spokesman.

UT is trying to protect Highland Park and other communities with potential big dollar donors. In records provided to Watchdog, UT blacked out applicants’ names, as they should, but also their high schools. Plus it redacted GPAs, SAT and ACT scores, and even majors on the documents the school provided to Watchdog.

The university knows this information is not confidential once names have been redacted. It recently released hundreds of pages with those same categories unredacted in response to a public records request related to an affirmative action lawsuit.

There is more to be learned from the Kroll papers.

Many of the applications being held for Powers’ review were tagged with another unknown code that apparently specified what sort of special case they were.

The database also includes a column for the date of action taken on a hold, many of them in the fall and winter, calling into question Powers’ contention that “no spots at the university were saved for any of these students,” that they were all added after the class was otherwise set.

On the day the greatly truncated Kroll report was released, Powers held a press conference to proclaim it “a thorough and accurate and fair report.”

Like many, Rudolph Bush of the Dallas Morning News, found Powers’ conclusion “bizarre,” even “Orwellian.”

“I went very carefully through the Kroll report,” Bush wrote on Twitter. “It is not a ‘very good report’ for Bill Powers.” Bush had written a cutting article based on the Kroll report just that morning.

What Powers knew and Bush didn’t was just how much deeper Kroll could have cut.

The massive gulf between what Kroll discovered and what it reported helps to explain that press conference – and why Chancellor Bill McRaven has refused to let Hall see the unedited Kroll papers, in defiance of Attorney General Ken Paxton and in apparent violation of the law.

Kroll started off looking for the number Watchdog found at the request of then Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. By the time its investigation was over, Cigarroa had been replaced by Bill McRaven.

McRaven is responsible for Powers’ final group of special admissions into UT, the class coming this fall. Allowing Hall to look at the Kroll investigation papers wouldn’t have just reopened some “adjudicated” affair; it would prove that nothing has changed. UT’s leadership is still dirty and can’t be trusted to investigate itself.

“The message to young people is that cheaters win, ethics don’t matter, good guys finish last,” said Vander Weele, one of the Illinois investigators. “Long-term, of course, that’s not true. But a lot of damage can be done in the meantime.”

Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.

Part of 72 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
  33. Hutchison pulled strings for friends’ kids and grandkids at UT
  34. Ex-UT Law dean’s credit card bill: $400k in four years
  35. Abbott’s UT picks are pro-affirmative action
  36. Report: University of Texas showed favoritism to thousands
  37. Kroll ignored hundreds of weak UT applications
  38. Billionaire defends UT admissions privileges for ‘leaders’
  39. Weak admissions to University of Texas Law increased after Sager’s ouster
  40. Kroll report takes dig at Watchdog.org
  41. Hicks won’t stop UT’s backdoor admits
  42. Texas governor’s wife was on UT nominee’s payroll
  43. Bill to limit UT oversight clears committee
  44. UT regent blasts speaker for ‘abuse of office’
  45. Texas politician rebuts himself with apparently plagiarized letter
  46. Pay-to-play scandal involves UT dean, Texas Exes
  47. Supreme Court asked to look at UT’s backdoor admissions program
  48. Lawmakers want UT applications shielded from scrutiny
  49. McRaven makes UT scandal his own
  50. An open letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton on the UT cover-up
  51. Chancellor Bill McRaven’s UT cover-up has no defenders
  52. UT’s back door still open, but can’t stay secret, AG rules
  53. Whitewash: Kroll left dozens of bad LSATs out of UT report
  54. McRaven’s defense to Hall lawsuit refuted by own words
  55. Ready for the end of affirmative action?
  56. UT admissions scandal is 10 times bigger than official report
  57. McRaven trolls Dallas Morning News
  58. Powers to get top salary at UT Law
  59. UT sues to block Watchdog access to admissions investigation
  60. UT approves ‘Spinal Tap’ policy for backdoor admissions
  61. Admissions survey: No, UT, everybody doesn’t do it
  62. UT admissions scandal prompts new investigation
  63. Ticket scandal a black mark for UT, DA
  64. Showdown over UT cover-up nears end
  65. McRaven’s rationale for UT cover-up denounced by regents, AG
  66. High court to decide if University of Texas can deep-six investigation
  67. High court hears arguments on whether UT can bury investigation
  68. Testimony by UT contradicts story fed high court
  69. These ‘horns ain’t loyal, McRaven finds
  70. UT’s Hall challenges Abbott over board picks
  71. Texas Supreme Court nullifies rule of law; impunity to reign
  72. The battle for the Kroll records goes on

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Jon Cassidy was a former Houston-based reporter for Watchdog.org.