The University of Texas Board of Regents voted Thursday to replace an admissions policy that evaluated applicants on their merits with one allowing university presidents and deans to ignore those standards when they think the school will get something out of it.
The new policy purports to allow Chancellor Bill McRaven to keep secret the identities of any backdoor applicants from the board, although McRaven has already been advised by Attorney General Ken Paxton it’s illegal to withhold records from regents.
The new policy comes after findings that former President Bill Powers admitted roughly “1,000 unqualified or marginally qualified students over the previous 10 years” over the objections of the admissions office, as Regent Alex Cranberg put it Thursday.
It’s clear, Cranberg said, the “use of patronage (in admissions) has insulated the president from normal oversight.” He objected that the new policy could still be interpreted to allow ongoing political patronage.
Rather than put an end to the rule-breaking and secrecy, officials have chosen to change the rules and authorize additional secrecy. McRaven’s preference for secrecy, regardless of whether it’s legal, has gotten the university system caught up in four lawsuits this summer.
The new policy requires the president of each university to report to the chancellor once a year on cases in which he’s let applicants in through the back door.
It’s not clear whether that report will be written; an earlier proposal called for an oral report. In any case, McRaven said Thursday he won’t tell the regents more than the number of cases, unless he determines the new policy has been broken.
The elastic new admissions policy has no obvious breaking point. The special cases are supposed to be “very rare” and only when the favor is of “the highest institutional importance,” according to a presentation by new Deputy Chancellor David Daniel.
But there are no actual limits. Indeed, Powers’ loyalists have been insisting for the past year that his own rampant abuses were rare and always in the best interests of the institution.
Cranberg pointed out that Powers failed to disclose his intervention in admissions to the chancellor, the general counsel, or the Supreme Court, yet the new policy depends on a president self-reporting his interventions.
“How can we have accountability when the board is excluded from accountability,” Regent Wallace Hall asked.
McRaven insisted Thursday that no deserving students would be displaced, but Hall ridiculed the assertion. For years, the university’s official policy, the one it’s sworn to the Supreme Court about, has included a clear cutoff line for all applicants, Hall said.
Known as a stair-step cutoff for the shape it makes on graph paper, the line establishes an unmistakable demarcation: above, you’re in; below, you’re out.
So when Daniel said that any new special admissions would still be “qualified” for admission, he could only have meant it in the meaningless sense, as special cases could only be applicants who fell below the cut-off.
To understand McRaven’s position that nobody is displaced by special favors, think of the classic scene from Spinal Tap, in which the guitarist insists his amps “go to 11.” The regular admissions class gets the dial to 10. If UT needs room for a few more, it just turns the dial up to 11.
One strange feature of the policy, which fits with a number of curious legal positions UT has taken recently, is that records a president keeps on special admissions won’t be considered part of a student’s file.
McRaven clearly means to keep those records even from the board, much less the public, but this policy could end up exposing them to scrutiny, thanks to the vagaries of the federal education law known as FERPA.
Universities across the country treat FERPA as a magic eraser, allowing redaction of everything that might mention a student, which at a university is almost everything. But when the issue is actually litigated, the courts tend to favor a common sense definition of “education record.”
The Supreme Court has already ruled “education records” in this context mean “an institutional or official record of a student,” such as the sort kept by a registrar.
If UT wants to insist that these records aren’t part of a student’s file, a court might well open them to the public somewhere down the line.
Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.
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