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UT approves ‘Spinal Tap’ policy for backdoor admissions

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Part 60 of 72 in the series Trouble in Texas
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Chancellor Bill McRaven has gotten UT mixed up in four lawsuits over his attempts to sweep admissions corruption under the rug.

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.

Unlike UT's admissions class, most amps just go to 10.

Unlike UT’s admissions class, most amps just go to 10.

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.

RELATED: Need to cover up a scandal? Just say 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.

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.