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.”