In the last week, thousands of students throughout the state have received word of their acceptance — or lack thereof — into the University of Texas at Austin, historically the state’s most prestigious public university. State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, has already received at least five calls from constituents seeking his assistance because they did not make the cut.
He plans to write letters on their behalf with the hope that some might still be admitted. “I think that’s my job,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “Just like when I have constituents call me about mental health services or anything else, when they call about education, I want to help them.”
But the role of legislators in the admissions process at UT-Austin has been publicly questioned, and is under particular scrutiny this season. The University of Texas System has been conducting an inquiry that could prompt an investigation into whether lawmakers have undue influence in admissions decisions at the university. According to a document obtained this week by The Texas Tribune, Eltife may be among the lawmakers getting a particularly close look.
The system's inquiry was largely sparked by allegations that rose out of legislative hearings regarding the conduct of UT System Regent Wallace Hall. The House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations has been looking into Hall’s controversial investigations of the UT-Austin administration — some lawmakers have deemed it a "witch hunt" — and has even dangled the possibility of recommending his impeachment.
In August, to explain why Hall had been digging into the flagship university, his lawyers penned a letter to the committee co-chairs explaining his motivation. Among his concerns, they listed “secret favoritism in admissions to the university."
“It is fully appropriate for members of the Legislature to write recommendations for candidates seeking admission to UT-Austin or other parts of the UT System,” Hall’s lawyers wrote. “However, it is inappropriate for legislators or powerful persons to act outside the normal admissions process through direct intercession with senior university officials. This can be an abusive and unfair practice, and one that is plainly unfair to all Texans.”
The letter went on to cite two examples. One was correspondence uncovered by Hall in which a state representative wrote a letter seeking to help their child gain admission to a graduate school at the university. State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has been a vocal proponent of Hall’s impeachment, subsequently told the Tribune that he had written such a letter on behalf of his son, who went on to attend the University of Texas School of Law.
In June, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry speculated that lawmakers' desire to oust Hall “could be motivated by attempts to conceal emails that include information about members of the Legislature requesting admission to the UT law school on behalf of others.”
The second example cited in the letter from Hall’s lawyer, not necessarily tied to the law school, was “correspondence in which a senator sought special consideration for an applicant who had been rejected, but was strongly supported by another senator. In the communication, the senator seeking special treatment reminded the UT-Austin official of recent legislative action taken to benefit the university.”
The Tribune has obtained a copy of an email — one that the university previously withheld in response to an open records request — that appears to match that description.
Shortly after 5 a.m. on March 1, 2013, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the former chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, wrote to UT-Austin President Bill Powers asking him to stop by her office before 10 a.m. that day.
“I’m sure you know by now that our working group unanimously agreed to fund UT’s full [tuition revenue bond] request, since it was highly leveraged,” she wrote. “The next step will be to secure the Finance Committee’s support for our proposal. It’s likely that the lieutenant governor and other senators will amend our list of recommendations (preferably by adding and not cutting!).”
“On another subject,” she continued, “Senator Eltife asked me yesterday what was the appropriate way to recommend [name redacted] for co-enrollment at UT. [Name redacted] is a family friend of his who wasn’t admitted, but hopes to be admitted by way of co-enrollment. (I sent the information to you earlier.) Is this the best alternative, or are there others?”
Hall declined to comment for this story. But those involved in the email exchange said it did not constitute evidence of undue influence.
“If this is what they’re citing,” Zaffirini said in an interview, “it’s ridiculous.”
On the same morning that email was sent, UT-Austin announced a new co-enrollment program with Austin Community College allowing students to earn associate’s degrees from the community college and have guaranteed admission to the university to finish their bachelor’s degrees.
“There was some confusion about how the application process would work for a brand new program,” UT-Austin spokesman Gary Susswein wrote in an email to the Tribune on Wednesday. When asked how Powers generally handled such requests, Susswein said, “President Powers would typically respond to such queries with information about how the application process works — that admissions occur through UT, not ACC, and that any recommendations should be sent to UT."
According to the letter from Hall’s lawyers, the student was ultimately admitted. Susswein was unable to comment on whether that was the case.
“I don’t even know the student, so it’s not as if it was someone I was promoting,” Zaffirini said. “I was just asking for information, not even asking for action.”
Eltife said in the interview that he approached Zaffirini for guidance because of her knowledge of higher education. She said she could not answer his question, and decided on her own to ask Powers. Both senators noted that Zaffirini's email specifically asked about the "appropriate way" to recommend someone.
Zaffirini added that her questions about admissions in the email were unrelated to her comments about the tuition revenue bonds, which would have provided funding for a new engineering building at the university. Ultimately, a statewide tuition revenue bond package failed at the end of the 2013 legislative session.
Eltife said that before he writes a letter on behalf of students who are appealing an admissions decision, he reviews their transcript to see if they are on the bubble and worthy of bringing to the university's attention. He speculated that most students he writes letters for — many of whom he said he does not know — still don't end up getting in.
“I’m not looking for special treatment,” he said, noting that the decision is ultimately up to the university.
He also said that most students he has assisted over the years have not been involved in his campaigns in “any way shape or form.”
“This is not about me doing favors or paybacks for friends,” he said. “Any student that calls my office, I help. That help may come in the form of trying to help them get into another institution or a community college. But it doesn’t matter who they are. If they want to further their education, and they call my office, they are going to get my help.”
The system’s take on the matter could come soon. In early February, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told lawmakers that the inquiry into legislative influence in admissions at the university was “nearing completion.” Meanwhile, the transparency committee is awaiting a final report from its special counsel with its findings regarding Hall.