Admitting Privileges is a three-part series on the debate over lawmakers and the University of Texas at Austin's admissions process. Our coverage also includes a timeline on the tensions in the UT system. You can read more higher education coverage here or subscribe to our education newsletter here.
Part 1 of a three-part series on the debate over lawmakers and UT-Austin's admissions process
When they have a point to make, Texas politicians can be a letter-writing bunch. They write letters to fellow legislators about other legislators, letters to other political candidates about campaign rhetoric and letters to President Obama about federal regulations.
Some letters written by legislators recommending prospective college students have gotten more attention in recent months. Lawmakers have endorsed would-be University of Texas at Austin students who possess “a unique combination of self-confidence, intelligence, leadership, and a fundamental decency,” are “accomplished more than any parent or adult could ask of a young person” and have “scored well in piano competitions.” In some cases, the writer was barely acquainted with the applicant. In others, the legislator was familiar enough to speak in detail about the student’s work. And in rare instances, the two were related.
Legislators from both parties have sent these letters directly to UT-Austin President Bill Powers. In return, they received a form letter from Powers thanking them for reaching out and, in a number of cases, for “everything you have done — and continue to do — for higher education in Texas.”
Prompted by a University of Texas System regent’s allegations that lawmakers have undue influence on the admissions process, the University of Texas System reviewed nearly 80 recommendation letters written by lawmakers from 2009 through 2013 that were submitted outside the prescribed admissions process. They found that the letters paid off for many of the applicants. Of 16 who were seeking admittance to UT-Austin’s law school, eight were accepted. For 63 UT-Austin undergraduate applicants examined during the review, 37 won admission for an acceptance rate that exceeded 58 percent, compared with a 23 percent rate among the larger group of comparable applicants.
The issue of legislator recommendations draws polarizing responses in the Capitol community. Some, like state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, a candidate for lieutenant governor, view it as “a potential huge scandal in the making,” while others, like state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, have said insinuations that the letters indicate anything inappropriate are “ridiculous."
In an interview, Powers emphasized that the system had looked at the issue “thoroughly” and found “no wrongdoing.” But the matter is far from settled. Last week, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced the system would dive deeper and commission a full external investigation. In an interview, he also said that several policy changes would be recommended at the board’s July meeting to ensure that best practices in admissions are followed.
Whether you think these actions are linked by correlation or causation, how you read the review’s preliminary findings, how you react to Cigarroa’s announcement — all are probably strong indicators of your take on embattled UT Regent Wallace Hall, the subject of an already yearlong legislative investigation following accusations that he abused his authority with his inquiry into UT-Austin admissions. A committee looking into his behavior recently determined that grounds for impeachment do exist. Hall has said his actions have been consistent with oversight responsibilities of his post. He declined a request to comment for this article.
Through his lawyers, Hall has leveled several accusations of potential misconduct against the administration of the system’s flagship. But his allegations of “secret favoritism” in UT-Austin admissions for those with political connections have gotten the most traction.
In a recent letter to supporters of a conservative advocacy organization he spearheads, Michael Quinn Sullivan wrote that other questions raised by Hall — including how faculty at UT-Austin’s law school have been compensated, how in-kind gifts were counted in a capital campaign and how certain contracts were awarded — “may well pale in comparison to what appears to be a culture of ‘clout abuse’ between lawmakers and officials in state universities.”
The issue hasn’t just drawn scrutiny at UT. At the University of Illinois, in 2009, a Chicago Tribune investigation found many cases in which subpar but politically connected applicants were being admitted via a special process. Over a five-year span, it found that roughly 800 applicants with political connections were placed in a special category for consideration, and that the acceptance rate of such students was about 8 points higher than the general acceptance rate. The school also reversed some admissions decisions at the request of elected officials.
In that case, the president, chancellor and most of the board of regents ultimately resigned.
The recent UT System review of the flagship’s admissions was launched because, in the course of personally investigating other matters at UT-Austin, Hall came across two emails. One featured a system official following up on the status of the application of Waxahachie state Rep. Jim Pitts' son, who sought — and ultimately received — acceptance to the law school. Another was from Zaffirini, who was checking up on how another senator might help an applicant.
In the sample UT System officials looked at, they found much more than an 8-point acceptance rate gap between applicants who had recommendation letters from lawmakers and those who did not. However, unlike at Illinois, the UT System’s preliminary inquiry “did not uncover any evidence of a systematic, structured or centralized process of reviewing and admitting applicants recommended by influential individuals,” according to the authors of the report.
“Nor did this limited inquiry reveal any evidence of a quid pro quo for admissions decisions, or other wrongdoing,” Dan Sharphorn, now the system’s vice chancellor and general counsel, and Wanda Mercer, the system’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs, wrote in the review. (Sharphorn served in an interim capacity at the time of the review.)
The review’s usefulness for yielding conclusions is hindered by the narrowness of its scope. Only 63 undergraduate applications were part of the study, which represents about 0.056 percent of the total number of applicants in that timeframe. The 37 students who were admitted make up only 0.033 percent of the applicant pool.
Put another way: The 33 undergraduate students in the sample who actually enrolled over that five-year period represent fewer than seven students per year in classes that average more than 7,400.
“I don’t think you can take those 63 letters and make much of a case,” state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, said after reviewing them.
Simpson is among the most prominent defenders of Hall and critics of the impeachment proceedings in the Legislature. He also was among the dozens of lawmakers who wrote recommendation letters that were part of the system’s review.
His letter was written toward the end 2011, Simpson’s first year in the Legislature. He described the applicant as “a wonderful, well-rounded person from a great family with Texas Longhorn tradition through and through.”
“I remember I was a little reluctant because I didn’t know them that well,” Simpson said this month. “I don’t even remember who it was or whether they got in.”
He said he did not know where to send the letter and left it up to his staff. He said his office would handle it differently today; the last time he was asked to write a letter, he added, he declined.
“There’s a place for references,” Simpson said. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But there’s not a place for granting someone admission that’s not qualified, and there’s a quid pro quo system where you vote for my appropriation or my bill and I’ll help your constituent. That’s not right."
Simpson said he supports Hall’s line of inquiry. “The biggest issue to me is, we need to ask more questions, not less,” he said.
Critics of UT-Austin have been more interested in the multiple letters sent by lawmakers like Pitts, who filed a resolution calling for Hall’s impeachment last year, and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who appointed the legislative committee that is investigating Hall. In the files included in the system’s initial review, Straus and Pitts were among the most prolific letter writers, with more than five examples each. Conservative media outlets that have called Hall the subject of a “witch hunt” — echoing language used by Pitts to describe Hall’s focus on Powers — have speculated that the legislative committee was an attempt to push back on the regent’s initial forays into admissions examinations.
In an email, Pitts, who has admitted writing a letter of recommendation for his son, contended that it was the other way around. “In fact, I believe investigation on my son's admissions was started as a retaliation of my filing impeachment,” he wrote.
Straus said for his part, he hasn’t “paid much attention to what Mr. Hall has said or wants.”
On one of the recommendation letters Straus wrote on behalf of a constituent and sent to the university president, the speaker included a handwritten note reminding Powers that he did not expect the applicant — or any other — to get special treatment.
“Bill,” the March 2011 note from Straus began. “This letter is a courtesy for a friend. I never expect UT to alter its policies for political reasons.”
In a recent interview, the speaker reiterated that point. “I expect no change in admission policy. It’s a courtesy to constituents, a courtesy to people,” he said. “I know that the letters I wrote and write on behalf of children attempting to gain admittance, I’m very comfortable with. Others in public office can write letters, pick up a phone and call people if they want to. But I know what I will do and what I won’t do, and I’m very comfortable with my own actions.”
The system’s admissions review really began with 16 legislative letters written on behalf of applicants to UT-Austin’s law school, which is considered the most prestigious — and most difficult to gain admittance to — in the state.
Of the 16 applicants reviewed — which Sharphorn and Mercer called “much too small a sample to reach any firm conclusions” — eight got in. That 50 percent admission rate for the sample pool is significantly higher than the roughly 22.5 percent admissions rate overall. Of those admitted, four of the applicants had grade-point averages and LSAT scores significantly below the 25th percentile of admitted law school applicants. None of them were the lowest admitted in their class.
In the undergraduate sample, the group with lawmaker letters actually had a slightly higher GPA than the average applicant.
UT-Austin has been accused in some media reports of admitting a student with an LSAT score of 128 — a total that would indicate that the test-taker got fewer than a quarter of the questions correct. Administrators deny the allegation.
“We can find no record of UT Law admitting a student based on an LSAT score of 128,” UT-Austin spokesman Gary Susswein said in an email. “There was one student admitted more than a decade ago who had taken the LSAT three times and received a high score of 145 and a low of 128. Our policy has long been to look at the best score in the admissions process.”
But even a 145 is low for UT-Austin’s law school, where the median score is a 166. The scores achieved by the four applicants in question “would not lead to admission absent other significant factors that would have been considered in the school’s holistic admission review process, including, presumably, the legislator letters of recommendation,” Sharphorn and Mercer wrote in their review.
The system’s report was released on the heels of a particularly dismal showing by UT-Austin graduates taking the state bar exam in February. Among the 17 first-time takers, only 10 passed. That 59 percent pass rate among first-timers was the lowest of the state’s nine law schools. Among the 14 second-time takers at the same sitting, 64 percent passed — the state’s fourth highest.
In an interview in his office, Powers said he was not worried about the law school’s overall numbers.
“That was the February bar with a very small number of people taking it, so a couple one way or another can make a big difference,” he said. “Law students graduate almost exclusively in May. And the three-year graduation rate in the law school is very high. When the bar comes up in July or August, we have a very high pass rate."
Powers on legislative letters
Powers said that when his office receives a recommendation from a lawmaker, it is forwarded along to the admissions office.
“I then do not follow up on it,” he said, though he acknowledged that his office might arrange a tour for a student coming to campus if requested. His office also sends a thank-you note to the letter’s author.
Powers said the letters are generally a worthwhile contribution. “The letters are part of our holistic admissions process,” he said. “They are usually written by people with favorable things to say about the candidate. And they can be helpful at times. Who writes a letter is part of evaluating the impact of the letter. This is true across the country.”
They are also not uncommon. David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said admissions officers at many institutions are “often approached by all manner of leaders, stakeholders and folks who potentially have a lever to pull in higher education.”
This reality causes some to shrug their shoulders at the findings. “Stumbling across something that everyone knew was there isn’t a discovery of much note,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “Universities do work their admissions systems for all kinds of reasons, including political reasons.”
Hawkins said designing a foolproof system might not be possible, and most schools operate somewhere along a spectrum of acceptability.
“As objectively as I can, looking at the Texas situation, it definitely falls short of the Illinois situation. That’s one extreme where you do not want to be,” Hawkins said. “The other extreme is that the process is completely transparent and everyone has an equal chance of getting in. It’s hard to point to a situation or an institution or a set of policies that can ensure that.”
He also noted that admissions officers at public universities are under pressure from administrators who are in turn under pressure from lawmakers, regents and donors. But even if a letter is just being forwarded, he said, “the reality is that any communication that comes from the office of the president of the college, a trustee or a legislator is going to carry some weight as it enters the admissions office.”
Proposed system changes
Cigarroa said changes are on the way at the UT System to try to prevent even the appearance of possible influence, starting with the proposal of new policies at the July board meeting.
“The first issue is, we’ve got to educate the system and the public about how this needs to be done,” said Cigarroa, who in February announced his intention to step down as soon as a replacement can be found. “So the best practices are going to be predominantly focused on education. The second thing is to really put a firewall around the admissions committees such that only letters that go through the formal process into the admissions committee will be considered in a holistic review.”
He also said that going forward, it will be important to make sure admissions committees at the law school are big enough so that no one individual can be influenced and sway the decision.
The authors of the initial system review felt that “little would be gained” by conducting a full investigation. “The existence of an impact is reasonably clear,” they wrote, “and, in any event, the appearance of an undue impact is more than enough to justify the recommended process of review and change.”
Cigarroa had initially followed this reasoning, calling for a system-wide review of admissions at all UT institutions.
That announcement was welcomed by Powers, who said UT-Austin is "constantly reviewing all kinds of processes we have.”
But it did not satisfy Hall, who continued to push for answers on how admissions were being run at the university.
Last week, in an abrupt change of course, Cigarroa decided UT-Austin admissions were indeed in need of further scrutiny. He announced his intention to commission a full external investigation at the flagship. In an interview, he said he was not influenced by the regent but by “ongoing questions” that could not be answered with the limited information in the initial review.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.