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Letter Details Scope of UT Admissions Investigation

An investigation of admissions practices at the University of Texas at Austin will begin no earlier than Thursday, according to a letter sent to the Legislative Budget Board.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa greets guest at his resignation press conference on Feb. 10, 2014.

An investigation that seeks to determine whether University of Texas Austin officials' handling of recommendations and admissions decisions is "beyond reproach" will begin no earlier than Thursday.

A letter sent last Thursday from Barry McBee, the UT System's vice chancellor and chief governmental relations officer, to the director of the Legislative Budget Board detailed the scope of the external investigation, which UT System Francisco Cigarroa has commissioned. It included a description of the planned investigation that was prepared by the system's office of general counsel.

"Specifically," it said, "the investigation should determine if UT-Austin admissions decisions are made for any reason other than an applicant's individual merit as measured by academic achievement and established personal holistic attributes, and if not, why not."

On Monday, a system spokeswoman said an outside investigator has yet to be named.

Because of provisions included in the budget during the 2013 legislative session that sought to curb investigations conducted by members of the university system's board of regents, the system is required to provide at least one week's notice to the LBB on the cause and scope of any investigation into an individual university.

System officials previously conducted a limited inquiry of the flagship university's admissions practices following allegations from Regent Wallace Hall that they allowed for undue influence from state lawmakers. The inquiry found that recommendation letters have been sent by a variety of influential individuals directly to presidents of the university for decades. It did not turn up any evidence of quid pro quo arrangements or evidence of overt pressure on admissions staff. While it recommended a systemwide review of best practices in admissions, no further investigation was deemed necessary.

In June, a decision was made to reverse course and launch a full investigation. According to the letter, this occurred because the chancellor and system general counsel "were provided new information about how admissions recommendations by UT Austin have been handled administratively." No further details were provided on the nature or source of the new information.

At a board of regents meeting Thursday, Cigarroa said that this information and the subsequent investigation were not factors in his recent decision to ask UT-Austin President Bill Powers to resign. Last week, Powers submitted a letter of resignation effective June 2, 2015, which Cigarroa accepted.

According to the letter to the LBB, the external investigation will not include any further analysis of admissions data beyond what was in the initial review. Because the intended focus of the investigation is on how UT officials reach certain decisions and not on individuals outside the university who write letters of recommendation, the investigation is not expected to include any further collection or reporting of such letters.

"If something about a particular recommendation is brought to light that raises serious concern beyond the mere fact that a recommendation has been conveyed, such as evidence of a quid pro quo or a threat from a recommender, it should be noted," the letter stated.

If the behavior of an individual outside of UT raises concerns, "that information will be gathered and reported by identifying the generic title of the individual. Should there be an inquiry about such conduct from an external agency that has authority over the individual, UT will cooperate fully," the letter added

The letter also notes that, if it becomes necessary to review protected student records, access will only be granted in the presence of university officials, and no identifiable information will be recorded or removed from system offices.

Interviews will be conducted with officials and staff from the university, the system and the board of regents. "Efforts will be made to protect the anonymity of current and former staff interviewees," it is noted, "but anonymity cannot be guaranteed."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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