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Letters Routed Through UT Chancellor's Office Released

In response to an open records request, the University of Texas at Austin on Thursday released dozens of recommendation letters written by lawmakers and other individuals that were initially sent to University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa at the House Select Committee hearing on Dec. 18, 2013

In response to an open records request, the University of Texas at Austin on Thursday released dozens of recommendation letters written by lawmakers and other individuals that were initially sent to University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

The transmission of such letters is currently a bit of a touchy subject in the UT community. Communications between lawmakers and UT-Austin President Bill Powers have drawn particular scrutiny from system officials, and allegations of political influence in the university's admissions process are currently under investigation.

After UT System Regent Wallace Hall found two instances of lawmakers contacting Powers directly about the admissions issue, the system launched a limited review of the admissions process at the flagship university earlier this year. The subsequent report found no evidence of quid pro quo but determined that individuals on whose behalf legislators contacted the president appeared more likely to gain admittance.

The authors of the report — Dan Sharphorn, the system's vice chancellor and general counsel, and Wanda Mercer, the associate vice chancellor for student affairs — concluded, "The problem is that submitting such letters to the president, instead of or even in addition to submitting them through the prescribed processes, creates the appearance of an admissions process that gives undue and unfair opportunities to those with connections to state legislators."

But the system appears to have been complicit in creating that appearance.

It's apparent from the documents released on Thursday that Cigarroa would often receive recommendations or admission inquiries from lawmakers and other influential individuals. He would usually forward the materials to Powers and send a thank-you note to the original writer assuring him or her that the applicant would receive "careful consideration." He would occasionally note to his assistant if the writer was a "strong UT supporter" or otherwise notable.

In one instance, Cigarroa wrote a note to Powers notifying the president of an out-of-state-applicant who desired to follow his brother and attend UT-Austin. "Please share his letter with the appropriate university officials, so that [redacted] application materials will receive careful consideration as they continue through the admissions decision-making process," Cigarroa wrote to Powers.

In at least one instance, the chancellor's responses to lawmakers also dipped into policy issues. In a letter to state Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, responding to his recommendation of a "good friend and constituent," Cigarroa thanked the legislator for the note and for his comments "in connection with the allocation of resources to the sciences and engineering and enduring that we educate our Texas citizens." The chancellor noted that these were also high priorities for him.

But in an interview on Thursday, Cigarroa said the system had never tried to hide its participation in admissions processes that have since been deemed questionable. 

He pointed to the fact that the report from Sharphorn and Mercer acknowledged that "such recommendations have been submitted by a host of respected people from all political parties and all levels of government, from donors and alumni, from judges, from members of the Board of Regents, and from other university officials. And they have been submitted for decades, to many different presidents."

"We've always been upfront about that," Cigarroa said, adding that his office "never put any pressure to admit a student."

He also noted that, after reviewing best practices, he had put a stop to it.  

"I just don't think it was a best practice," he said. "In the environment we're in, we ought to enact best practices."

On Aug. 7, the chancellor issued a systemwide memo noting that "no System Administration employee may purposefully interact with any of our campuses to inquire about the status of a student applicant or to make verbal recommendations related to such students."

He also instructed anyone who received a letter of recommendation to "please reply to the sender that all letters of recommendations should be submitted through the established campus process."

Following the release of the report from Sharphorn and Mercer, Cigarroa received additional information, the details of which he has not disclosed, that prompted him to call for an external investigation of how admissions are decisions are handled by university officials.

"To me, what is concerning is not who writes letters," Cigarroa said on Thursday. "What concerns me is whether or not students are being admitted to any institution without merit. Is the integrity of the admissions office intact?"

Kroll Associates, a private New York-based investigation firm, has been hired to conduct the investigation, which is currently underway. The system has agreed to pay Kroll up to $145,000 for the service.

Cigarroa declined to speculate if system officials might be implicated in the investigation. Rather, he offered an alternative outcome.

"You would hope the admissions process is intact and students would not be admitted without merit no matter who wrote a letter," he said.

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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