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Analysis: Shooting the Messenger While Stumbling on His Message

Admissions at the University of Texas at Austin are doled out according to qualifications almost all of the time. But that "almost" hides a problem originally pointed out by a nettlesome regent: Sometimes, the bigwigs tilt the scales.

University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall talks with colleague Gene Powell during a break at a regents' meeting  on May 14, 2014.

There are two responses to a pain in the neck: Complain about it, or investigate the discomfort.

In the case of Wallace Hall, a University of Texas System regent who has been raising hell about admissions at UT’s flagship campus, it appears the underlying problems might be worth more attention than UT’s irritation about his efforts to bring them to the surface.

Hall has raised questions, out loud and through an exhausting series of information requests, about the influence of rich and/or powerful people over the admissions process at UT-Austin.

UT officials have squealed about his inquiries privately and publicly. The Texas House initiated impeachment proceedings to remove him from office. Then-Gov. Rick Perry stuck with his appointee. Travis County prosecutors and a grand jury have looked at some of his actions without making any official moves. His has become a cause célèbre for those who would like to take “The University” down a notch — and for Longhorn Nation, the informal but potent population of defenders of the school, who want to keep its reputation right where it is. And the fight has become a proxy for another, bigger battle that pits the ideals of a classical education against the desire to train a highly educated and skilled workforce for the information age.

One might say it’s become a little overblown.

Kroll, a firm hired to investigate the admissions allegations, found some cases where high officials put their thumbs on the scale on behalf of applicants who might not otherwise have been admitted. It didn’t happen much, but it happened some. And for UT’s defenders, “some” is hard to swallow.

It means Hall was right when he maintained that the admissions process was not blind to pleas and pressure and recommendations from people with clout.

“In recent years, President [William] Powers, acting through his Chief of Staff, has at times made holistic determinations that differed from that of the Admissions Office. Consequently, it appears that a select handful of applicants each year are admitted over the objection of the Admissions Office,” the Kroll report said.

“The total number of arguably less-qualified applicants who have benefitted from the hold system and the President’s oversight of the hold candidates appears to be relatively small,” the report said.

It said 73 enrolled applicants were admitted with both a combined SAT score of less than 1100 and a high school GPA of less than 2.9 during the years between 2009 and 2014.

“Kroll’s review of the available ‘outlier’ files found that political connections may have influenced the admission decision in a small number of cases, while other cases suggested the possibility of alumni/legacy 
influence despite the prohibition under Texas law against legacy admissions. Several other cases, however, suggested a demonstrated commitment to ethnic and racial diversity and the consideration of other appropriate criteria.”

That offers some defense for the folks who work in the UT Tower. They get hundreds of requests for admissions consideration from legislators and others every year, according to the report. Up to 300 per year are put on a “hold list” for the president’s office to monitor. Even so, only about a dozen kids per year were admitted over the recommendations of the admissions office.

Vindication for UT, if you want to read it that way: Top-level interference in admissions is relatively rare.

Vindication for Hall, read another way: He was on to something.

It’s not as dirty as Hall said it was, but it’s not squeaky clean, either.

In lawyerly language, the report singled out Powers and his chief of staff, Nancy Brazzil, for revealing less than the whole truth during an earlier internal inquiry done by the UT System. “Although President Powers and his Chief of Staff appear to have answered the specific questions asked of them with technical precision, it appears that by their material omissions they misled the inquiry,” the report said. “At minimum, each failed to speak with the candor and forthrightness expected of people in their respective positions of trust and leadership.”

While Powers was getting burned, the regents themselves were getting singed. “Several other important constituents are at least partially complicit for this ad-hoc system of special admissions. For example, the Board of Regents sends approximately 50 to 70 names of applicants to the President’s Office each year,” the report said. Other requests for admissions consideration came from the chancellor and other officials at the UT System, donors and alumni. Those requests, the report said, account for the majority of names on various “hold” lists watched by school officials.

Most of the candidates nixed by the admissions people do not get to go to the University of Texas. But some of them do.

Just as Hall said.

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

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