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Panel Defends Powers' Role in Admissions but Recommends Changes

A panel of former chancellors and university presidents defended the University of Texas at Austin president’s role in admissions Thursday, but warned that students’ connections shouldn’t be a factor in whether they are admitted.

UT President Bill Powers speaks during a UT Board of Regents meeting on July 10, 2014.

A panel of former chancellors and university presidents defended the University of Texas at Austin president’s role in admissions Thursday. But they suggested changing some of the methods current president Bill Powers has used — and warned that students’ connections shouldn’t be a factor in whether they are admitted to college.

“Decisions to override the outcome of the regular admissions process should be taken judiciously and rarely,” said former UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner, the panel’s chairman. 

The panel made its recommendations at Thursday’s meeting of the UT System Board of Regents. The five members – all of whom previously served as a UT-Austin president or UT System chancellor — were convened in February after an outside investigation found that dozens of students with connections got into UT-Austin when they didn’t appear to be qualified. Seventy-three undergraduates were admitted with a combined SAT score of less than 1100 and a high school GPA of less than 2.9, the report said.

Powers’ office was involved in getting some of those students into school, at times over the objections of admissions staff, according to the report written by Kroll Associates.

The panel didn’t weigh in on whether Powers’ actions were inappropriate; members said they were commissioned to make recommendations on the future, not judgments on the past. But they did recommend that the university discontinue the practice Powers’ office used to track students with connections when they applied.

That process allowed Powers’ office to tag particular students whose applications the president had particular interest in. Admissions workers weren’t supposed to make a final decision about those students without consulting with the president’s office.

“We think that having any tagging inside the process of admissions is inimical to the integrity of the process and to the public perception of it,” Faulkner said. 

Powers has defended his actions described in the Kroll report. In an interview with The Texas Tribune last month, he said that it’s vitally important for the president to be involved with admissions, and that a school needs to maintain strong relationships with its donors and influential Texans. 

On Thursday, Powers said he thought the recommendations mostly reflected what is already happening on campus, aside from a few small changes. He said cases where he has intervened in admissions are very rare. He said he hadn't read the full report, but agreed with how it was described at the meeting.

"I think it was an excellent report," he said.

Faulkner said he agreed that relationships are important, but balked at the idea that those relationships should affect admissions decisions.

“They need to feel that their student is being treated fairly,” Faulkner said.

But the panel said that the input of powerful or prominent people shouldn’t be completely ignored in admissions. A letter of recommendation should be included in the student’s file. And that recommendation should be considered part of the “holistic” admissions process.

For instance, members raised a hypothetical example of a student whom the governor meets while on a trip to West Texas. If the governor is impressed with the student and feels that he or she “has fabulous, interesting things in their life that don’t show up on their resume,” that should be taken into account, members said. 

The key is to avoid the existence or appearance of any quid pro quo between the school and a powerful person making a recommendation. Those instances are rare, the panel said. 

“Many such cases are not egregious and can be disarmed by the president,” Faulkner said. “Others become moot because of the applicant’s own success in the process. It is the president’s job to protect the admissions staff from coercion.”

Regents thanked the panel for its input, but didn’t take immediate action. Chancellor Bill McRaven said he plans to review the report and offer a response soon.

“At the end of the day, we want to be a national leader in this arena and we want to have best practices," he said. "I believe the process we are going through is going to get us there.”

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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