Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
The University of Texas System Board of Regents approved a new admissions policy Thursday that aims to severely limit – but not completely eliminate – the power of its school presidents to admit a student because he or she has powerful connections.
Under the policy, inappropriate outside attempts to get students into the school would be ignored, and letters of recommendation would be considered under strict guidelines.
But in “very rare circumstances,” a university president could step in and get a student into school. That would only apply to students who meet the school's qualifications but might not get in. And the president would have to believe that these students' acceptance is of the “highest institutional importance.”
"The process is designed so that no shadow system of admissions can exist," said Deputy Chancellor David E. Daniel, who oversaw the writing of they policy.
The board's decision follows months of debate and legal fights about admissions at the system's flagship, UT-Austin. System leaders have ordered multiple investigations into the process of deciding who gets into school, and critics have accused former university president Bill Powers of running a "back-door" system to help those with powerful connections.
One such inquiry, conducted by the investigative firm Kroll Associates, found Powers and other officials placed hundreds of "holds" on particular students' applications, allowing him to track their progress and possibly help them get into school. The firm's report identified 73 students with powerful connections who got into UT-Austin over a five-year span, despite GPAs below 2.9 and combined SAT scores of less than 1100.
Many of those students received letters of recommendation from powerful lawmakers or alumni, including professional athletes, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and multiple state legislators. It's unclear if or how those letters helped those students get into school.
Under the policy approved Thursday, an applicant's file could only be flagged for an administrative reason — not to give a student an advantage in any way. And letters of recommendation that don't provide substantive information about a student would not be considered.
"If it says I know so-and-so is a wonderful kid and from a wonderful family, that is not substantive," Daniel said.
But the new policy allows a school president “on very rare occasion” to admit a student who might not otherwise get in. The policy, which applies to all eight system schools, doesn’t define “very rare” but said that such actions should be limited to students whose admission is defensible, and whose admission is “of highest institutional importance” to the university.
In such cases, the president would need to notify the UT System chancellor about the decision. It would be up to the chancellor to decide whether the president’s decision is reasonable.
During Thursday’s meeting, Daniel conjured two hypothetical situations in which a president could act. If a professor at UT-Austin is being lured away by a competing school and that school is offering his son admission, the president might be wise to help the professor’s son get into UT-Austin, too, he said.
Similar consideration would also be given to a major donor who mentors students and has given tens of millions of dollars to the university. If that donor has a grandson with a good GPA and SAT score but attends private school and won’t receive automatic admission under the state’s top 10 percent rule, the president could intervene.
“I, as a president, might just very well admit that grandchild,” Daniel said. “No one is asking me necessarily, but I might do it.”
Students admitted under those circumstances would be special cases and would not replace anyone else in the incoming freshman class, Daniel said.
“I would go to bed that night with a smile on my face knowing that I did something good for the students of my university,” he said.
The policy was approved with just one dissenting vote. And while some regents raised quibbles, most said they agreed with the goals.
"There are always going to be exceptions, and there are always going to be questions," said Board Chairman Paul Foster. "Nothing is perfect, although I think this is pretty darn close."
Regent Wallace Hall was the one opponent. He has been the most outspoken critic of Powers, and his questions of the admissions practices played a major role in prompting the multiple reviews. He said the new policy “memorializes” bad acts that have already been in place. He also expressed doubt that students admitted under a president’s request wouldn’t be taking the place of other deserving students.
"We are a public university system, not a private college," Hall said, arguing that public schools should have to follow strict rules about whom they admit or deny.
He also made clear that he doesn’t think the book should be closed on the admissions inquiries. Hall has repeatedly requested access to documents Kroll Associates used to conduct its investigation into admissions. UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven has denied that request every time, leading to lawsuits from each side.
Before Thursday, the admissions policies had been reviewed at least three times — by an internal group, Kroll Associates and a “blue ribbon panel” made up of three former UT-Austin presidents. But Hall said he was frustrated with his belief that the regents hadn’t been able to fully explore what has already happened during board meetings. And he complained that the “blue ribbon panel” didn’t include former Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who initiated the Kroll report.
“I think it’s a travesty that we don’t discuss these things,” Hall said. “They deserve discussion and understanding, and the public deserves to know what took place.”
McRaven responded to Hall with a question: “So you are calling into question the integrity of the previous presidents?”
Hall answered: “I stand by what I just said.”
“So you are calling into question the integrity of the previous presidents,” McRaven said.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster has been a major donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.