Trustees | College Admissions

Powers aided select UT applicants

Consultant finds admissions office occasionally overruled by UT president, who defends practice.
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN   |  February 13, 2015 by Ralph K. M. Haurwitz

A “select handful” of applicants to University of Texas undergraduate programs are accepted each year at the insistence of President Bill Powers over the objections of the admissions office, a report released Thursday concluded.

In addition, Powers and his chief of staff appear to have misled an earlier admissions inquiry by failing to disclose the existence of a system of “holds” whereby the admissions office could not reject an applicant before conferring with the president’s office, the report said. Such applicants were typically recommended by members of the UT System Board of Regents, state lawmakers, donors, alumni and other influential people, according to the report by Kroll Associates Inc.

“Although the practice of holds and exercise of presidential discretion over admissions may not violate any existing law, rule, or policy, it is an aspect of the admissions process that does not appear in UT-Austin’s public representations” of how that process works, the report said.

The report found “no evidence that any applicants have been admitted as a result of a quid pro quo or other inappropriate promise or exchange.” UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven said his reading of the report led him to conclude that “no willful misconduct” and “no criminal activity” took place. Therefore, he said, he plans no disciplinary action.

“Can we do things better? You bet,” McRaven said. “Should we have been more transparent? Absolutely. Are we going to get this fixed? No doubt about it.”

Powers acknowledged overruling the admissions office from time to time, but he said such decisions are made with the university’s best interests in mind, which include fostering good relations with legislators, regents, donors and other constituents. He said students were added to the incoming class and didn’t displace other students, noting that such intervention happens at many universities. Powers said he wasn’t evasive or misleading in the earlier inquiry, saying that matter had focused on letters from legislators.

Kroll’s findings provide some vindication for Regent Wallace L. Hall Jr.,who has questioned Powers’ oversight of admissions, forgivable loans to law professors, open records and other matters. Hall was censured by a state House panel last year and is the focus of a criminal investigation by the Travis County district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, in part for his relentless demands for university documents and his handling of confidential student records.

“Rather than attacking the messenger, we need more trustees who are willing to ask tough questions in the name of accountability and transparency,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Powers said Thursday that Hall also had “exerted influence in the admissions process” but stopped short of saying that the regent had sent applicants’ names to his office. Hall didn’t return a message requesting comment.

The earlier report, by senior UT System officials, said applicants recommended by legislators were accepted to the School of Law and undergraduate programs at much higher rates than their counterparts who didn’t get such backing. The inquiry found no “overt pressure on admissions officials” by Powers or his staff.

Soon after that report came out, Francisco Cigarroa, then chancellor of the UT System, said a complaint about the “integrity” of the admissions process at the Austin campus prompted him to decide that a deeper examination was needed. That led to the hiring of Kroll under a contract paying the company as much as $405,000.

Kroll’s review of undergraduate admissions found 73 enrolled applicants from 2009 to 2014 who had subpar academic credentials. Political connections and “alumni/legacy influence” appear to have been factors, despite a state law barring legacy admissions, Kroll said. Other students appear to have been admitted out of concern for racial and ethnic diversity.

Notes from discussions between Powers’ office and the admissions office are typically shredded to avoid creating a paper trail, the report said. Kroll found that external influences have a limited impact on law school admissions and essentially no impact on business school admissions.

In one case, according to the report, a regent called Nancy Brazzil, Powers’ chief of staff, on behalf of a relative who had applied to the university.

“Don’t worry,” Brazzil replied, the report quoted her as saying. “I’ll take care of it.” The report said the applicant was admitted.

The report said Powers and other campus officials place “holds” on some applications to indicate that a decision to reject the applicant may not become final until the party placing the hold is notified. Final decisions are made at meetings between the president’s office and the admissions office.

Such arrangements weren’t disclosed by Powers and Brazzil during the earlier UT System inquiry, the Kroll report said.

“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 Kroll report said. “At minimum, each failed to speak with the candor and forthrightness expected of people in their respective positions of trust and leadership.”

That finding is “troubling,” Cigarroa said in a letter Wednesday to McRaven. Cigarroa, who now leads the pediatric transplant team at the UT System’s medical campus in San Antonio, said he is also concerned about the report’s disclosure that Powers doesn’t agree with the former chancellor’s directive to maintain a “firewall” between the admissions office and other university departments.


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