Trustees | Trusteeship

Report: UT chief broke no rules

HOUSTON CHRONICLE   |  February 13, 2015 by Benjamin Wermund

University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers for years has intervened in admissions decisions based on financial or political considerations, an independent investigator reported Thursday.

Both sides in a long political struggle over leadership at the state’s premier public research university claimed victory based on the report, which said Powers had pushed admissions officers to enroll certain students they otherwise would have turned away.

Powers admitted having stepped into admissions decisions occasionally, saying his predecessors and leaders of other elite universities had done so as well and stressing his actions were in UT’s best interest. The report by the Kroll consulting firm stops short of condemning the practice, saying Powers broke no rules and acknowledging that “colleges and universities across the country must weigh and balance competing factors, which sometimes include relationships with donors, legislators and others.”

Powers, who plans to step down this summer, won’t face disciplinary action, Chancellor Bill McRaven said.

The report also said Powers and his chief of staff, Nancy Brazzil, misled officials during a previous internal audit by the UT System.

“It appears that by their material omissions they misled the inquiry,” the report says. “At minimum, each failed to speak with the candor and forthrightness expected of people in their respective positions of trust and leadership.”

Powers said that audit was limited in scope and he believes he was truthful and not evasive.

“There have been a lot of allegations that there were quid pro quos and payments for admissions, and the Kroll report completely finds no evidence for that,” Powers said.

“I think this is a good report. I think it shows our practices are sound, even if they can be changed slightly. They can be made better.”

Hall’s supporters

The report, which notes that every year “a select handful” of applicants are admitted over the objections of the admissions office, appears to validate accusations by regent Wallace Hall Jr., the embattled UT trustee who has clashed with Powers.

Hall, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, has been cast by supporters as a whistle-blower and by detractors as a man on a witch hunt. The regent was censured by a state House committee and faces a criminal investigation prompted by his inquiries into UT admissions, which involved voluminous public records requests.

Hall’s supporters saw an investigation into his actions by a House committee as retaliation.

“Admission to a university should not be for sale,” Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a consistent Hall supporter, said in a statement. “That’s why Texas taxpayers should be grateful to Regent Wallace Hall for demanding integrity in University processes.”

Powers said Thursday that Hall is one of the public officials who has exerted influence over the admissions process. Powers did not elaborate.

Politics, alumni

The report found that political connections may have influenced admissions decisions in a small number of cases, while other cases suggested the possibility of alumni influence, despite the fact that Texas law prohibits legacy admissions. The 107-page document details Powers stepping in at the behest of state lawmakers, regents and influential alumni to make sure certain applicants were accepted.

Under Powers, the files of as many as 300 applicants per year have been given one of several designations indicating they should be held for further consideration, mostly at the request of legislators or regents, the report states.

Sometimes, Powers overrode admissions officials, forcing them to accept students they otherwise would not have admitted. Powers said this process benefits the university and “exists at virtually every selective university in America.”

As the report points out, in his position as president, Powers is expected to raise large amounts of money, cultivate donors and alumni and maintain relationships with the state Legislature, which controls university funding.

The number of arguably less-qualified applicants who have benefited from the president’s oversight appears to be relatively small, the report said. From 2009 to 2014, Kroll identified 73 enrolled applicants who were admitted with a combined SAT score of less than 1,100 and a high school GPA of less than 2.9.

Presidents have been involved in the admissions process at UT for years, but “with Powers, it became more of an order, less of a discussion,” one former admissions official told the investigator.

Most of the applicants under discussion came from private schools or elite public schools, and there were a few cases each year of “truly unqualified kids,” the report said.

In one case, the admissions director told Brazzil that a student was “so bad for so many reasons, there is no way I can admit this student.”

“But the president wants this done,” Brazzil responded. The director admitted the student, according to the report.

Rather than eliminate the president’s involvement, the report recommended that UT build a “limited firewall” that would allow the president to set policy but would limit the president’s role in the actual admissions process.

McRaven said he found “no willful misconduct, no criminal activity on a part of any of the folks at the University of Texas of Austin.”

“Can we do things better? You bet,” McRaven said. “Should we have been more transparent? Absolutely. Were there problems on both sides between Austin and others? Yes. Are we going to get this fixed? No doubt about it. We’re going to get this fixed.”


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