By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

At least 764 applicants initially denied admission to the University of Texas were admitted thanks to a backdoor program for the wealthy and politically connected administered by former president Bill Powers.

More than 200 of those applicants were admitted despite having their applications cancelled by the Admissions Office.

The total is more than 10 times the 73 applicants widely reported from an investigation paid for by the university and conducted by Kroll Associates. Kroll withheld the full findings from its 107-page final report.

Watchdog.org produced the final number by reassembling a key Kroll database tracking “holds,” or applicants rejected by the admissions office but granted favored status by Powers’ office from 2009 to 2014.

Kroll arrived at its published tally by establishing an arbitrary cutoff point for grades and SAT scores that had nothing to do with finding the total number of admissions rejections Powers overrode, which was the original purpose of the investigation.

The university kept the numbers in the database secret from the public and from regents who have asked to review the Kroll investigation records.

“The reach of this scandal is breathtaking,” said Maribeth Vander Weele, one of the investigators in a similar admissions scandal at the University of Illinois.  “The collapse of ethics in two major institutions – the Law School and the Legislature – will be felt for years to come.”

Jim Miller, a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, called Texas’ system “entirely inappropriate.” The Texas situation, he said, “erodes public confidence in a system that has incredible integrity, generally speaking. All it takes is a few of these situations to lead people to think that’s how it works.”

Some Powers partisans have been arguing just that: everybody does it.

“When I got your email, I was at a conference, and I grabbed five of my friends who’ve worked at flagship public schools,” Miller said. “And in all five of those cases, they said they had not had that experience where there was the sort of organized political pressure system.”

He’d never met anyone else in the business who had, either, Miller added.

The records analyzed by Watchdog show Powers rarely let his favorites be turned away.

Kroll examined the admissions trajectory of 2,085 applicants on hold from 2009 to 2014. Investigators tracked each case and each stage of the admissions review process. For our tally, we simply compared the first impression to the final decision.

Of those 2,085 applications, 834 were put in the “deny” pile and another 249 were cancelled without further processing. By the end of the process, only 84 of those applications were ultimately denied and just 33 remained cancelled.

Of the cancelled applications, 220 gained admission without going through the process.

The Kroll report makes no mention of how anybody got admitted without going through the applications process.

Kroll found 729 applicants initially deemed worthy and 271 who were to be offered one of UT’s conditional transfer programs by the admissions office. But by the end of the process, 1,492 of the applicants were admitted and 474 offered a transfer program.

“From what you’re telling me, it does also sound like the situation is more involved than it first looked, and that it at least rivals (if not exceeds) the situation in Illinois,”  David Hawkins, an NACAC official, told Watchdog.

At Illinois, the previous benchmark for admissions corruption, investigators found roughly five to six dozen applicants out of 800 names on a secret “clout list” over four years who probably wouldn’t have been admitted without their special treatment.

Louis Hirsh, the new chair of NACAC’s admissions practices committee, said that the two presidents of the University of Delaware under whom he served as director of admissions never overturned his decisions. But, “over the years, I have sensed that most admissions directors are under more pressure than I was to admit special interest cases.”

School presidents have practical reasons for not overturning admissions decisions, Hirsh said.

“In the long run, if you admit unqualified applicants because donors or politicians want them admitted, then you are going to have an even more unpleasant conversation with these powerful people when their kids flunk out or get into disciplinary problems (which is what weak students often do),” Hirsh wrote in an email to Watchdog.

“A second pragmatic reason is that you can never keep this practice under wraps forever, at least not if it is done on a wholesale basis. One way or another, word gets out. What institution wants the negative publicity that Texas and Illinois experienced?”

The Kroll investigation confirmed what had been common knowledge in the wealthy Dallas-area community of Highland Park, which includes UT Regent Wallace Hall and House Education Committee chair Dan Branch: students were getting into UT at extraordinary rates, despite bad grades.

UT admitted seven Highland Park students with grade point averages below 2.0 and SAT scores below 800.

Bill Shain, who now runs a college admissions consultancy, dealt with many “university interest” special cases during a career in admissions at small private universities, but rarely saw that sort of “disastrously unqualified” applicant admitted.

“I can think of three cases (at two schools where I worked) where the student could not possibly succeed, and none of the three did,” Shain said. “That was something I always opposed.”

The very worst of the students UT admitted, the investigation showed, were clustered in the districts of Branch, House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), and Sen. Kirk Watson, (D-Austin).

Straus has gone to even greater lengths than UT to cover up the abuses. He authorized a special committee operating behind the scenes in an effort to impeach Hall for asking too many questions about the admissions process.

A few days before that committee voted to “censure” Hall and refer the matter to Travis County prosecutors, Straus’ chief of staff reportedly offered to make the case “go away.”

After a Straus spokesman denied any involvement, then-Gov. Rick Perry and his chief of staff publicly contradicted the spokesman.

UT is trying to protect Highland Park and other communities with potential big dollar donors. In records provided to Watchdog, UT blacked out applicants’ names, as they should, but also their high schools. Plus it redacted GPAs, SAT and ACT scores, and even majors on the documents the school provided to Watchdog.

The university knows this information is not confidential once names have been redacted. It recently released hundreds of pages with those same categories unredacted in response to a public records request related to an affirmative action lawsuit.

There is more to be learned from the Kroll papers.

Many of the applications being held for Powers’ review were tagged with another unknown code that apparently specified what sort of special case they were.

The database also includes a column for the date of action taken on a hold, many of them in the fall and winter, calling into question Powers’ contention that “no spots at the university were saved for any of these students,” that they were all added after the class was otherwise set.

On the day the greatly truncated Kroll report was released, Powers held a press conference to proclaim it “a thorough and accurate and fair report.”

Like many, Rudolph Bush of the Dallas Morning News, found Powers’ conclusion “bizarre,” even “Orwellian.”

“I went very carefully through the Kroll report,” Bush wrote on Twitter. “It is not a ‘very good report’ for Bill Powers.” Bush had written a cutting article based on the Kroll report just that morning.

What Powers knew and Bush didn’t was just how much deeper Kroll could have cut.

The massive gulf between what Kroll discovered and what it reported helps to explain that press conference – and why Chancellor Bill McRaven has refused to let Hall see the unedited Kroll papers, in defiance of Attorney General Ken Paxton and in apparent violation of the law.

Kroll started off looking for the number Watchdog found at the request of then Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. By the time its investigation was over, Cigarroa had been replaced by Bill McRaven.

McRaven is responsible for Powers’ final group of special admissions into UT, the class coming this fall. Allowing Hall to look at the Kroll investigation papers wouldn’t have just reopened some “adjudicated” affair; it would prove that nothing has changed. UT’s leadership is still dirty and can’t be trusted to investigate itself.

“The message to young people is that cheaters win, ethics don’t matter, good guys finish last,” said Vander Weele, one of the Illinois investigators. “Long-term, of course, that’s not true. But a lot of damage can be done in the meantime.”

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000.

Recommended for you