U of California Admissions Blasted by Auditor

Not just donors' children, but athletes and the babysitter of a colleague of the director of undergraduate admissions got into the university, although they weren't qualified. Berkeley in particular is criticized.

September 23, 2020
 
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University of California, Berkeley

The state auditor of California on Tuesday released a report harshly critical of the University of California -- and in particular its Berkeley campus -- for "improper influence in admissions decisions." The report says the university system "has not treated applicants fairly or consistently."

The audit is based on a review of the university's campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara from 2013-14 through 2018-19. In that time those campuses admitted 22 applicants as athletes "even though the students did not have the athletic qualifications to compete at the university," the audit stated. Berkeley was found to have admitted 42 students, "most of whom were referred to the admissions office because of their families’ histories as donors or because they were related or connected to university staff, even though their records did not demonstrate competitive qualifications for admission."

"By admitting 64 noncompetitive applicants, the university undermined the fairness and integrity of its admissions process and deprived more qualified students of the opportunity for admission," the report said. University of California policy puts strict limits on exceptions to admissions rules -- and bars the admission of wealthy students solely on the basis of their wealth.

The report includes redacted but damning emails in which university officials discuss how they can admit various students. And the report includes examples of the students who got in. "Applicant babysat for a colleague of the former director of undergraduate admissions," reads one such description. "Child of a high-level university staff member," reads another. "Applicant's family promised a large donation," reads a third.

Some of the practices -- faking an athletic background -- were used in the admissions scandal that broke last year and for which many parents have since pleaded guilty. But other practices, such as pressure from fundraisers, are different.

With regard to the athletes, the report says, "In response to recently publicized issues -- including a soccer coach at UCLA who admitted to falsely designating two applicants as prospective student athletes in exchange for money -- and the systemwide internal audit, the campuses we reviewed began implementing some safeguards for the athletics admissions process. However, despite the implementation of these additional safeguards, none of the campuses have fully addressed the gaps in their athletics admissions processes … Finally, none of the campuses have implemented complete reviews of applicants admitted through the athletics admissions process to determine whether donations -- both preceding an admissions decision and also received in the year following the admission -- inappropriately factored into their admission."

The report was especially critical of Berkeley, saying that campus "admitted children of staff and donors instead of more qualified applicants."

In many cases, the admissions officers at Berkeley who read applications wanted to do the right thing but were overruled. For instance, the report notes the child of a staff member and the child of a donor were not recommended for admission by either reader but were admitted. A third applicant -- from a low-income family, who attended "a disadvantaged school" and was in the top 9 percent of the applicant's high school class -- was recommended for admission by both readers. The applicant was rejected.

"In those interactions, the development office often provided the admissions office with the names of applicants connected to donors and potential donors. In one of the years we reviewed, the development office indicated which of the applicants were 'priority.' UC Berkeley admitted every applicant that the development office indicated was a priority. None of these applicants had received ratings on their applications that would have made them competitive on their own merit for admission to UC Berkeley," the report said.

"The former admissions director also openly invited staff to send her names of family and friends who had applied so that she could personally review the applications," the report added. "In 2014, 2015, and 2016, the former admissions director sent an email to UC Berkeley staff offering to review the applications of applicants they might know, in one year describing that she was doing so 'in the spirit of professional camaraderie.'"

The report added, "Finally, UC Berkeley allowed admissions staff to request preferential treatment for relatives and donors by using a process intended to benefit applicants who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. UC Berkeley allows admissions staff to nominate applicants for additional consideration by placing them on a list it calls the prospect list. The emails that UC Berkeley’s admissions leadership sent to admissions staff indicate that the prospect list is for applicants who participate in UC Berkeley’s outreach programs, which generally assist disadvantaged high school and transfer students in preparing for and applying to college. The emails from the two more recent years -- 2018 and 2019 -- also state that the staff could add 'other applicants to watch.' Although the majority of applicants whom admissions staff nominated were connected with these outreach programs, staff also placed applicants on the prospect list for inappropriate reasons, including the applicants’ connections to donors, staff, and faculty. UC Berkeley admitted several of these applicants while denying admission to similar or better‑rated students whom staff legitimately had placed on the prospect list because they had participated in a campus outreach program -- the very applicants whom the prospect list was supposed to benefit."

Michael V. Drake, president of the university system, released a statement in response to the audit.

"I take the findings and recommendations very seriously and will do all I can to prevent inappropriate admissions at UC. I have zero tolerance in matters of compromised integrity," he said.

Drake said that "the university will swiftly address the concerns the state auditor raised. Furthermore, individuals involved in improper activities will be disciplined appropriately."

He noted, however, "the significant progress the university has made in the past year following two internal audits, which identified many of the same issues the state auditor raised.

"Our entire organization is committed to a level playing field for every applicant. Unethical means to gain admission, as rare as they may be, run contrary to our longstanding values of equity and fairness," he said. In the coming weeks, "UC will conduct a thorough review of the audit findings, coordinate with campuses, and map out the necessary corrective actions. We will stay proactive and accountable, while keeping [California state auditor], the UC community and the public apprised of our reforms."

Carol Christ, the chancellor at Berkeley, sent an email message to the campus that said that the auditor released a report with "numerous highly disturbing allegations of improper conduct in our undergraduate admissions work. These allegations, if true, are unacceptable, especially in our community where excellence, fairness and equity are our core values. We are committed to getting to the bottom of this. At this point, however, we are waiting to receive the underlying documents that led to the state auditor’s findings, as these allegations will be investigated by the university."

She too noted that several improvements in admissions procedures had been made recently.

Christ said that "staff and administrators who violate policy are subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination. Policies in place at the time of the alleged incident are the ones that may be enforced." She said, "again, the state audit covered a time period from the 2013-14 to 2018-19 academic years. While we know that there is always room for improvement -- and that any policy depends on individuals acting with integrity -- we have confidence that our current admissions policies and protocols are sound. We remain committed to continuing to refine our processes to protect the sanctity of our admissions process."

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