‘University of California Admissions Disgrace’

New revelations emerge about attempts to get students into Berkeley.

September 28, 2020
 
University of California, Berkeley

The scandal involving admissions at the University of California has gotten worse since Tuesday, when the state auditor released a report that was harshly critical of UC -- 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." And the report made clear that the scandal was not just about Varsity Blues.

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.

But that's just the beginning of the scandal.

On Thursday, Richard Blum was identified as the member of the University of California Board of Regents who, according to state auditors, inappropriately wrote a letter that helped an unqualified student get into UC Berkeley, The Mercury News reported.

Blum is an investment banker and the husband of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. He is also a donor of $15 million to the university.

He was not identified in a report released earlier in the week.

"According to the audit, Blum sent a letter in support of a still-unidentified student to the chancellor after the student was placed on UC Berkeley’s waitlist. The chancellor’s office sent the letter to Cal’s development office, which forwarded it to the admissions office. And despite the fact that the applicant had around a 26 percent chance of being admitted based on the ratings assigned to their application, they were accepted," the Mercury News reported.

Blum told the newspaper, “This is the first time I’ve heard that maybe I did something that wasn’t right. I think it’s a bunch of nonsense.”

Then the Los Angeles Times late Friday obtained the letter Blum sent. In the letter, Blum told Carol Christ, chancellor at Berkeley, that he was writing on behalf of an "outstanding" applicant on the wait list who "embodies all the qualities we look for in our students." He said he believed the applicant would become "a devoted alumnus who will greatly contribute to the CAL community," and asked that the applicant receive "every consideration."

The Times also reported that the Blum letter apparently violated a 1996 UC Board of Regents policy that campuses are only supposed to accept letters of recommendation "during the regular admissions process." The policy states, "The Board recognizes that any correspondence or inquiries received from individual Regents and from elected officials may be appropriate but also notes that efforts to inappropriately influence the outcome of individual admissions decisions are not."

Then on Saturday, Blum released a new statement. "Over the last 18 years, I have written more than a dozen letters of recommendation for applicants seeking admission to the University of California," he said. "I forwarded those letters to the office of the chancellors. On no occasion did I receive feedback that that was not the appropriate protocol and that letters needed to be sent to the director of admissions. Moreover, I was never informed about whether any of the applicants for whom I wrote letters were later accepted for admission and I never inquired about the ultimate decisions in these cases. I respect the findings and concerns reflected in the audit. It was never my intention to circumvent or unfairly influence the admissions process. I do not intend to write letters of recommendation going forward."

All of this raises questions for the university -- and for all of higher education.

A Los Angeles Times editorial headlined "The University of California Admissions Disgrace" said of those who got into Berkeley, "They simply had some form of extraordinary privilege. Some were the offspring of parents who made big donations. Others had connections, family or otherwise, to campus staff, leaders or donors."

The editorial continued, "Make no mistake, at private colleges, students often are accepted because they have connections or parents who make big donations. Just having a parent who is an alumnus gives applicants a significant boost, a practice known as legacy admissions. But that isn’t supposed to happen at California’s public universities, paid for in part by taxpayers, with policies that call for fair, merit-based admission. In fairness, the number of improperly accepted students is barely a blip. Berkeley admits about 14,000 freshmen a year. But at a time when the fairness of college admissions is under new scrutiny, it is galling to see privilege prevail over merit at a campus known for its commitment to social justice."

A representative of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which represents fundraisers, declined to comment, saying that CASE does not comment on its members.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said via email, "The system that facilitates and allows these ‘transactions’ is fundamentally flawed. Public resources should be publicly available. While the audit identifies important flaws in the current system, what remains unaddressed is why there is artificially imposed scarcity in public higher education, and how that scarcity results in the manipulative behavior outlined in this report. So long as this scarcity remains, the potential for this behavior will persist."

He added that "the audit findings present a clear challenge to those involved in public university governance: access to higher education should not be part of the spoils of leadership or power. Responsible stewardship of public higher education, particularly, requires a fiduciary obligation to the institution’s overall mission, which includes representing the interests of all students. Students with wealth, privilege, or connections to influential voices in the university governance system should not be given a ‘leg up’ in gaining access to college."

At the same time, Hawkins said, "we have to be careful not to make the mistake of allowing these instances to characterize all of college admission. During this audit’s period of the review, the four UC campuses received more than 2.3 million applications and admitted almost 600,000 applicants. So while influence-peddling is a problem that needs to be addressed in college admission regardless of its scale, it’s also important to keep in mind that the 64 cases cited in the audit report represent a small fraction (0.0027 percent of applications and 0.011 percent of acceptances) of all admission decisions over this time period, even just at the four institutions covered by the audit."

Donald Hossler, a senior scholar at the Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice of the University of Southern California, said, "There are too many back doors to admissions."

"Too many places where athletics, alumni, development, or state/federal relations staff can enable students who might not otherwise be admitted," he said. "At highly selective schools these back doors take away seats for other prospective students. At less selective schools it does not take away seats but these back doors can result in admissions for students from families with social capital to which low[-income]/first-gen students will never be able to take advantage."

The Audit

The audit 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 [the California state auditor], the UC community and the public apprised of our reforms."

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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