In Texas, Questioning Powers

An investigation of the University of Texas at Austin finds the president likely swayed admissions decisions to aid well-connected applicants. Everybody does it, President Bill Powers said.

February 13, 2015
Bill Powers, president of UT-Austin

University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers overruled his staff to admit well-connected students, according to an independent investigation released Thursday.

Powers’s philosophy could end up providing “affirmative action for the advantaged,” according to the report, which looked into admissions practices at one of the nation's largest and most prominent public universities. Investigators found UT-Austin, at Powers’s behest, may have given preferential admission to some students with moneyed ties or politically influential backers.

As many as 73 undergraduate students at UT-Austin in the past 6 years, and perhaps a handful more at the university’s top-ranked law school, were admitted despite grades and test scores that were substantially below those of other admitted students. Of these, some had ties to lawmakers or alumni, though others were perhaps admitted to provide diversity on campus.

“I do intervene in that process at the request of our regents and others,” Powers said at a Thursday afternoon press conference in Austin following the report’s release.

The investigation, by risk-management firm Kroll, might seem to put a blemish on public perceptions of Powers’s presidency. It was commissioned to find, once and for all, the truth about allegations that Powers had a backdoor admissions policy. That would be a notable turn for a man who months ago was regarded as a cause célèbre by fellow academics for clashing frequently with UT System regents who are close to former Governor Rick Perry, a Republican graduate of Texas A&M disliked in academic circles and at UT-Austin.

Yet a faculty leader found little to complain about in the report. Powers called it “very good.” The university uses justifiable practices to maintain good relationships, the president said.

“They are in the best interest -- long-term interest -- of the university,” Powers said.

Former University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who ordered the report and had tiffs with Powers, said it was “troubling” that Powers’s office had overruled admissions staffers’ decisions to reject seemingly unprepared students. The current chancellor, William McRaven, said he does not plan to discipline Powers, who announced last year he would step down this summer. The report did not find any laws were broken.

Hillary Hart, a past chairwoman of the Faculty Council, said faculty members found the report so lacking in grist the council was not even going to put out a statement.

“There was just a general sense that there is really nothing in this report to comment on,” she said in a telephone interview. “There’s nothing in it that makes us any less proud of our president.”

Hart noted that even the high end of the questionable admits -- about 73 -- was a small fraction of the tens of thousands of students who have attended UT-Austin in the past few years. And about those questionable practices? They are hardly unique to Austin, she said.

According to the report, Powers gave himself and his office more say over admissions than previous UT-Austin presidents.

“Through the chief of staff, it has been made clear that final admissions decisions are the prerogative of President Powers,” the report found. “For example, the chief of staff has essentially ordered certain ‘must have’ applicants admitted over the objection of the admissions office.”

Powers told investigators he admitted some applicants due to “relational factors.” His chief of staff, Nancy Brazzil, kept a “must-admit list” she brought out at the end of the admissions cycle to check on certain applicants who had applied to the university.

One former admissions director told investigators most of the applicants who drew Powers’s attention were from private schools or elite public schools. The director, unnamed in the report, said he told Brazzil one applicant was so bad there is “no way I can admit this student.”

Brazzil’s reply was simple: “Well, I speak for the president and he wants it done.”

The student was admitted to UT-Austin.

Echoes of U. of Illinois Scandal

The university turns away about 30,000 applicants each fall.

Powers has been plagued by accusations that he and his top officials traded favors for admissions. However, the report did not find evidence that admissions decisions were the “result of a quid pro quo or other inappropriate promise or exchange.”

The report at UT-Austin is reminiscent of the 2009 “clout” scandal at the University of Illinois. There, trustees and senior administrators pressured admissions officers on behalf of politically connected applicants, and there was a separate admissions process for the well connected.

In Texas, investigators said they found no evidence of a separate admissions system or saved spots for applicants. The report notes that some documents were not kept or were shredded that may shed light on why a "select handful" of applicants were admitted each year over the objections of the admissions office. Some questions, therefore, may never be put to rest.

Powers told investigators that letters and calls from lawmakers are typically accorded more weight because the legislature has a major effect on the university.

Yet the report found that to Powers, "relationships matter and are the deciding factor in admissions for a select handful of applicants each year."

The investigation may wipe away some of the national good will Powers received for outlasting Perry, the long-serving Texas governor whose allies were accused of trying to overthrow the president and take more control over the state’s flagship.

Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but it is now Powers who been found to play politics with his own university, if perhaps only at the urging of lawmakers and other influence peddlers in Texas.

As one university official told the Kroll investigators, “Admissions are an allocation of opportunities. You don’t mess with that.”

In a six-point written defense of his actions that mirrored the remarks Powers made during his press conference, the president justified himself in a variety of ways: the number of students affected was relatively small given the size of UT-Austin. The students he helped get in did not crowd out other students, he said. And, Powers said, he always acted in the “best interest” of the university, even if that meant sometimes admitting people with good connections to donors, alumni and lawmakers who hold purse strings.

“It is my observation,” Powers wrote, “that some similar process exists at virtually every selective university in America, and it does so because it serves the best interests of the institutions.”

A Powers spokesman said it was not the president’s intent to say seats at UT-Austin can be bought. “There is not and has never been any sort of quid pro quo in admissions,” spokesman Gary Susswein said in an e-mail. “He's saying that good will with constituents has a beneficial long-term impact on the university.”

The Kroll report said if UT-Austin thinks it is acting in its own best interests by doing admissions the way it does, then it does not need to change how it does anything.

Previous Investigation

The investigation is mostly silent on the culpability of lawmakers who wrote the letters, mainly because the investigators were tasked with only examining the campus and system’s role. They did not look into the actions of the lawmakers themselves. Kroll said it found no evidence that lawmakers had coerced the university to admit a student.

Members of the UT System's Board of Regents also attempted to interfere in the admissions process at UT-Austin, which they oversee, the report found. One regent, who has submitted more than 100 applicant names to UT-Austin for consideration, asked about a series of applicants in 2012. Because of a miscommunication, he informed one family its student had been accepted, only to discoverer the student had actually been denied admission.

The regent -- who is unnamed -- demanded that the system’s general counsel call the family back and explain the mistake. The lawyer for the system did. Then the regent demanded that the university reverse its decision and admit the applicant it denied admission.

The system’s lawyer then spoke with Brazzil. She agreed to admit the applicant, but only if other applicants were also admitted to prevent unfairness.

In recent years, several colleges have mistakenly told students they were admitted. Usually, though not always, the rejected students receive an apology, not a mulligan and a seat.

Kroll’s investigation was not the first of admissions practices at UT-Austin. Yet, the last time, an investigation by the system did little to touch Powers or his administration.

Writing about the previous report, Kroll found that Powers and his chief of staff spoke with “technical precision” but made "material omissions" that misled the inquiry.

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

Powers said the previous investigation was limited and that he gave honest and truthful answers.

Behind the Curtain

The report by Kroll, dated Feb. 6 but made public Thursday, looked at UT-Austin admissions decisions over the past decade, from 2004 to 2014, and e-mails between Austin officials from 2009 to the end of 2013. Investigators also interviewed high-ranking officials at the university in Austin and the UT System.

Besides knocking Powers, the report provides an unusual glimpse into the admissions process at an elite public university.

The standard the report used for undue influence is that a student ought not to be given a leg up because of family or political connections, recommendations from “persons of influence,” or because of the potential for financial gain by the university or law school if it admitted the scion or ward of a wealthy donor.

For many years, the regents, the chancellor and the system have forwarded letters and questions about specific applicants to the UT-Austin president’s office, a practice that “implicitly suggests” the president is in charge of admissions.

If an important person -- a “friend” of the university or a “person of influence” -- asks about or recommends an applicant, the university has for years put a hold on the application.

A vast majority of the president’s holds, according to Powers and Brazzil, are based on requests from lawmakers and members of the system's Board of Regents.

Because of computerization and the increased volume of applicants, the number of undergraduate holds has risen -- there were 200 or 300 holds per year by Powers and a dean. About four out of five of those students were Texans, often enough connected in some way to lawmakers, donors, alumni and members of the system’s board.

A majority of these students are automatically admitted anyway, because they meet certain criteria or are relatively easy calls based on their own merits.  

While deans don’t get much scolding in the report, Kroll did find one former dean who put a fund-raising official in charge of keeping track of the progress of applicants who had a hold on them.  

Admissions practices at the law school have drawn considerable attention. The investigators indeed found potential problems -- perhaps four instances between 2010 and 2014 where law applicants with political or alumni connections were admitted despite subpar undergraduate grades and relatively low Law School Admission Test scores.

The investigation identified another seven candidates with political connections, but other “holistic factors appeared more obviously in play.”

From 2006 to 2012, the former dean of the law school, Larry Sager, received 10 to 20 calls a year from Powers’s chief of staff, Brazzil, about particular law school applicants.

These calls -- the “intensity of Brazzil’s interest,” according to Kroll -- may have swayed Sager’s decisions, Sager told the commission. He said the school was never forced to admit a student against its wishes.

The current dean, Ward Farnsworth, also received calls from Brazzil and acknowledged the interest of Powers’s office could impact the evaluation of an application, though he said he never felt pressured to admit a particular student.

The report makes clear that lawmakers do try to throw their weight around. In one “brazen” incident cited in the report, a former elected official e-mailed UT-Austin to say a member of an “important” committee had a strong interest in seeing someone admitted and that there were “political and funding implications” tied to the student’s admission. The student was admitted, though Kroll found no evidence the university acted improperly.

As Powers said in his press conference, nearly every selective institution may face the same pressures to admit certain students. But, as one “high-level university official” who remained unnamed told Kroll investigators, “What you do with that pressure and how a university responds to it are how institutions differ.”


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