Report: Powers Used Authority to Admit ‘Must-Have’ Students to UT, Misled Lawyers

UTtowerA new independent report says University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers used his authority to get students admitted into the state’s flagship school despite objections of the admissions office, and misled lawyers looking into his conduct.

The investigation ordered by former Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa found Powers stepped in to have “must-have” applicants accepted, including some who had the recommendation of powerful people in the state. The report also found he and his chief of staff, Nancy Brazzil, failed to tell the whole truth when questioned about it by the system’s attorneys.

The review found no evidence any applicant was admitted as a “result of a quid pro quo or other inappropriate promise or exchange”, and did say the number of less-qualified applicants was relatively small. In all, the investigation found 73 applicants who were admitted with a combined SAT score of less than 1100 and a high school GPA of less than 2.9. But the report did find “a few cases each year of ‘truly unqualified kids,'” and added political connections may have influenced admission decisions in a small number of cases.

The report gives some weight to accusations made by UT System Regent Wallace Hall, who caused conflict with other regents over his investigation into whether lawmakers had too much influence over the admissions process. Lawmakers threatened to impeach Hall and ultimately censured him over what many called a “witch hunt” aimed at Powers. The censure is a mainly symbolic gesture.

A previous internal report found the acceptance rate among students who had a recommendation from a “friend of the university” or other “person of influence” was nearly double the rate of the average applicant. But this in-depth report says no rules were broken by Powers. It says there are many other influences that got less-qualified students admitted, and pointed out many of these processes have been in place since long before Powers became president. It said UT’s “holistic admission process is inherently subjective,” and added that if there is a desire to change the president’s authority in the admissions process, then a new rule or law would need to be enacted.

Kroll found no existing law or statute, Regents Rule or UT-System Policy concerning how much weight to give “external” recommendations (letters, phone calls, inquiries) in the admissions process. For many years, the practice of the Board of Regents, the Chancellor, and UT-System has been to forward letters and inquiries about applicants to the UT-Austin President’s Office. This practice implicitly suggests that the President of UT-Austin oversees the Admissions Office and is the final arbiter in the admissions process. If the President of UT-Austin, as a matter of law or policy, is to play a different role in admissions determinations, it would seem incumbent upon the legislature or the Board of Regents to enact a law or rule that so states. No such rule or law presently exists.

UT-Austin President Bill Powers released the following statement:

I believe UT Austin’s admissions practices are motivated by fairness, the long-term interests of the University, and serving the public good. In response to the report, I would like to make six points:

1.   As Kroll reported, over a five-year period, my office intervened on behalf of “a relatively small” number of students. In particular, the report cited 73 applicants who normally would not have been admitted, or fewer than one in 1,000 admitted students.

2.   In every case, I acted in what I believed was the best interest of the University.

3.   Our admissions practices are fully consistent with all established laws, rules, and policies.

4.   I inherited this process, which was well known by regents, former chancellors, the Board of Regents Office, and UT System officials, many of whom, as the report notes, asked me to intervene on their behalf. This process, both prior to and during my presidency, was in the best long-term interest of the University.

5.   As the Kroll report points out, no spots at the University were saved and no one was displaced by this practice. The students in question were simply added to the incoming class.

6.   It is my observation 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.

I am proud of our staff for the full cooperation it gave to the inquiry, as cited in the report by the firm Kroll & Associates: “The commitment, dedication, and good faith of all officials and personnel with whom we interacted were readily apparent.” The Kroll report contains many recommendations worth considering.

I thank Chancellor McRaven for his thoughtful leadership.