If you want to figure out how many times University of Texas campus presidents have admitted students under a special-exceptions policy, you have to know what 40303 means.
It designates the part of the UT System Board of Regents’ rules that allows presidents to admit students who otherwise wouldn’t qualify. It’s the only way to tell, in UT System records, that the exception has been used.
It’s the code that UT uses, on meeting agendas and minutes, to show that a campus president has come to the board of regents to tell the chancellor, in executive session, that the exceptions rule is being invoked. The public, as a result, has no hint of any students being admitted outside the UT’s regular guidelines – or how many are admitted, who they are, or why they are being granted admission.
Such secrecy may be part of the reason that UT System public information officials encountered problems recently in responding to journalists’ questions, as a national college admission scandal swirled around the UT System and other major universities.
Now, due in part to The Texas Monitor’s questions, UT’s practices in concealing special-admissions information may be changing.
The Texas Tribune reported on March 15 that UT spokeswoman Karen Adler had said that since 2015, “less than a dozen” students have been admitted to UT’s colleges under the presidential exception. Shortly after that, The Texas Monitor submitted a public records request for information backing up that estimate.
UT responded with 81 pages of emails — none of which explained how the “less than a dozen” figure was arrived at. UT appealed a portion of the request to the state attorney general’s office, asserting that attorney-client privilege protects some of the responsive material.
In response to The Texas Monitor’s query about how often the exception has been used, a UT spokeswoman said that since 2015, the policy has been “reviewed” at three regents’ meetings — on May 12, 2016, May 10, 2017 and April 30, 2018. Since those are the only mentions in the minutes and agendas regarding the 40303 section of the rules, it appears that those are the only occasions on which regents could have – within at least the letter of the law – heard from campus presidents about use of the exception.
A review of the agendas for each of those meetings shows no mention that the exception was being invoked except for noting the 40303 code in the board of regents’ rules. The items were buried under personnel decisions.
When governmental bodies in Texas go into executive – that is, closed – session, they are required to state in their agenda the topics to be discussed. And if there is a need for the body to take action following the discussion, that is required to be done in open session and recorded in meeting minutes.
But UT System rules don’t require the regents to vote on using the admissions exception. The requirement is simply to inform the chancellor. And it doesn’t even have to be done in writing.
So, while UT contends these were the meetings in which the special admissions were done, the minutes show no action taken. As a result, the public has no idea what reasons were given for the exception, or even if the proposed exception was eventually granted or not.
Open-government supporters say such hazy postings, while not necessarily unlawful, are needlessly opaque.
“This notice as stated probably satisfies the obligation but not the spirit of the Open Meetings Act,” Tom Gregor, a public records lawyer in Houston, said.
The policy amendment approved by regents in 2015 that allows the special exception spells out the procedure. It is to be used infrequently and cannot be used to displace a student who would be otherwise admitted.
“The public has the right to know about all the ways a kid is admitted,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “It should all be very transparent … but here, we don’t know the way the president at a UT school used that discretion. There should be public knowledge of all the back-door and side-door ways a kid can be admitted.”
He added that presidential discretion is also allowed at other universities, excessively so in some cases.
At Northwestern University, the college newspaper reported in April that President Morton Schapiro had reviewed hundreds of applications for such special admissions, including those from children of donors and alumni and children of faculty and staff.
“I’d certainly want to know if, at UT, it was truly less than a dozen,’ Schaeffer said.
An independent investigation at UT in 2015 found that former UT- Austin President Bill Powers had intervened in numerous cases to admit students who were not considered qualified, despite the protests of admissions counselors.
Investigators found that a “select handful” of students were admitted each year through Powers’ intervention. The process of presidential intervention in admissions concerns some because a president often interacts with potential donors, who may seek favors.
“In the recent admissions scandal, the mastermind said he wanted to create a side door to admissions because there was already a back door,” said Jerry Lucido, director of the University of California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice, which researches admissions practices.
“That back door was for donors and alumni children if they curry favor with an institution.”
Lucido said the “less than a dozen” estimate of presidential discretionary admissions at UT campuses since 2015, if true, is “next to nothing.”
“So transparency would allow people to understand that this is rare and the public would understand,” he said.
When the procedure is invoked, the president is to report it to the system’s chancellor. There is no requirement that the report is made in writing, only that the president “be required to meet with the chancellor… to discuss the process employed.”
The material provided to The Texas Monitor includes an email from Art Martinez, chief of staff in the chancellor’s office, to a UT staff attorney, Francie Frederick, about the admissions exception procedure.
“What I remember was that the notification to the Chancellor was going to be done verbally with no written record. Do you know if that is correct?” Martinez asked Frederick.
The emails provided to The Texas Monitor did not include Frederick’s response.
Many state university systems bury rules regarding special admissions, and many, like UT, leave it to the individual school to determine if a candidate qualifies for an exception.
Admissions policies at larger state university systems are under the gun in the wake of a scandal in which students and their families skirted rules to get the students into esteemed colleges, including UT-Austin.
Around the country, federal prosecutors have charged 50 people in connection with the scandal, including UT tennis coach Michael Center, who pleaded guilty to accepting a $100,000 bribe to help admit a student in 2015.
That same year, an internal investigation found that UT-Austin admitted several students who lacked admission credentials. The students were not identified in the report.
In an email, Adler said that, in light of the questions raised by The Texas Monitor, UT will rethink how the public posting of discussion of discretionary admissions is done.
“The wording of past agenda items meets legal requirements, but we will consider the possibility of additional or revised language for future postings,” she said.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].