Former UT regent says there’s lots more to find at UT in admissions scandal

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University of Texas backdoor admissions

The news that 50 people had been arrested in connection with a college admissions scandal did not surprise former University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall Jr. He spent six years seeking records that could have exposed an alleged pattern of favoritism in admissions at UT-Austin before being stymied by the Texas Supreme Court.

But now, a tip line offered by Crime Stoppers, Hall said, presents the chance to police what investigators in 2015 called “affirmative action for the advantaged” at UT-Austin.

“If there is ever a time to come clean, this is it,” said Hall, who was in turn investigated by UT for allegedly abusing his authority by requesting copies of thousands of documents related to admissions.

If individuals employed in admissions at UT-Austin were to come forward and disclose what they know about the corruption involved in the process at the school, “it would put a big dent” in what some consider institutional flaws, Hall said.

“People in admissions are disgusted with what is going on but are not in positions to say anything because they are afraid for their jobs, and rightfully so,” he said.

Last week federal investigators announced the arrests in connection with alleged fraudulent admissions at several high-profile universities around the country, including UT-Austin. Federal officials said the probe could produce more arrests.

The alleged scheme involves bribes from parents to ensure their kids get into elite schools through falsified test results and fake athletic accomplishments.

One UT employee, men’s tennis coach Michael Center, allegedly accepted a $100,000 bribe to get a California student into UT as a tennis recruit in 2015. The student did not play high school tennis, investigators found.

Center was fired following his arrest.

The university’s legal affairs office is investigating the federal accusations independently, said UT-Austin spokesman J.B. Bird.

He said the single federal indictment case concerning UT-Austin is an isolated incident, relating only to Center.

In response to a flood of inquiries from parents and school employees, the UT System posted a brief Q & A on its website Monday.

The press release noted that UT-Austin’s in-state admissions policy follows state law. It also said that, due to federal student privacy laws, the school would not release any records connected to admissions investigations.

A $5 million class action lawsuit filed last week named UT-Austin as a defendant.

The suit invites anyone who applied to and was rejected by any of a list of universities between 2012 and 2018 to become part of the class action. The list includes UT, Stanford, UCLA, San Diego, the University of Southern California, and Wake Forest, Yale and Georgetown universities.

Hall was appointed to a six-year term on the UT System Board of Regents in 2011 by Gov. Rick Perry.  It was a tumultuous term, as he began challenging the university’s admissions practices, alleging that children and friends of state politicians and the board of regents were being given special consideration in exchange for influence and contributions to the school.

An internal investigation by the university discovered that between 2009 and 2014, 60 percent of the applicants supported with letters from lawmakers were accepted, compared to a 16 percent overall admission rate.

The UT System also hired Kroll International, a private investigations company, which reported in 2015 that 73 students had been admitted to UT-Austin between 2009 and 2014 despite poor grades and test scores.

Hall, who served a single term on the board, said the federal investigation has uncovered just the tip of a systemic process for admitting less qualified but connected students into prestigious universities across the nation.

“If the public knew what was going on, they wouldn’t stand for it,” Hall said. In his campaign for transparency in the admissions process, he requested numerous documents from the university.

He received some records, but when he asked for others that would have backed up specific findings in the Kroll report, the university refused them. The report did not identify the small group of applicants admitted despite below-average qualifications nor did it identify their legislative supporters.  

Hall sued Chancellor William McRaven to obtain the records. In 2017, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against Hall, citing student privacy laws.

Federal indictments allege that the admissions testing process has also been corrupted by officials who allow would-be students to send a proxy to take entrance exams for them.

Hall said he never came across that practice but that legislators would “meet with [then UT-Austin President Bill Powers], who would get in kids who had been expelled from private schools.”

Powers left the university in 2015 in the wake of the Kroll findings. He died earlier this month at the age of 72.

Hall said the under-the-table admissions were a trade-off: Conservative parents who needed illicit help to get their kids into UT-Austin couldn’t turn around and complain about the official affirmative action practices.

“All these people profess this is a meritocracy,” he said. ”They let the rich kids in so they can do affirmative action under the surface. The kids who really get [hurt] are the middle-class kids.”

In 2014 legislators voted to censure Hall for “behavior unbefitting” a state official. A Travis County grand jury recommended his removal from office.

Hall was one of a group of Perry appointees to the UT board. Two other members of that group, Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich, were conservatives like Hall, but neither was as outspoken as Hall in condemning the skewed admissions process. Nonetheless, none of the three was reappointed in 2017 by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott on Monday sent a letter to the UT Board of Regents.

“…Students, their parents and taxpayers must have confidence that the system is not rigged,” he said.

Hall said his questioning of the admissions process helped him realize that the system is “like a crime family.”

“When you get into some place like Stanford, you are made,” he said. “You are in their group, and you get people to give you jobs. People will consider you before they consider someone else. It’s a deep-seated tribal thing that people think they are entitled to.”

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

 

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