In the wake of a national college admissions scandal in March that included the University of Texas at Austin, UT System public relations staffers scrambled to find the answer to a question: How many times since 2015 have the system’s eight schools admitted students by special dispensation from one of the campus presidents?
The university’s term is “admission of a student who would not otherwise be able to attend the university.” And the answer, according to UT Systems personnel as reported by the Texas Tribune, was “less than a dozen.”
That answer created even more questions: Why couldn’t officials be exact? And where had the oddly vague estimate come from? The Texas Monitor requested records that would answer those questions. But the emails thus obtained — between the chancellor’s office and the system’s PR personnel and general counsel — don’t provide the answer.
What the emails do show is a confusion that reached the system’s highest paid official, Chancellor James Milliken.
The email exchanges took place between March 12, the day the admissions scandal story broke, and March 15. At one point, Karen Adler, the system’s primary spokeswoman, asked colleague JB Bird, who works for UT-Austin, “I’m trying to find out if the chancellor’s office has kept track of presidents’ discretionary admissions … . The way the [rule] is worded puts the onus on presidents to document rationale, etc.”
A Tribune story on March 15 reported the “less than a dozen” response by Adler.
But the path to that estimate so far cannot be tracked. The emails obtained by The Texas Monitor do not include or refer to any documentation for the number.
Shortly after the reporter’s request was received, Art Martinez, chief of staff in the chancellor’s office, emailed a UT staff attorney, Francie Frederick, about the 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 Texas Monitor did not include Frederick’s response.
In the emails, Adler initially tells her colleagues, including general counsel Dan Sharphorn, that she doesn’t know how many students were admitted by special dispensation. By two days later, the “less than a dozen” answer had been arrived at.
Among those participating or copied in the email discussion were UT System Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife, Milliken and several people with the system’s legal office.
“Pls call me if you have questions, etc. thanks.” Milliken wrote as the final statement for release was being completed. However, more than half of that message was redacted in the version provided to The Texas Monitor, as were many other sections of numerous emails, including an entire March 15 message between Eltife and Milliken.
Asked this week again for the source of the “less than a dozen” figure, UT public information officials said the figure was obtained from the chancellor’s office. They declined to make anyone available for an interview for questions on the process.
The university system in 2015 amended a policy that allows presidents of UT campuses to circumvent normal admissions policy, specifically spelling out the procedure. It is to be used infrequently and cannot be used to displace a student who would be otherwise admitted.
When the procedure is invoked, the president is to report it to the system’s chancellor. There is no requirement that the report be made in writing, only that the president “be required to meet with the chancellor …to discuss the process employed.”
Other than the emails provided thus far, the university is contesting The Texas Monitor’s request for other records related to the sources of Adler’s statement.
UT is in part basing its withholding of documents on attorney-client privilege, which was invoked when the communications involved members of the system’s legal team. The university system also contends that some information related to the statement contains “advice, recommendation and opinion regarding policy matters.”
The UT System’s legal office has asked for and received several clarifications on the initial request from The Texas Monitor since the request was filed March 27.
UT Austin fired tennis coach Michael Center in March after learning he had allegedly accepted $100,000 in bribes to help admit a student in 2015.
Center was among 50 individuals who were charged under federal law with participating in a widespread ring to game the college admissions process that included high-profile colleges and universities including Stanford, UCLA and Yale. Center pleaded guilty in April to mail fraud charges.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].