UT-Austin's Powers Gives an "Everybody Does It" Defense to Biased Admissions Policy

Wallace Hall
Wallace Hall
Can Turkyilmaz

In a 15-minute press conference yesterday responding to an investigative report on sketchy back-door admissions practices, UT-Austin President Bill Powers said he was only doing what his predecessors did, that everybody at other universities does it, that everybody knows about it and that his main accuser, UT Regent Wallace Hall, did it, too.

Uplifting, what?

Somebody in the room asked him if Hall had ever tried to get someone admitted.

"I'm not going to talk about regents or other people who sent letters," Powers said primly. "I will say with the case of Regent Hall and his involvement in the issues that have come up over the last several years and in this particular investigation and instigating it, I will answer that question, and the answer is yes, Regent Hall has exerted influence over the admissions process."

I was unable to reach Hall for comment.

Powers admitted he intervened in the admissions of special-case students but justified the action as common practice well known to all, even suggesting that his superiors on the board of regents and in the overarching University of Texas System do not have clean skirts:

"I inherited this process which was well known by regents, former chancellors, the board of regents office and UT system officials, many of them as the report notes asked me to intervene on their behalf."

Hints of the existence of Powers' special admissions practices were first discovered by Hall, a Dallas businessman, through open records requests for which he was denounced by the university and by influential legislators. Some of those legislators were ultimately discovered to have made regular demands for special admissions consideration for favored applicants, sometimes for their own children.

Nevertheless the existence of the special admissions system was denied in findings of an internal UT investigation spurred by Hall's findings. That report was abandoned almost the day it was delivered because a whistleblower emerged from the admissions department the same day offering fresh damning evidence that corroborated Hall. A new external investigation was ordered, and it was that report to which Powers was speaking yesterday.

In his remarks Powers suggested broadly that Hall only made a big deal about the back-door admissions situation because he had ulterior political reasons. Hall is an appointee of former Governor Rick Perry with whom the university has feuded.

"When you ask about the motivation of certain investigations," he said, "it wasn't the campuses across the system [Hall singled out only UT-Austin]. On all kinds of other issues lots of investigation of me. And one has to ask about the motivations for that."

He was asked a few times if the report by Kroll International is a vindication for Hall.

"The controversy over Regent Hall, and there is an investigation going on about his conduct, I'm not going to comment on it. It's not for me to comment on it. I will leave to others as to whether he'll be vindicated on that.

"On the question of vindication there have been a lot of allegations that there were quid pro quos and payments for admission. And the Kroll report completely finds no evidence for that."

Actually the executive summary of the Kroll report does say Kroll found no quid pro quo, but then in the body of the report there are all kinds of evidence of quid pro quo, especially with legislators. Powers' own insistent justification for the special admissions yesterday -- that they were in the "best interest of the university" -- was obviously about quid pro quo.

Or what? He thought students attending the university would be broadened by the experience of going to school with dumb drunk kids related to state legislators? Whatever. He insisted several times that everybody does it -- "virtually every selective university across the country."

Powers called the Kroll report "a thorough and fair and accurate report." He said the number of dubious admissions found were statistically trivial compared to the total enrollment of the school.

"The report has found that over my five-year tenure as president, my office intervened on behalf of a relatively small number of students in the admissions process. In particular it cited 73 applicants who normally would not have been admitted. That is fewer than one in a 1,000 admitted students."

But that is not at all what the report found. It found that Powers intervened every year on behalf of 300 or more students trying to get into UT. And here is the real significance of that number: because of the 10 percent rule by which students in the top 10 percent of a Texas high school class are admitted automatically to state universities, only 1,500 to 1,800 slots are left open each year for so-called "competitive entries," a certain number of which are reserved for foreign students. (In fact the 10 percent rule for UT-Austin has been tweaked in recent years, shrinking the number of automatic admissions to the top 7 or 8 percent of graduates.)

By 10 percent count, Powers was controlling admissions for 20 to 30 percent of the competitive slots for Texas students. At least theoretically, those slots should go to applicants who come from hyper-competitive high schools where getting into the top percentile of the senior class is difficult. The downside of the rule, in fact, is that highly qualified applicants from competitive high schools can't make it into UT under the rule, while less qualified kids from less rigorous high schools can.

Powers said -- and everyone including Hall seems to agree -- that getting into UT is way more competitive than it was 10 years ago, especially for applicants from rigorous high schools. And it's easy to imagine that giving away some of those slots to major donors and legislative committee chairs is probably, as Powers insisted, in the university's best interest.

But 30 percent of them? That's just a boy who cain't say no.

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