Don't Take the Morning News at Its Word on UT Admissions Scandal

OK, this is one of those stop, do not pass go moments. The Dallas Morning News published a story yesterday about the University of Texas admissions scandal that was so far off the mark, so wide of the target, so separated from reality that we need to call a halt until we can get this halfway sorted out.

The Morning News story said the UT admissions scandal is about “73 students from 2009 to 2014 who entered the state’s premier campus despite relatively low high school grade averages (less than 2.9 on the 4.0 scale) and SAT scores of less than 1100.”

No, that is not what this is about. At the very least, even if you strip away all the larger implications, the UT admissions scandal involves 10 times that many students — 764 according to a report a week ago by Jon Cassidy, an investigative reporter at Cassidy has done most of the real digging on this story.

Doesn’t mean the News has to accept Cassidy’s reporting whole cloth. But I don’t see how they can get away with pretending it isn’t even there, especially given Cassidy’s bullet-proof record of accuracy on this story over almost two years of frequent reporting.

So let’s pause and look in two directions that this story should point us toward — one quite close to home, the other more global. The scandal in a very general sense is about rich powerful people shoehorning kids into UT who don’t belong there, but it has a much more specific focus on influential members of the state Legislature. The legislative big dogs are the ones who have created a kind of private closed market in UT admissions. They can claim them for their own families and friends or hand them out to rich donors.

For the close-to-home perspective we need look no farther than our own twin gold-coast enclaves, Highland Park and University Park. The Park Cities share the distinction in Texas of being among the very worst offenders for their ability to get well-heeled, wired-up, totally unqualified candidates into UT.

Cassidy points out in his most recent report that the three worst hot spots for dunce admissions happen to be the hometowns of House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), Senate Higher Education Committee member Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and former State Representative and chair of the House Higher Education Committee until 2014 Dan Branch (R-University Park).

A private investigation by Kroll released last February found that UT had admitted seven Highland Park graduates with grade points below 2.0 and SAT scores under 800, a profile that normally would signal to an admissions officer “issues with booze, cocaine and reading.”

But Cassidy has been working on a deeper theme and perspective also being driven by the activism of UT Regent Wallace Hall of Dallas — that the Kroll report was a whitewash, the thinnest veneer of exposure designed to shield UT and its partners in crime in the Legislature from any real or painful scrutiny.

When Cassidy finally got UT to honor his public information demand for documents, the university redacted the names of individual students as required by law. But the university also redacted the names of their high schools, their grade points, even their majors — none of which they were required or authorized by law to redact — so Cassidy would not be able to identify larger patterns associated with specific school districts and places.

So there is that. Not even mentioned in the News story is that we here in the Dallas area happen to be host to one of the worst hotbeds for getting kids into UT who do not belong there by law. 

And then that other perspective — the global. First, let’s look at the global summary the News presented as a quote from former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who said the backdoor admissions at UT amounted to only 10 to 15 students a year (wrong by a factor of 10 according to Cassidy):

“It was add-on of about 10 who in the president’s judgment had extenuating circumstances,” Hutchison told the News, “whether it was a connection, or a different achievement, or who could add diversity, geographic as well as racial.”

She said she couldn’t really understand why anybody cared: “So I don’t think that is out of line at all … I’ve been astonished at all the negativity when I think our system is very fair and open.”

Now let me dredge back through notes I have collected on this story over the last year and a half or so … aha, here it is. This is from the first set of notes I took during my first interview with Wallace Hall in August of last year when I was asking him how he got interested in the whole question of mismanagement at UT in the first place.

Unspoken in the conversation was this: I’m sitting across the table in a North Dallas coffee joint from a wealthy Dallas businessman, graduate of St. Mark’s prep school and UT, with kids at UT, and I’m thinking, “I know why I’m here. I’m an old ex-post-'60s half-bald hippie troublemaker. I got nowhere else to be. But what’s your story, dude? You don’t look like no hippie to me.”

As we chatted, he recounted an anecdote for me about a totally different scenario, nothing to do with admissions. Hall had uncovered a fast-and-loose, semi-secret, good-old-boy money deal inside the law school where faculty members were giving each other half million dollar bonuses that nobody else knew about. He told me about a conversation he had with a member of the board of the private foundation the money was coming from.

“I said, ‘Listen, from 2003 to 2013 in-state tuition for the law school has gone from $7,100 to $31,000. The head count for the faculty, adjunct, tenure track and tenured, is up almost 40 percent in the same time. A third of our graduates do not get jobs. The average debt of a graduate is $150,000. And we teach 20 percent fewer kids.’ I said, ‘That’s a bad model.’”

No kidding. That’s the overview. It would be different if UT had done anything to reduce costs and increase excellence but the picture instead is of self-dealing lotus-eaters shielded by a wall of political thorns.

The backdoor admissions scandal at UT is one symptom of a larger institutional reality. The president of the university has used those admissions and the favor they bought him with key legislators to create a sealed system immune from scrutiny, heedless to social responsibilities and obligations.

Hall was appointed to the board of regents of the university system by former Governor Rick Perry. Perry was (and I guess still is) an ardent proponent of a program of universal higher education reform called “Seven Solutions.”  You’d think an initiative of that scope coming from the governor would be something the state’s top public universities would have to take seriously and at least debate. But the reaction of UT’s administrators has always been a barely disguised thin-lipped sneer.

Why would UT have to debate anything? In the argot of organized crime, UT is a made man. All former UT President Bill Powers ever had to do was speed-dial Straus or Branch or Watson and say, "Hey, can you get this dumb governor off my back?"

Meanwhile, who is minding the purse? Why isn’t there more urgency around reducing tuition and making a college degree attainable without crippling debt for more students? The universities are still operating on the inside divvy — one for you, one for me, and we’ll stick it all on the students.

The global perspective is that maybe it’s time to take another look at those seven solutions. At the very least, this story is not the trivial matter portrayed yesterday by The Dallas Morning News.