We've heard endless talk in the last 10 years about the official admissions policies of public universities and whether those policies deprive certain applicants of a fair shot. But that's all been based on the publicly acknowledged admissions policies of those schools.
What about the secret off-the-books admissions system?
Kroll International, a private investigations company, has just turned in its four-months-long probe of admissions practices at the University of Texas at Austin. It blows the doors off.
To every single applicant who ever got turned down by UT, I say this: Your wildest most paranoid imagining of why you got screwed and how they really do admissions at UT was nowhere near wild or paranoid enough.
We're talking about admissions meetings where university officials shred all their notes before leaving the room, like Bookie Bob with his flash paper.
We're talking about kids so dumb and so unqualified in every other respect that the admissions director begs not to have to let them in, but UT President Bill Powers tells him to do it anyway.
One of my favorite vignettes from the report: "It was stated by the admissions director that the student under discussion was 'so bad for so many reasons, there is no way I can admit this student.'"
At that point, Powers' chief of staff Nancy Brazzil, who has already told the admissions people that she "speaks for the president," says to the admissions director, "Do we need to talk to Bill?"
The Kroll report says: "Then, sometime after the meeting, the President's Office called the Admissions Office and said, 'Nancy talked to Bill and we have to do this.'"
I love that. "Do we need to talk to Bill?" It's like The Sopranos.
Powers, according to the report, was carrying around his own secret, personal, hip-pocket admissions system by which as many as 300 students a year got into UT. They were called "holds." If you were an applicant and Powers put a "hold" by your name in the admissions computer system, it meant nobody could deny you admission without first speaking to Powers or his muscle, Brazzil.
None of this was mentioned, touched on or even hinted at in an earlier internal investigation when UT supposedly examined its own admissions practices in response to questions raised by Regent Wallace Hall. When UT was doing the investigating, UT came up clean as a whistle and Hall was the bad guy.
The internal UT report concluded: "The inquiry did not uncover any evidence of a systematic, structured or centralized process of reviewing and admitting applicants recommended by influential persons."
And Hall! You may remember what they wanted to do to him. The Legislature went batshit crazy and instituted an abortive attempt at impeachment after Hall suggested the main beneficiaries of Powers' hip-pocket admissions system were influential legislators. Every big newspaper in the state carried howling editorials castigating Hall for daring to suggest ... DARING TO SUGGEST that such a thing could go on. And in Texas! Heaven forfend.
Fortunately for truth, candor and the American way, just when UT was about to put its internal report down for its everlasting rest in a nice dry file cabinet somewhere, a whistleblower popped up from the admissions department and dished to officials above UT-Austin in the overarching University of Texas System.
What the whistleblower told them was bombshell enough that they had no choice: They tossed the internal report into the round file and commissioned Kroll to take a fresh arms-length look. That report just went to university officials this week.
The Kroll report cites instance after instance of legislators shoehorning unqualified kids into UT. It even offers up a distinction of sorts for our own Highland Park High School in this area.
Kroll looked at a sample of 73 smelly admissions files tied to legislators. In that sample, four affluent high schools in Texas accounted for 45 percent of the sample. Among the four, Highland Park High School was way out ahead at No. 1 with a third of all the dicey admissions in the whole sample.
Little bit slow? Got a friend in the Lege? Come to Highland Park High. We got you covered.
In some of the cases Kroll looked at, it was almost as if you could assume a kid with a close connection to a state legislator would also have serious learning differences: "Two applicants with close ties to state legislators had very low high school grades [GPA range of 1.8 to 2.2] combined with SAT scores in the 800s [combined math and verbal]."
Come on down!
The Kroll report suggests that legislators and even persons merely connected to legislators could have their way with Powers. In one case a former elected official and UT alumnus tells Powers that a state legislator who is a member of an "important ... committee" has a strong interest in getting an applicant into UT law school and then talks about "the political and funding implications of having (the applicant) in our law school."
Come on down!
So how is it that this entrenched, off-the-books, paper-shredding, Bookie-Bob, secret admissions system failed to garner even a mention when UT did its own internal investigation? The Kroll report puts the blame for that not on the internal investigators but squarely on Powers and his top staff:
"Although President Powers and his Chief of Staff appear to have answered specific questions asked of them with technical precision," the report says, "it appears that by their material omissions they misled the inquiry. At minimum, each failed to speak with the candor and forthrightness expected of people in their respective positions of trust and leadership."
I don't know about that. How much candor and forthrightness would I expect of Bookie Bob? Once you start shredding your notes, candor is pretty much out the window anyway.
A question here is what effect all this may have on the Abigail Fisher admissions denial litigation against the university. Fisher has been shot down twice by a federal appeals court in her attempt to show that UT's admissions policy unfairly denied her admission. She filed a writ yesterday with the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case up again, which means her litigation is still alive for now.
I spoke briefly yesterday with Edward Blum, president of the Project on Fair Representation, which has sponsored the Fisher litigation. He said he didn't see any immediate connection between the Wallace Hall admissions controversy and claims made in the Fisher litigation, but he did say he would have liked to know back when the Fisher suit was first being filed that UT was also running a second off-the-books admissions system.
One caution about the Kroll report. Kroll starts off by saying that no one was found to have broken the law, almost as if this clears its client, UT, of serious repercussions. But nobody ever said they broke the law. The authors of the Kroll say they couldn't even find a law governing college admissions to be broken.
No, this was never about criminality, anyway. This was always a question of lying to the public and to eager kids who want to get in, telling them the university maintains one kind of standard when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth. In other words, the question was never criminality, It was always douchebaggery.
Here are some douchebag highlights from the Kroll report:
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In another case, the President's Office called the law school apparently after speaking with two members of the Legislature. According to a voice mail recording of the call, the President's Office asked, "If we can go ahead and admit those kids. [President Powers] says it's very important." Two days later acceptance letters were sent to both applicants.
Under President Powers, [admissions holds] have totaled as many as 300 applicants of interest per year. The majority of [the holds] appear to be based on requests from Texas legislators and members of the Board of Regents.
For example the chief of staff [Brazzil] essentially ordered certain "must have" applicants admitted over the objection of the Admissions Office. Admissions was essentially "forced to admit" many of these applicants over the objection of Admissions, including some applicants who, in this former official's opinion, clearly did not qualify for admission.
In sum, Kroll's review of the 73 applications in which applicants subject to a [hold] were admitted [despite] sub-par quantitative scores and grades suggests that in some instances factors such as political influence or connections with persons of influence may have played a role