The storm of a scandal at the University of Texas at Austin has reached gale force winds. Two internal investigations and reporting by Texas media have revealed that the leadership of the university regularly intervened in the admissions process to ensure the acceptance of unqualified applicants connected to politically powerful figures in the state. University officials also attempted to mislead investigators to conceal or mis-describe their activities. And Wallace Hall, a trustee who tried to bring these corrupt practices to light, was threatened for his efforts with criminal indictment by a grand jury and impeachment by state legislators, some of whom were the beneficiaries of preferential admissions.
Charles Miller, a former Chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas Systsem, sent the following letter to the current Regents, Chancellor, and a Review Committee. I re-print it here with his permission.
To: Committee to Review Admissions Practices at UT Austin
From: Charles Miller, Former Chairman, UT System Board of Regents
This memo is an attempt to offer an independent and informed opinion about the direction of admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin.
It is patently clear that there should be a strong firewall in the admission function between the office of the president and the operation of the admissions office once broad policies are set in an open and publicly transparent process.
The firewall is not only a sound administrative structure but allows an admissions policy to be implemented with a minimal likelihood of improper influence and with a high degree of public confidence and trust.
There can be no ignoring the fact that the level of confidence and trust in admissions at UT Austin has not only been badly damaged by the recent admissions practices of the Powers administration but by the repeated efforts necessary to uncover what seems to have been going on in admissions. As the Dallas Morning News characterizes it: “Those questionable situations include the admissions scandal that led to Powers planned resignation”
What was going on? Specially tagged candidates based on interventions from ‘powerful’ people; special lists developed by the president outside of any of the official procedures; active and forceful intervention by the president and his staff in admissions decisions; destruction of admissions records; legal and public descriptions of the admissions process which were knowingly incomplete and inaccurate; and the admission of students —some severely unqualified— for purposes of gaining some sort of favor from a special class of privileged people.
The strong resistance from public policy makers and so-called supporters of UT Austin to uncovering what was happening protected an administration engaged in willful misconduct and can only have worsened the public’s perception of a great university.
Considering the practices uncovered [i]t’s difficult to understand why these officials and alums were so loud and derisive to the people trying to uncover the improprieties and why they were so vociferous in their demands for a narrow investigation. That implies it’s not yet clear that everything has surfaced that needs to become public.
Even now, as serious new legal issues are being raised in federal courts and new attempts are being made in the Texas Legislature to limit proper inquiry by regents doing their fiduciary duties, there has still been no one held accountable.
In the federal courts, these improper admissions activities will bring sustained attention, in a negative way, to UT Austin. And it will also bring continued attention to the U.T. System until there is personal accountability attached to these actions.
The leaders of the UT System seem to hope the fallout from these improper activities will go away if they just ignore what transpired. Surprisingly there has been no official response from the Board of Regents regarding the two highly negative reports resulting from investigations by Kroll Associates and the Texas Attorney General. The UT System administration has not even taken a public position challenging the rationale for this improper admissions behavior which is tantamount to approving of it.
What was the rationale presented for this behavior? ‘Everybody does it.’ ‘There were only a small number of cases.’ ‘It was done only for the long term benefit of the university.’ ‘Only the president is able to make these judgments and these decisions.’
On the face, these are ludicrous arguments, so defensive in nature as to constitute an admission of bad practices.
However, these unanswered excuses create serious issues for designing an appropriate admissions structure and the committee must offer policy proposals which respond strongly to these defenses.
Most serious, the claim that ‘everybody does it’ besmirches the integrity and dedication to duty of the entire academic community. It’s simply a monumental falsehood and deserves the sharpest of reprimands from the committee, the broader academic community and the U.T. System.
The number of cases was not ‘small’. Otherwise, why did they go to so much trouble to engage in these activities and why try so vigorously to conceal them?
If the numbers were so small, how can this be so important for the long term benefit of the university?
If these admissions were so important as to influence powerful parties for the long term benefit of the university, how can this not be improperly trading something of value for something else of value?
The most arrogant of the excuses is that the president is the only one who can make difficult admissions decisions. This is again patently false. For example, there are well defined processes under which the university can receive gifts, describing how those gifts can be used. These decisions are put through an onerous review process, transparent and focused on the mission of the university and maintaining its independence and integrity.
Presidents are neither omniscient nor infallible. Good structures start with those assumptions. A sound admissions process can include the president’s appointing personnel to implement policy developed by the president and the administration with the approval of the Board of Regents and with a firewall in implementation at the point at which prospective students are offered admission.
Under these challenging circumstances where there has been evidence of misconduct, it is imperative that UT Austin put in place a highly transparent system for admissions, visibly removing any possibility of the recent behavior being repeated.
Respect for this great university is continuing to be damaged. Trust can only be restored and maintained by utilizing a strong form admissions firewall and by regular, self critical oversight by the UT System.