Thursday, August 20, 2015

Responding to Controversy, UT System Amends Admissions Policy

By Matthew Watkins

The University of Texas System Board of Regents approved a new admissions policy for its 10 universities Thursday, mandating strict guidelines for how and when letters of recommendation are considered and banning any inappropriate outside attempts to get certain students into school.

"The process is designed so that no shadow system of admissions can exist," said Deputy Chancellor David E. Daniel, who oversaw the writing of they policy.

But the regents still left open "very rare" circumstances where a university president can step in and get a student accepted. That would be allowed when the president believes accepting a particular student is of the "highest institutional importance."

The board's action follows months of debate and legal fights about admissions at the system's flagship, UT-Austin. System leaders have ordered two investigations into admissions processes, and critics have accused former university president Bill Powers of running a "back-door" system to get students with powerful connections into school.

One such inquiry, conducted by the investigative firm Kroll Associates, found Powers and other officials placed hundreds of "holds" on particular students' applications, allowing him to track their progress and possibly help them get into school. The firm's report identified more than 70 students with powerful connections who got into UT-Austin despite GPAs below 2.9 and combined SAT scores of less than 1100.

Many of those students received letters of recommendation from powerful lawmakers or alumni, including professional athletes, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and multiple state legislators. It's unclear what effect those letters had on getting those students into school.

Under the policy approved Thursday, an applicant's file could only be flagged for an administrative reason, not to give a student an advantage in any way. And letters of recommendation that don't provide substantive information about a student will not be considered.

"If it says I know so-and-so is a wonderful kid and from a wonderful family, that is not substantive," Daniel said.

But a school president can "on very rare occasion" admit a student who might not otherwise be admitted through the normal process, according to the policy. The policy doesn't define "very rare" but said such actions should be limited to students whose admission is defensible and whose admission is "of highest institutional importance" to the university.

In such cases, the president needs to notify the UT System chancellor about the decision.

"It is up to the chancellor to determine that the decision of the presidents are reasonable, that the number is very rare and that the rationale for such decisions is consistent with the requirement for highest institutional importance," Daniel said.

Only one regent, Wallace Hall, voted against the policy. He has been the most outspoken critic of Powers' admissions practices and has sued the Chancellor Bill McRaven in an attempt to obtain supporting documents from the Kroll Associates investigation. Hall said the new policy "memorializes" practices that have already been in place. The schools need stricter rules, he said, and a more open examination of past practices.

"We are a public university system, not a private college," Hall said.

Other regents said they felt the policy addressed the system's needs.

"There are always going to be exceptions, and there are always going to be questions," said Board Chairman Paul Foster. "Nothing is perfect, although I think this is pretty darn close."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster has been a major donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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