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Report: UT admitted sub-par students with gold-plated recommendations

Some recommendations explicitly asked for 'special consideration' while others claimed they didn't want to wield any undue influence.

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    Former UT President Bill Powers speaks during a faculty council meeting in Austin, Texas on Wednesday, July 9, 2014.
    Mengwen Cao/The Daily Texan/AP
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Powerful alumni, donors, and state leaders wrote recommendation letters that may have secured admission into the University of Texas for sub-par students, the Houston Chronicle reports.

On Tuesday, the Chronicle obtained redacted copies of hundreds of letters addressed to UT-Austin administrators on behalf of dozens of under-qualified applicants. Despite their poor qualifications, the applicants were admitted to the school, according to an investigation known as the Kroll report.

Between 2009 and 2014, 73 students secured a place at UT Austin "despite relatively low high school grade averages (less than 2.9 on the 4.0 scale) and SAT scores of less than 1,100," according to the report, which was commissioned by UT administrators.

UT Chancellor Bill McRaven challenged that. "Our universities receive thousands of letters of recommendation each year," Mr. McRaven said, according to the Houston Chronicle. "Letters of recommendation do not determine a student's fate."

The Dallas Morning News published excerpts of some letters online.

Some recommendations were formal.

A letter by a former regent read: “I do not know this young man or anything about his qualifications, but I do know his parents and I know his grandparents very well.”

Others were more personal.

A former UT quarterback wrote, “We have known [the applicant] all of her life, have spent time with her, and have watched her grow into a smart, hard-working, committed young lady with a delightful sense of humor.”

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus wrote twice to the director of the admissions on behalf of family and friends, The Dallas Morning News reported. His spokesman said Straus “was happy to advocate for his constituents but, as he told Mr. Powers in writing, he did not want or expect special treatment for any students.”

Some letters, also published in The Dallas Morning News, included more explicit requests.

Lawyer Stephen Ballantyne wrote on behalf of an applicant: “I do hope special consideration can be given to this outstanding young woman.”

Former US Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R) told The Dallas Morning News she had written some recommendations for students, but while some got in, others didn’t.

Hutchinson said the Kroll report’s findings averaged out to 15 students a year, out of an entering class of 7,000, who had sub-par academic records.

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

Some have expressed doubts over the Kroll report’s findings.

John Kassidy, a journalist at Watchdog.org, reported that the “UT admissions abuse is 10 times bigger than Kroll’s depiction.”

“The message to young people is that cheaters win, ethics don’t matter, good guys finish last,” Maribeth Vander Weele, an Illinois investigator, told Watchdog.org.

The Kroll report didn’t find that the university president at the time, Bill Powers, broke any rules but recommended UT adopt fair admissions policies, which UT’s spokesman said the university was on track to do.

“Chancellor McRaven plans to present a proposal for system-wide admissions practices, based on the work of a distinguished committee of former university leaders and informed by past admissions reviews, including the Kroll report,” he said. “We look forward to implementing his proposals.”

UT’s admission process has been under scrutiny for years.

Next term, the Supreme Court will reconsider an affirmative action case from Abigail Fisher, a white applicant denied admission by the University of Texas at Austin, USA Today reported. Ms. Fisher claims she was rejected because of her race. Her case first reached the court in 2012.

USA Today reported: “By agreeing to reconsider the policies, the justices served notice that they might overrule the appeals court and rule against the school's limited use of race in admissions.”

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