Chancellor promises complete investigation of UT admissions

Part 21 of 21 in the series Trouble in Texas

THE LEADERS: University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, left, and Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster.

By Jon Cassidy |

HOUSTON — The chancellor of the University of Texas System has decided to authorize an external investigation into political influence on the admissions process at the University of Texas at Austin, reversing his decision last month not to pursue the matter.

Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said “ongoing questions” and “additional input” since that decision led him to change his mind., of course, has been the source of that input, detailing the underwhelming performance of dozens of politically connected students at UT Law, as well as their abysmal scores on the Law School Admissions Test.

Cigarroa announced the decision to the Texas Tribune late Friday.

Last month, the chancellor’s office published the results of a preliminary inquiry into favoritism, finding stark evidence lawmakers were pulling strings on behalf of under- and unqualified UT applicants, many of whom they didn’t even know. The report concluded it was a “widely common practice among legislators” to ask the university’s president to intercede for these applicants, and that “it is not unreasonable to conclude that these letters of recommendation influenced the admissions decisions for some or all of these applicants.”

University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall raised the issue of political favoritism last summer, and promptly found himself facing impeachment by some of the lawmakers who had been pulling strings with UT’s president, Bill Powers.

All of the controversy that has ensued since comes down to this question: are Hall’s accusations against Powers true or false? Is Powers corrupt, or is Hall a liar?

The chancellor’s report goes right to the truth of the central issue in this saga, yet was ignored by almost all of the newspaper reporters covering the story. That wasn’t an accident. The report was released after the May 15 board meeting, quietly, by email, close to deadline, to minimize attention.

Reporters focused instead on Chairman Paul Foster’s call for Hall’s resignation, or they failed to focus at all, as when the Houston Chronicle’s reporter thought she heard Regent Bobby Stillwell join in the opprobrium, and quoted him telling Hall “shame on you.” Stillwell never said that.

While the rest of the press continues to ignore that report, the Chronicle’s reporter, at least, wrote it up a month late, acknowledging the report had effectively killed the effort to impeach Hall, even if it was “unlikely to completely vindicate” him.

Another way of saying the same thing is that one preliminary inquiry concerning admissions favoritism produced facts so compelling that a year’s worth of slander against Hall became instantly irrelevant.

Cigarroa’s preliminary report was meant to determine whether there was enough evidence to merit a full investigation. It found that evidence, but a majority of the Board of Regents wanted to “move beyond the controversy” and “advance excellence,” as Regent Jeffrey Hildebrand put it.

So the UT System allowed an official at the University of Texas to rewrite portions of the report, tacking on some forgiving conclusions at odds with the facts. Those are the lines you see quoted in the op-eds by members of the Bill Powers’ fan club. That’s the reason the report got such a low-key release.

That’s also the reason it’s significant Cigarroa is hiring an outside firm to conduct this review. Given the inherent problems with in-house reports, and UT’s own history with whitewashed reports, complete independence will be crucial for this review — that, and complete access. If these investigators get stonewalled, if UT insists they only get redacted, nameless, heavily edited records, then we’ll know two things: they have something to hide, and they won’t be able to blame Wallace Hall.

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