Report: UT president approved applicants over objections

Bill Powers speaks after announcing he will resign as UT president. (Paul Shelton/KXAN)
Texas president Bill Powers during a news conference Jan. 6, 2014, in Austin. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN (KXAN/AP) — A new report by Kroll International private investigators concludes University of Texas President William Powers intervened far more extensively than his predecessors to provide special consideration for certain applicants to the school, often for influential lawmakers and donors. The Kroll report commissioned by the Board of Regents found there was nothing improper or illegal, and Powers insists that it is the smart way to run a major university.

The investigation into influence peddling in admissions at the University of Texas System’s flagship campus found applicants approved by the outgoing president were also recommended alumni and at times by regents themselves. Powers told investigators his decisions regarding admissions always were made with the “best interests of the university” in mind, according to the report.

But the report criticized Powers and his staff as misleading earlier investigations by failing to disclose the existence of “watch lists” and high-level meetings concerning applicants. And it said the practice has caused “increasing tension” between the president and admissions staff.

If Powers chose to intervene in a case he would issue “Q-Hold” on an application. He did so on average about 300 times a year. Data showed those with holds had a 31 percent better chance of being admitted to the school.

The question of influence peddling in general admissions to the university, as well as to the law and business schools, was a key factor in years of tension between Powers, several regents and state lawmakers. Powers was pressured last year to resign, and he leaves office in June.

“Sometimes they are policy makers, sometimes donors, people on advisory committees, a variety of people who help this university advance,” Powers said. “It behooves every university in America to stay connected with those people.”

Powers also noted the report cited 73 applicants who normally would not have been admitted, a rate of fewer than one in 1,000 over the time covered by the report. Powers has been school president since 2006.

Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster and new Chancellor William McRaven said they do not want to punish Powers or university employees.

“There are a lot of things we can do better,” McRaven said. “But I saw no willful misconduct, no criminal activity and I intend to take no disciplinary action.”

Regent Wallace Hall, Powers’ most vocal critic who had pushed for the investigation, declined to comment Thursday. Hall also has been the subject of a legislative and an ongoing criminal investigation into his efforts to force Powers out of his job.

Powers told investigators that letters or recommendations from lawmakers on behalf of applicants were afforded “more weight” because legislative oversight impacts the university. The report did not name specific lawmakers who tried to influence admissions for family, friends or constituents. It also noted “several instances” when regents contacted the university on behalf of relatives.

Powers refused to name those who asked for consideration … except for one person, Hall. He added it is up to others to decide if Hall’s controversial inquiries are at all vindicated by this report.

In one instance, an unnamed regent asked for a meeting with the director of admissions while a relative’s appeal of a denial was pending. The regent said the request was unrelated to the pending appeal, but system lawyers ultimately didn’t allow the meeting.

On another occasion, a regent asked Powers’ assistant Nancy Brazzil who an applicant would “need to talk with.” Brazzil replied, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it,” and the applicant was admitted, the report said.

Some students on campus told KXAN they sweated out their admissions and wondered if this process was fair.

“I was struggling and had to work very hard to get in, and it’s frustrating to think some people can pay their way in,” said freshman Angela Shortreed. “But it’s the university system, and that’s the way it works.”

“It sounds like students are getting admitted based on their connections and not really merit,” added junior Ashton Holloman. “Sounds wrong to me, even if no one lost their spot.”

“This is a good report,” Powers concluded. “It shows our practices are sound, even if they could be changed slightly.”

Powers is set to leave office June 2.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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