Lawmakers in 2014 admonished and censured UT Regent Wallace Hall, who was investigating lawmaker influence in the UT-Austin admissions process. Credit: Charlie Pearce for The Texas Tribune

Acting outside the normal admissions process. A back door for the rich and powerful. Secret favoritism.

No, it’s not the college admissions scandal that broke this week.

That’s how former Regent Wallace Hall once described the process powerful Texas lawmakers used to circumvent normal admission procedures in an effort to get their own kids and constituents into the University of Texas at Austin.

In an interview this week, Hall said he wasn’t surprised that UT Austin was tied to a nationwide investigation that pointed to a different kind of back door – and one university officials have condemned: allegations of outright bribery designed to secure admission into the state’s most prestigious state university.

Though it’s an extreme example of the lengths connected parents will go to get their kids into UT Austin, Hall said UT System administrators – despite reforms made in 2015 – don’t have the appropriate safeguards in place to ensure the wealthy and powerful can’t short circuit the normal admissions process.

“Politicians who take money and free dinners from people and then get their kids into universities are engaging in the same quid pro quo arrangements as the guy who got caught taking cash for the same service,” Hall told The Texas Tribune. “If a hotline was opened for whistleblowers to turn in cheaters it would be flooded because everybody knows who cheated.”

Representatives of both UT-Austin and the UT System declined to respond at length to Hall’s criticisms but said the system long ago took steps to address any flaws in its admissions procedures.

Hall made his comments a few days after federal investigators laid bare the mechanics of a nationwide college admissions fraud in which parents paid bribes to guarantee their children admission to elite schools using rigged standardized test scores or false athletic bona fides.

The students and universities connected to the probe, which include UT, Yale and the University of Southern California, have not been charged by federal prosecutors.

But the scandal’s reverberations have already led to firings and the filing of a new class-action lawsuit, which accuses the schools of having rigged admissions processes.

UT-Austin spokesman J.B. Bird responded to the lawsuit, initially filed by Stanford University students in a California court, by saying school officials were also “outraged” by the alleged fraud. He said UT has a “thorough, holistic admissions process” and that the actions taken by one school official implicated in the scandal “do not reflect our admissions process.”

That employee, men’s tennis coach Michael Center, was placed on leave, then fired Wednesday, after being accused of taking a six-figure bribe to help one applicant gain entrance to UT as a tennis recruit.

Center’s lawyer has repeatedly said his client is innocent.

Gov. Greg Abbott has also called on Texas schools to review their admissions policies “to make sure that nothing like this either is happening or can happen.”

UT officials say they are doing so across the system.

“We are committed to ensuring integrity in the admissions process and doing all we can to prevent crimes like this from occurring in the future,” said Chancellor James B. Milliken.

Still, it’s not the first time the school has been accused of having a side door in its admissions process for wealthy or connected students.

Not long after Hall was appointed to the UT System Board of Regents in 2011, he began leveling a series of complaints against then UT-Austin President Bill Powers – including a claim that Powers had helped well-connected applicants gain entrance to the university even if their academic credentials did not measure up.

The system could be likened to “affirmative action for the advantaged,” according to a 2015 report commissioned by the university system to address the controversy. Though there was no evidence of “quid pro quo,” no “inappropriate promise” of admission, and no violation of the law, the report said the university had a practice of using “holds” – which barred certain applicants from being rejected without notifying a dean or the president’s office. It identified 73 students who got into UT-Austin over five years, despite having grade point averages below 2.9 and combined SAT scores of less than 1100.

At the time, Powers said that virtually every selective university had a similar process in place, and that he was acting in what he believed to be the best interest of UT when he intervened on behalf of applicants.

But the dispute was lengthy and contentious. Legislators accused Hall of pursuing a “witch hunt” against Powers and burdening the university with onerous and time-consuming requests for reams of sensitive information. During a long battle that often had partisan overtones, Hall was asked to resign by fellow regents, censured by lawmakers and criticized (but not charged) by a grand jury – all while Gov. Rick Perry and other conservatives applauded him and said he was simply performing his oversight role.

Ultimately Hall, a Perry appointee, finished out his six-year term in early 2017.

The 2015 report compiled by Kroll Associates noted that university officials frequently face immense pressure to favor applicants in the admissions process, and that “money and influence are always significant factors.”

“At UT-Austin, the President is expected to raise large amounts of money, cultivate donors and alumni, and maintain positive relations with the state legislature,” the report said. “Some believe, therefore, that any factor that advances the interests of the university is fair game and can be taken into consideration when conducting a holistic review of a particular applicant.”

After the report was published, the UT system revised its admissions policy to add guard rails to how and when a university president can override other administrators to admit students “who might not otherwise be admitted through the normal process.”

Decisions to do so should be “very rare,” in the university’s “best interest,” and limited to students qualified to pursue the degree they are applying for, the new rules say.

The president must discuss the decisions with the chancellor and the rationale “shall be documented.”

Karen Adler, a spokeswoman for the UT system, said “reports have been made to the chancellor on fewer than a dozen admissions for all eight academic institutions since the rule was instituted in 2015.” A spokesman for UT-Austin said the flagship complies with the policy. Both declined to answer more specific questions.

Hall called the regents’ rule a “joke” and said it lacked transparency.

“If a university wants to sell seats, auction them and be upfront about it. For example, tell the public, ‘We’re going to sell 200 admission slots because we need money for the university,’ ” he said. “Maintaining the ‘black box’ approach where nobody gets to know how we let people in is ridiculous — it’s also almost always corrupt. The focus should be on transparent and objective admissions.”

Avatar photo

Jay Root

Jay Root is a native of Liberty, and a reporter at the Texas Tribune. He was Austin bureau chief of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a dozen years, most of them good. He also covered politics and the Legislature...

Avatar photo

Shannon Najmabadi, The Texas Tribune

Shannon Najmabadi is the higher education reporter at the Tribune, where she started as a fellow in 2017. She previously reported for the Chronicle of Higher Education, where she covered the gender equity...