By Bobby Blanchard
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published July 20, 2015
AUSTIN – Dozens of highly influential Texans – including lawmakers, millionaire donors and university regents – helped under-qualified students get into the University of Texas at Austin, often by writing to UT officials, records show.
Among those who wrote directly to then-President Bill Powers and then-Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, bypassing the admissions office, were famed golfer and UT grad Ben Crenshaw, former UT regent H. Scott Caven Jr., Austin lawyer Roy Minton and Sens. Kevin Eltife and Carlos Uresti, records obtained by The Dallas Morning News show.
Dozens of others, many of them famous UT alumni, also helped tip the scales. They include House Speaker Joe Straus, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, former regents Jess Hay and Thomas Hicks, former chairman of the state University Coordinating Board Larry Temple and former UT quarterback Randy McEachern.
The letters surfaced through an outside investigation into the admission process, known as the Kroll report. The investigation highlighted 73 students from 2009 to 2014 who entered the state’s premier campus despite relatively low high school grade averages (less than 2.9 on the 4.0 scale) and SAT scores of less than 1100. Such marks would usually have precluded their admission.
The copies of letters obtained by The News under the state’s open records law do not identify specific students.
The Kroll report found that the students were admitted by Powers, and it suggested that political or personal connections may have influenced the decision.
The admissions issue and suggestions of favoritism have become a flashpoint on the UT governing board. Regent Wallace Hall of Dallas has relentlessly questioned the administration and pushed for the ouster of Powers, who stepped down in June.
Powers has defended his role in the admissions process.
“In every case, I acted in what I believed was the best interest of the university,” Powers said when the Kroll report was released in February.
While the Kroll report said UT-Austin should adopt admissions policies that “are perceived as fair and transparent,” it also noted Powers did not break any laws or UT System rules in his actions.
UT, under state law, automatically admits all students who graduate in the top 7 percent of their high school class. For others, UT weighs academic achievements, SAT scores, special accomplishments, essays, socioeconomic status, racial or ethnic background and letters of recommendation.
In 2014, more than 38,000 students applied to UT-Austin. Less than half were offered a spot, and 7,285 were enrolled.
More than 250 letters were written on behalf of the 73 students studied in the Kroll report. Some came from lawmakers and others came from private citizens that are close friends with the university.
House Speaker Straus wrote to the director of the admissions office in November 2012 requesting consideration of the daughter of a close family friend. Later in 2013, Straus directed a committee to investigate Hall, who had doggedly been pursuing investigations into UT operations.
“I know [the student] well as our families are close friends,” Straus wrote in the letter addressed to Kedra Ishop, who was then director of admissions. She “is a multi-generation Longhorn legacy, dating back to 1924.”
Jason Embry, Straus’ spokesman, declined immediate comment.
The letters often cite that the applicants were the children of family friends.
Eltife, R-Tyler, said that the letter he wrote in 2009 directly to Powers was on behalf a constituent. He’s written hundreds of letters for constituents trying to get into UT and other state and private universities, the senator said.
The student “hardworking, loyal and successful,” Eltife wrote in the letter, which he addressed to “Bill.”
He added: “Along with her excellence in academics, her other standout attributes are her commitment to serving others and her leadership abilities.”
Letters of recommendation from private citizens were often more blunt, and sometimes did not dwell on an applicant’s qualities.
“I do not know this young man or anything about his qualifications, but I do know [the student’s] parents and I know his grandparents very well,” wrote W.A. “Tex” Moncrief, the Fort Worth millionaire oil man. The student “is certainly from a very fine and highly respected family.”
Moncrief has given at least $25 million to UT-Austin, according to the university’s website.
Hicks, the Dallas multimillionaire who once owned the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars, is a former UT regent and brother to current UT regent Steve Hicks. Tom Hicks wrote to the office of admissions in 2011 on behalf of an applicant whose grandparents “have been longtime generous supporters of UT-Austin.”
Others addressed letters more personally. Scott Caven Jr., another former UT regent, wrote to “Bill” in 2009.
“The [redacted] families have been loyal supporters of UT-Austin for over a century, and almost every member of each branch and generation of the family has attended The University,” Caven wrote.
Others in the trove of letters include wealthy businessman and university benefactor Red McCombs, UT women’s athletic director Christine Plonsky and Austin advertising executive Roy Spence, who’s firm came up with the UT logo, “We’re Texas.”
Among other lawmakers who wrote letters were Sens. Judith Zaffirini, Rodney Ellis, Mike Jackson and Eddie Lucio Jr.; former Rep. Veronica Gonzales, now an administrator at UT-Pan American; and the chief of staff for Rep. Rob Orr.
Hall, the UT regent embroiled in conflict, has sued the UT System for access to student records in the Kroll report. The UT System has refused Hall access to the records, arguing his role as a regent does not guarantee him the right to see the documents.