This recent guest opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News wasn’t exactly surprising, but certainly was disappointing. The gist is that who you know or who you are can play an important role in whether you get admitted to the University of Texas School of Law. It’s terribly unfair to the applicants who would have been admitted if the available slots hadn’t been taken by relatives of politicians, and somewhat cheapens the prestige of a degree from a fine law school. Here are excerpts from the article:
Last month, the University of Texas System published a report that I believe lays out evidence of admissions favoritism at its flagship campus. In a Viewpoints column Charles Matthews argued that “critics” should be satisfied by a phrase in that report asserting that there was no “evidence of a systematic, structured or centralized” system of fraud. In his view, anyone writing about factual evidence to the contrary is perpetuating “innuendo” and “half-truths.”
Here is what I’ve found, between my own reporting and the official report:
Under President Bill Powers, the University of Texas has admitted at least 18 unqualified students into its prestigious law school. These students’ scores on the Law School Admission Test would make them long shots at the worst law schools in the country. UT typically demands scores in the 160s or better, yet these 18 students got 140s, a 138, a 137, a 136, even a 128. You could fill in bubbles at random and do better than a 128.
Now consider the University of La Verne College of Law in California, which had the worst peer reputation of any law school on the 2013 U.S. News survey. Three-quarters of its students got a 150 or better on the LSAT, which is scored on a 120-180 range.
There’s no question that UT is showing certain applicants unmerited favor. There’s tremendous evidence that, in many cases, the reason is to curry political favor. The real question is how rampant the practice has become — and that’s the question officials don’t want answered.
Last June, UT regent Wallace Hall sought to investigate favoritism in admissions by requesting the correspondence between lawmakers and Powers. Just 18 days later, the state House launched impeachment proceedings against Hall.
Nevertheless, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa conducted a preliminary inquiry into favoritism and found that four applicants to UT Law backed by legislators had been admitted despite grades and test scores that fell “well below” and “far below” the school’s low-end benchmarks. Cigarroa only looked at 16 law school applicants and 70 undergraduate applicants, as he was trying to figure whether a full investigation was necessary.
He found that undergraduate applicants backed by a legislator got into UT at a rate of 58.7 percent, while the acceptance rate for all Texas applicants for nonautomatic admission was 15.8 percent between 2009 and 2013. That’s a 42.9 percentage point improvement.
Despite these findings, Cigarroa and Paul Foster, the chairman of the Board of Regents, decided not to pursue further investigation. Foster did promise “best practices” and a “firewall” in the future between university presidents and admissions officers.
I figured that if unqualified students were getting admitted, some of them would struggle to pass the bar. So I built a database of bar exam results spanning 2006-13 and totaled the number of tries each grad needed to pass. Of nearly 2,700 UT Law grads, just 197 needed to retake the test. I found 90 who failed it twice. And I found 29 who failed it three times or more.
That last group of 29 included several sons of politicians. It also included these five: a lobbyist who’d worked for House Speaker Joe Straus, a legislative director, the former chief of staff for a congressman, the son of a major political donor and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez. The list of double flunkies had more staffers, more children of donors and lobbyists, lots more folks hailing from Laredo, and even another state representative, Richard Peña Raymond.
I requested the LSAT scores for these people and a handful of others from public law schools in Texas, as federal student privacy law only applies to the school they actually attend. Only six of the 47 scores I received were in the 160-plus range that UT typically requires.
What did I learn? The University of Texas is cancerous with corruption, and officials don’t want to know how far the disease has spread.
Jon Cassidy is the Texas bureau chief for Watchdog.org, a network of reporters covering waste, fraud and abuse in state and local government. Watchdog.org is a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.