Affirmative Action for the Advantaged at UT-Austin

The University of Texas at Austin’s president, William C. Powers Jr., has been seen by many academics during his term in office as a liberal icon. He consistently stood up against interference in university affairs by the conservative Texas governor, Rick Perry, who wanted to de-emphasize research. And Powers has been a staunch champion of affirmative-action programs, defending Texas’s use of race in admissions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

But is Powers really such a defender of liberal values? New revelations call into question that judgment, as does a closer examination of UT’s affirmative-action strategy.

A report compiled by an independent consulting firm, Kroll Associates, found that under President Powers, UT Austin had engaged in “affirmative action for the advantaged” by intervening in admissions in favor of well-connected applicants who would otherwise have been rejected from the university. According to the report, which was released on Thursday, Powers insisted on certain “must have” applicants.

From 2009-14, applicants favored by university officials were admitted 72 percent of the time, compared with a general admissions rate of 40 percent. Although incoming-freshman SAT scores averaged 1901 out of 2400 in 2014, 73 favored applicants were admitted over the six-year period with combined SAT scores of below 1100 and high-school grade-point averages of less than 2.9. In one case, the admissions director told Powers’s chief of staff, Nancy Brazzil, that there is “no way I can admit this student” given the applicant’s record, but Brazzil replied, “Well, I speak for the president and he wants it done.” The applicant was admitted.

In addition, the report accused Powers of having “misled” an earlier investigation.

Powers was remarkably unrepentant at a news conference on Thursday. He admitted no wrongdoing and said he was acting in “the best interests of the university” to keep wealthy donors and politicians happy.

Well, here is what’s wrong with “affirmative action for the advantaged”: University admissions at selective institutions is necessarily a zero-sum game. Every time you admit a student who doesn’t deserve to be there, you knock out some hard-working student who did everything right but chose the wrong parents. We tell young people every day to work hard wtih research papers if they want to enjoy the American Dream. What does it tell young people when highly respected university administrators shove those kids aside, overruling admissions committees, in favor of “must have” admits?

I’ve been a strong opponent of legacy preferences for the children of wealthy alumni at both private and public institutions and edited a book in 2010 that explains why they are wrong. But what Powers did is worse. Providing special admissions to politically powerful individuals at a public institution is particularly pernicious and an abuse of the public trust. Admissions to selective colleges provides demonstrable benefits in life, including advantages that can be quantified in dollars and cents. Providing special favors that have monetary value to elected officials does not pass the smell test.

Notably, Powers’s interventions on behalf of advantaged applicants in the current scandal is consistent, not at odds, with UT’s particular policy on racial affirmative-action programs. At most universities, affirmative action tends to benefit middle-class African Americans and Latinos, but the white and Asian students are often wealthier, so using university discretion at to boost admissions for underrepresented minority students provides term paper writing service a marginal (if imprecise) benefit to students who have overcome economic obstacles.

But UT Austin is a special case with a different set of results. In Texas, the state Legislature set up the “top 10 percent plan” in reaction to a lower court order banning affirmative action in 1996. Students from the top 10 percent of every high school receive automatic admissions to UT Austin (a number that shifted to the top 8 percent in recent years as the program grew more popular.) Today, 75 percent of students are admitted through the percentage plan, and 25 percent through discretionary admissions.

The plan has worked well to promote racial, ethnic, and economic diversity, but in 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court in the Grutter v. Bollinger decision gave universities the green light to use race, Texas decided to supplement the percentage plan with a program of discretionary race-based affirmative action. Powers went to the state Legislature and sought to severely restrict the top-10-percent plan—to just 40 percent to 50 percent of the seats—with the promise that he would use his discretion to employ racial preferences.

Latino and black state legislators balked. They knew the top-10-percent plan was helping minority and low-income kids and didn’t want to place their trust in Powers’s discretionary affirmative action. They opted for a 75 percent rather than a 40 percent or 50 percent cap on top-10 percenters. And they called for an annual report to describe the racial and demographic background of automatic and discretionary admits.

The data are telling. In 2013, 21 percent of those admitted under the percentage plan were from families making less than $40,000 a year, compared with just 6 percent of UT’s discretionary admits (which includes affirmative action.) At the other end of the scale, 36 percent of percentage-plan admits came from families making more than $100,000, compared with 55 percent of discretionary admits. The vast majority of black and Latino candidates were admitted through the percentage plan, and only a handful through discretionary admissions.

Given this record of producing both racial and economic diversity through the percentage plan, Texas was left with the awkward argument before the U.S. Supreme Court that the problem with the top-10-percent plan was that it was admitting the “wrong” kind of minority students. Texas said it needed discretion to admit “the African American or Hispanic child of successful professionals in Dallas.”

Now we have the revelations of Powers’s special program of admissions for wealthy and well-connected students. In both cases—Powers’s special program for the well-connected and his program of discretionary admissions for affirmative action—his argument was: Give me discretion and “trust me” to do what’s best. But given his record of using discretion for those who least need it, why should we?

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and editor of The Future of Affirmative Action: New Paths to Higher Education Diversity after Fisher v. University of Texas (Century Foundation, 2014).

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