Recommendation letters written by elected officials and submitted directly to a university president have been a source of controversy at the University of Texas at Austin. And while Texas A&M University’s president has received similar letters, they have not set off similar alarms.
The Texas Tribune reviewed more than 20 examples of recommendation letters written over the last five years and sent directly to either Texas A&M’s president or the Texas A&M University System chancellor, rather than being routed through the admissions office. The letters are similar in nature to the nearly 80 letters sent to UT-Austin’s president that were included in a review of that school’s admissions processes that the UT System conducted this year.
That review sparked a systemwide look at admissions policies and recommendations for best practices, including planned efforts to better educate the public and government officials about how the admissions process should work.
The UT System announced Monday that New York-based investigative firm Kroll Associates had been hired to conduct the investigation. Per its contract with the company, the UT System agreed to pay up to $145,000 for the effort.
Asked if the existence of such letters would prompt a similar level of soul-searching, Steve Moore, an A&M System spokesman, said there were no plans to investigate, review or alter their flagship’s admissions procedures.
The situations are not identical. No A&M regent has publicly accused the system’s largest university — as UT Regent Wallace Hall, through his attorneys, has said of UT-Austin — of succumbing to undue political influence and admitting unqualified applicants.
In a report following the preliminary review of UT-Austin’s admissions process, Dan Sharphorn, the system’s vice chancellor and general counsel, and Wanda Mercer, the associate vice chancellor for student affairs, concluded that such letters could be problematic.
“When letters from legislators that contain no important substantive information about applicants are submitted outside that process, particularly those sent to the president of the university, it creates at least an appearance of impropriety,” they wrote.
On its website, Texas A&M notes that, for prospective freshman, optional application supplements, including recommendation letters, “traditionally have very little impact on the admission decision.” The site also notes that no more than two letters will be considered and recommends uploading recommendation letters through its online application management system. Graduate applicants are told they “should provide three recommendations from individuals who are familiar with [their] academic achievement and potential.” The site indicated that these should be submitted to the department to which the individual is applying.
But lawmakers have sent letters directly to the university president or chancellor on behalf of individuals seeking admittance to both undergraduate and graduate programs. In some cases, the letter writer emphasized personal connections nearly as prominently as the applicant’s accomplishments.
In 2013, state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, wrote to then-President R. Bowen Loftin recommending a student whom, he noted, he had “a personal interest” in because he had “known her family for over 15 years.”
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison wrote in 2012 to Loftin, who is now serving as chancellor of the University of Missouri, on behalf of someone she described as “the grandson of my friend.”
Also in 2012, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, wrote to Loftin recommending a young woman he had known “since she was a baby” who was “principled and astute” and was “extremely excited about the prospect of attending her top college choice, Texas A&M.” The following year, he sent a nearly identical letter for a different “principled and astute” young woman he had, according to the letter, known since her infancy.
Moore, the A&M System spokesman, said that when such letters are received, they are forwarded to the admissions office to be added the prospective student’s file for review.
Asked how much impact those letters are believed to have on the final decision, he said, “Texas A&M does not require letters of recommendation, but they are accepted and forwarded for a prospective student's file. They have no official weighting in the decision, but are considered in the holistic review of the file.”
In conducting their preliminary review of admissions practices, UT System officials were able to determine how many students on whose behalf legislators had contacted top administrators had been admitted. While they had a small sample size and found no evidence of wrongdoing, their findings, they wrote, “suggest that these legislator letters impact admissions decisions.”
A&M System officials do not plan any similar review. But the scrutiny of UT-Austin is intensifying.
Cigarroa has said that the recently launched external investigation will not focus on the letters or the elected officials who write them, but rather on how university administrators handle such correspondence.
According to a notice of the investigation submitted to the Legislative Budget Board, “the investigation should determine if UT-Austin admissions decisions are made for any reason other than an applicant's individual merit as measured by academic achievement and established personal holistic attributes, and if not, why not."
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, the Texas A&M University System and the University of Texas at Austin are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune.