Lawmakers lobby UT on admissions

Many try to win places for friends' kids; some make it, and some don't

By Sharon Jayson
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Sunday, May 18, 2003

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, head of the Senate Education Committee, did it. So did state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin and House Speaker Tom Craddick. Even U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison got in on the act.

They all wrote to University of Texas officials asking them to find places at the increasingly competitive and crowded flagship campus this fall for the children of friends, colleagues and constituents. Letters of recommendation aren't a required part of the undergraduate application, but lawmakers write them anyway. They say such help is part of the job.

"It's a courtesy, and I've done it my whole legislative career," said Craddick, a Midland Republican. "If it does anything, I think all it does is make them take a look at that person."

Lawmakers say the letters, e-mails and telephone calls don't have an undue influence. UT Admissions Director Bruce Walker isn't sure.

"You're looking for what they say about the student, not necessarily who wrote the letter," he said. "But it's not true that who wrote it makes no difference whatsoever."

Walker and other university officials are struggling with crowding at the Austin campus. President Larry Faulkner has asked legislators to consider capping the number of students admitted under the state's top 10 percent law. Those who graduate from high school in the top 10 percent of their classes are guaranteed admission to the Texas public university they choose. According to the most recent UT data, the Texans admitted under the top 10 percent law make up 75 percent of the fall 2003 freshman class, prompting administrators to fear they will eventually lose their role in choosing who attends the school.

In addition, some UT boosters, such as Texas Exes Executive Director Jim Boon, want the university to start giving special consideration to the children of alumni in an effort to drum up more financial support from well-heeled parents.

Against that backdrop, and as more than 24,000 sought a spot in the 7,000-member fall freshman class, Faulkner said he saw a noticeable increase in contact from legislators.

"You get calls. You get letters. You get e-mails. You have conversations," he said. "They really want us to pay attention to the case, and we pledge that we'll take a close look at the case. But they don't necessarily expect me to go down there and pull out the file."

Under the Texas Public Information Act, the Austin American-Statesman obtained letters and e-mails between lawmakers and UT officials written in 2002 and 2003. Names of the prospective students have been omitted. Seventeen current and two former legislators, along with Hutchison, a Dallas Republican, advanced the causes of 22 applicants. Most sought places as incoming freshmen; others wanted to transfer from other schools or within colleges at the Austin campus.

Of the 22, most had a single recommendation from a lawmaker. But one prospect, the son of a House member turned lobbyist, had support from both Hutchison and Craddick. Another would-be Longhorn had letters from Barrientos, Craddick and state Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin.

University officials would not say what became of those specific students' applications, but they said that seven applicants with a lawmaker's recommendation were ultimately admitted to UT for the fall. Nine were sent to another UT System campus under a program that allows them to transfer to Austin after one year, and one was denied. University officials also denied a request for transfer between colleges. Four requests for transfer to UT-Austin are pending.

Hutchison, a former UT cheerleader, wrote two letters, one on behalf of the son of longtime friends. "Should his application be approved, he would be the fifth generation in his family to attend The University — a proud tradition," she wrote.

Shapiro, a Plano Republican and UT graduate, wrote on behalf of an aide working in her legislative office. "I highly recommend his acceptance and feel he would be a great asset to the University," she wrote.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, avid UT booster and vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said she is happy to help worthy students with letters, including one she had written for her son, who graduated Friday from UT's business school. She also wrote on behalf of a female candidate in December 2002, the daughter of "my dear and valued friends." And she e-mailed UT System regents Chairman Charles Miller in October 2002 on behalf of another applicant.

"It was great talking with you this morning about issues of mutual interest related to UT," she wrote in her e-mail. "Thank you, too, for your interest in (applicant's name). . . . I'm forwarding herein (student's name) e-mail that includes (student's gender) registered name and social security number."

Hutchison said she believes UT officials benefit from hearing "from a wide range of Texans who are personally familiar with the credentials of applicants." Shapiro said she doesn't believe her position as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, which makes policy governing the state's universities, puts pressure on university officials.

"When I know the student, I obviously spend more time sharing my thoughts about the student," she said. "When I don't know the student, I feel it's an obligation as a senator to write just a friendly letter and not necessarily a personal one."

Barrientos, an Austin Democrat, said he's inundated with requests for admissions help. He writes what he calls "letters of reference" for constituents and more personal letters for people he knows. He stresses to them that the letters aren't an admissions ticket.

"Many people believe that if you're a senator, you can 'get things done,' " he said. "A senator has certain authority, but the senator cannot walk on water."

Walker said personal correspondence bears more weight with university officials than form letters, especially if the signer's name has a familiar ring.

"We can't ignore the fact that it's Kay Bailey Hutchison," he said. "We think maybe we ought to give this a really careful read because she has written and cares about the student."

sjayson@statesman.com; 445-3620