UT System head advocated for influential students

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Records show the outgoing chancellor of the University of Texas System has forwarded letters of recommendation from influential people to UT-Austin's president advocating admission of about 40 students since 2009.

The letters obtained by the Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/1rqt1UB ) show Francisco Cigarroa forwarded letters to UT-Austin President Bill Powers and would sometimes add handwritten notes as a hint about the prominence of the person making the request.

For instance, when a person close to George Sealy, the executive vice president of Sealy & Smith Foundation, a charitable organization that has donated about $800 million to the UT Medical Branch at Galveston over the years was rejected, he appealed to Cigarroa. The Chancellor then forwarded the letter to Powers, with a handwritten note that read "on Sealy Foundation" and added a copy of the response letter to Sealy, with an assurance that the "outstanding young man" would receive "careful consideration."

Cigarroa disavowed the practice in recent months amid questions of possible favoritism, and last month he sent a letter instructing his staff to forward letters the admissions committee, not to university presidents or deans. The system hired an outside firm to investigate the handling of recommendation letters.

A UT System report about letters sent by legislators to Powers found no wrongdoing but also showed that applicants with recommendations were accepted at much higher rates.

After that report was released, additional information came to the system's attention, Cigarroa said. It prompted the decision to conduct an external review.

In another case, Cigarroa forwarded a letter of recommendation to Powers noting that the person making the request, John D. Alexander Jr., is on the board of Robert J. Kleberg Jr. & Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, a foundation that gave $4.4 million to the UT System in 2013, according to tax records.

Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a UT System spokeswoman said that "it had been common practice in the past when recommendation letters came to the chancellor's office to forward those to the institutions, with no expectation that those candidates receive any special consideration."

UT-Austin spokesman Gary Susswein said Powers handled the correspondence the same way he handled letters sent directly to him.

"The president has a general policy of forwarding references and recommendations he gets to the Office of Admissions or the appropriate college," Susswein said.


Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com

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