It’s not often that a center-left news outlet calls out a major newspaper for misconstruing a story first reported by a nonprofit competitor, but that’s what happened recently when the Dallas Observer ran an article about the latest developments in the ongoing University of Texas admissions scandal. The day before, the Dallas Morning News had reported that influential Texans such as lawmakers, donors, and regents had written letters of recommendation that helped underqualified students gain admittance to UT. It pointed to the Kroll Report, an outside investigation into the admissions process that found that from 2009 to 2014, 73 students had been admitted to the premier school even though they had low high school GPAs (less than 2.9) and weak SAT scores (less than 1100).
“OK, this is one of those stop, do not pass go moments,” wrote Jim Schutze in The Observer. “That is not what this story is about. At the very least, even if you strip away all the larger implications, the UT admissions scandal involves 10 times that many students.”
Ten times as many? Yes, 764 to be exact, Schutze wrote, pointing to a recent report by Texas Watchdog bureau chief Jon Cassidy, who “has done most of the real digging on this story.”
The Morning News story went on to note that the students were specifically admitted by then-president Bill Powers, and said the Kroll report “suggested that political or personal connections may have influenced the decisions.” But as Schutze pointed out, it entirely ignored Cassidy’s reporting – dozens of stories that date back almost two years. Therein lay the problem.
“Doesn’t mean the News has to accept Cassidy’s reporting whole cloth,” Schutze wrote. “But I don’t see how they can get away with pretending it isn’t even there, especially given Cassidy’s bullet-proof record of accuracy on this story over almost two years of frequent reporting.”
Indeed, Cassidy’s (pictured) investigation paints a picture of relentless cover-ups and downplaying of the issue by school officials, lawmakers, and local media alike. He showed that the Kroll Report actually whitewashed the issue by exposing only “the thinnest veneer” of the problem in order to “shield UT and its partners in crime in the Legislature from any real or painful scrutiny.”
The admissions scandal, Schutze noted, is merely “one symptom of a larger institutional reality.” It transcends the admissions process and speaks for the state of the university itself. He quoted UT Regent Wallace Hall, the whistleblower responsible for exposing the admissions scandal (and a vital source in Cassidy’s reporting), from a previous interview. Here’s what Hall said about what spurred his interest in fixing mismanagement at UT:
“Listen, from 2003 to 2013 in-state tuition for the law school has gone from $7,100 to $31,000. The head count for the faculty, adjunct, tenure track and tenured, is up almost 40 percent in the same time. A third of our graduates do not get jobs. The average debt of a graduate is $150,000. And we teach 20 percent fewer kids… That’s a bad model.”
Is it any wonder, then, that the picture Cassidy’s stories paint of the school’s administration is one of “self-dealing lotus-eaters shielded by a wall of political thorns?”
Only Texas Watchdog took the first steps into UT’s “fast-and-loose, semi-secret, good-old-boy” world. Wallace Hall – and by extension Cassidy’s investigation into the admissions scandal – weathered the firestorm of opposition from the school’s president, lawmakers in the statehouse, and a skeptical media. Cassidy’s reporting has borne up under the intense scrutiny, and yet the News did not include a single mention of Cassidy or Texas Watchdog in its report on favoritism in the admissions process.
The story of UT’s admissions scandal will continue to develop as more details surface about the extent of the corruption. But at this point the lesson is clear. Schutze’s commentary in The Observer helps draw attention to what Texas Watchdog has been saying all along. Namely, that there is a trove of public interest stories to be found in Texas’ premier university, that statements by those in power shouldn’t be taken at face value, and that the bright light of accountability, when founded on the truth, can and will persevere if journalists and whistleblowers are brave enough to hold their ground.