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U. seeks policy prohibiting ‘undue influence’ on admission, scholarship awards

State lawmakers, donors, others have tried to exert influence when advocating for students seeking admission

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Students walk on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City.

Students walk on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Sept. 18, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

As the University of Utah becomes better known on the national stage, it has increasingly become an institution students want to attend.

Blame it on the university’s back-to-back Pac-12 championships in football. Blame it on the U.’s acceptance to the prestigious Association of American Universities, joining just 62 other member universities in the United States and two in Canada.

“The U.’s becoming a more popular destination for students. We’re seeing our applications go up every year,” said Steve Robinson, the senior associate vice president for enrollment management.

As more students seek admission and U. officials work to stretch scholarship dollars, the university is also experiencing an uptick in attempts to influence those decisions, Robinson said.

Robinson, addressing the university’s Academic Senate earlier this week, said attempts at “undue influence” have come from state lawmakers, university donors among others, although no one is naming names.

The U. has no policy prohibiting undue influence, so university employees who handle admissions and scholarships are guided by their professional ethics, he said.

“My staff is very adept at dealing with those” interactions, Robinson said, but they and the university would be better served by a policy that expressly prohibits undue influence.

Robinson presented a policy draft to the Academic Senate, which took no action but plans to address the proposal in an upcoming meeting. Ultimately, Robinson plans to present the proposal to the U.’s Board of Trustees for potential adoption.

As the state’s flagship public university, the U. is “moderately selective,” Robinson said.

“Depending upon the year we’re looking at, anywhere between 80% and 90% of our applicants are typically admitted in a given year,” he said.

But there is increasing competition for merit scholarships, “which can trigger some behaviors that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise,” Robinson said.

The enrollment office handles undergraduate admissions while the university’s graduate programs oversee their own admissions. Robinson said a policy passed by the university trustees would apply to them as well.

The university appears to be an outlier in that it does not already have a policy on the books.

After a federal investigation into allegations of a large-scale criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate admissions at several top American universities in 2019, the issue attracted international attention.

The investigation with the code name Operation Varsity Blues revealed parents paying bribes to ensure admission or to fraudulently inflate standardized test scores used for admission decisions.

Some of the more high profile defendants in criminal prosecutions were actress Lori Loughlin and her spouse, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, who sought to have their daughters enrolled at the University of Southern California, going so far as to pay a $500,000 bribe. Their daughters’ acceptance to USC was contingent on them joining the crew team, though neither had ever rowed.

Academy Award-nominated actress Felicity Huffman was also prosecuted for paying $15,000 to have someone correct answers on her daughter’s SAT exam.

“The Varsity Blues thing is going to echo for years for all of us who work in admissions and enrollment management,” Robinson said.

Many universities are test-optional, basing admissions on other issues such as unweighted grades, rigor of coursework, and school and community involvement. Students can still submit scores and they are sometimes used as a consideration in awarding scholarships. The U.’s admission criteria is test-optional.

More than a decade ago, a commission convened by former Illinois Gov. Patrick J. Quinn found that the University of Illinois had granted admissions preference to unqualified applicants with connections.

Chancellor Richard H. Herman, termed the “ultimate decision-maker” to help favored students, resigned, as did President B. Joseph White after the Faculty Senate approved a resolution supporting their removal. Most members of the university’s board resigned, too, according to a 2009 New York Times report.

Correction: In an earlier version, Lori Loughlin’s name was misspelled as Lori Laughlin.