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Corruption, rampant cronyism at University of Texas School of Law?

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 (Reuters)

On the rise in national rankings and global reach, the University of Texas -- now known as much for its academic rigor as its football team -- generally benefits from its location in Austin, a growing urban center of technology and music. 

Unfortunately, Austin is also the state capital, and many Texas politicians appear to be abusing the public university’s admissions process, calling in favors to get unqualified applicants admitted.

These allegations of fraud pose a serious threat to UT’s credibility, and the university needs to act immediately to ensure that its practices are fair and that it isn’t becoming a playground for the politically connected.

The University of Texas Law School has a particularly suspicious track record of admitting less-than-qualified candidates with strong ties to powerful state legislators, including Republican State House Speaker Joe Straus and veteran Democratic State Sen. Judith Zaffrini. 

Many Texas politicians appear to be abusing the public university’s admissions process, calling in favors to get unqualified applicants admitted.

Normally, UT Law’s admissions standards are some of the most rigorous in the country (last year’s median admitted student scored in the 93rd percentile on the LSAT, the standardized test all law school applicants are required to take). However, these high standards appear to plummet through the floor when an applicant is connected to the right people -- a situation the university cannot allow to persist if it wants to burnish an elite reputation.

Red flags emerged around UT Law School when only 59 percent of its graduates passed the most recent Texas Bar Examination, placing UT dead last among Texas’ nine law schools despite it being by far the most highly regarded school of the nine. Generally, students capable of earning admission into highly selective law schools rarely fail the bar exam -- but there’s reason to believe that many of the UT graduates who failed didn’t make it in on their own merits.

Of the 90 UT Law School graduates who have failed the bar exam twice in recent years, 12 -- or 13 percent -- came from Zaffrini’s hometown of Laredo, which comprises less than 1 percent of the state’s population. It’s a suspicious correlation, as previous investigations of Zaffrini found that the senator has attempted to use her political clout to skirt the admissions process at least three times in the past. Six more double-flunkers have connections to Straus’ political machine.

While Zaffrini and Straus may possibly have muscled several of their unqualified hometown cronies into their state’s flagship public law school, many other state lawmakers appear to have snuck their children and employees through UT Law’s back door. The sons of Zaffrini, State Sen. John Carona and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts each graduated from UT Law and promptly failed the bar exam three times, as did the chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, and State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who attended UT Law while serving in office.

Every law school -- even Harvard and Yale -- turns out the occasional disappointing alum who cannot pass the bar. In Texas, however, a disturbing number of these failed graduates are directly connected to the politicians who oversee the university's source of funding. 

A public university isn’t a country club that a well-connected parent can muscle his or her underachieving child into. UT is funded by, and intended for the service of, the taxpayers of the state of Texas, and politicians only make a mockery of one of the state’s most visible assets when they use it for the benefit of their children and cronies.

Texans have invested too heavily in their flagship university for its national reputation to be ruined by such blatant political cronyism. Administrators at UT need to put a lock on their school’s back door and launch a thorough investigation of both the legislators abusing the school and the university officials complicit in this apparent insider favoritism.

Erik Telford is Senior Vice President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.