State Auditor: UC Wrongly Admitted Well-Connected Students, 55 at Berkeley

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Updated Wednesday, 12:00 p.m.

This story contains a clarification.

The University of California “inappropriately admitted" at least 64 wealthy students over the past six years as “favors to donors, family, and friends," according to an audit released Tuesday that found hundreds more questionable cases of student athletes accepted to the top UC schools.

Among them were a student whose family was friends with a member of the Board of Regents, the child of a major donor and an applicant who babysat for a colleague of a former admissions director, according to the report from the California State Auditor.

“This is a significant problem that the university needs to deal with,” State Auditor Elaine Howle said in a telephone interview.

The audit examined admissions policies and practices over a six-year period at four of the UC's nine campuses — UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara. It reviewed the academic years of 2013-14 through 2018-19.

Auditors found that at least 22 applicants were falsely designated as student-athlete recruits “because of donations from or as favors to well-connected families." These students “had little or no athletic skills," Howle said.

The report did not name students, coaches or specific sports but the investigators looked at a mix of teams at each campus, including soccer, crew, golf, water polo, swimming, track and field, women's basketball and men's tennis, the report said.

It identified at least 13 applicants improperly admitted as student athletes to UC Berkeley, four each at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara and one at UC San Diego.

“UC Berkeley really had some significant weaknesses in their admissions process," Howle said. The audit found the elite school admitted an additional 42 other applicants based on their connections to donors and staff while denying admission to others who were more qualified.

This brings the total number of improperly admitted UC Berkeley students to 55, according to the audit.

In one case, the child of a major donor applied to UC Berkeley and received the lowest possible score on their application, which was marked, “Do Not Recommend," the report said. But the application was revived by an associate director of the donor relations department who contacted a coach to say the family had “a huge capacity and is already a big supporter of Cal." The coach backed up the applicant as a prospective student athlete, “even though the applicant had played only a single year of the sport in high school and at a low level of competition." After admission, the applicant’s family donated several thousand dollars to the team, the report said. “The applicant never competed with the team, and the coaches removed the applicant from the team after the season ended."

A UCLA coach admitted a student as an athlete, as a favor to a donor — even after the student's application had been marked, “Denied," the report said.

Howle said she believes the findings have barely scratched the surface of problems in the UC admissions process. The majority of the 64 applicants were white and at least half had annual family incomes of $150,000 or more, the audit said.

The 64 students identified as being improperly admitted were based on “definitive evidence," such as emailed communications showing a student was denied admission but then reconsidered and accepted after an athletic coach or the development office got involved to suggest the student's entry could lead to donations, Howle said.

“There's at least another 400 or so students ... that were really questionable," Howle said, including some student athletes who didn't appear to have any athletic ability.

Derek Imai, a UC Berkeley student and the vice president of external affairs for the student association ASUC, said his university should be held accountable, and the admissions process needs to be reevaluated across all UC campuses.

"Our universities must continue to just acknowledge the experiences that low income students may face, and the lack of resources that may come about, being a low income student in comparison to being a rich, wealthy student, that may have a lot of resources," Imai told KQED. "I think that these experiences truly disproportionately affect students of color, specifically that have been applying to UC systems."

UC President Michael V. Drake, who took over the job in July, said in a statement that he took the findings and recommendations “very seriously and will do all I can to prevent inappropriate admissions" in the 285,000-student system.

“The University will swiftly address the concerns the State Auditor raised. Furthermore, individuals involved in improper activities will be disciplined appropriately," Drake said. “Unethical means to gain admission, as rare as they may be, run contrary to our longstanding values of equity and fairness."

The audit recommends the president's office take a robust role in auditing admissions at the nine campuses, closely examining “admissions by exception," that are granted for student athletes, artists, or those who have other specific talents that are attractive to a campus.

The audit was requested last year by state Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath in response to the national college admissions scandal, which embroiled prestigious universities nationwide, athletic coaches and dozens of wealthy parents. The scandal shed light on the murky world of U.S. college admissions and how the rich and famous exploit it to buy their children's way into top schools with rigged test scores or fake athletic credentials. At the center of the scheme was Newport Beach-based college admissions consultant, William “Rick” Singer.

The audit's findings go beyond those investigations, known as Operation Varsity Blues, which had previously identified at least three students at UCLA and UC Berkeley who were improperly admitted.

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UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo was indicted on charges of racketeering conspiracy for allegedly accepting $200,000 in bribes from the scheme’s mastermind, Rick Singer, in exchange for helping two students gain admission to the school as soccer players, though they didn’t play the sport competitively. Salcedo pleaded guilty to one count and is expected to be sentenced next month.

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At UC Berkeley, at least one student was known to have been admitted with fraudulent test scores, prosecutors allege. David Sidoo, a Canadian businessman and former professional football player, pleaded guilty to one charge of mail fraud conspiracy for paying Singer to fix entrance exams for his two sons and was sentenced to three months in prison. The younger song, Jordan Sidoo, attended UC Berkeley.

Then-UC President Janet Napolitano ordered an internal investigation of all UC campuses that resulted in a sweeping list of recommendations aimed at better policing of fraud and conflicts of interest in student admissions. It called for stronger verification of claims on students’ applications, reviewing potential links between donors and applicants and stricter scrutiny of students admitted for special talents.

However, Howle found that staff were insufficiently trained and supervised in reviewing applications, “which led to inconsistent reviews, and affected applicants' chances of admission."

“The Office of the President has allowed weaknesses to persist for years and has not ensured the admissions policies and processes have been consistently and fairly applied from campus to campus," the audit said.

She also recommended that the president require campuses to verify athletic talent and review donation records before admitting prospective student athletes.

Clarification, Sep. 23: A previous version of this story stated UC Berkeley wrongly admitted 42 students. The story has been updated to reflect an additional 13 student athletes who were also improperly admitted.

KQED's Chloe Veltman contributed to this report.

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