Higher education is not only being battered by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on student enrollment and revenue, but also from admissions scandals at elite institutions. Add the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California university system to the list of beleaguered institutions when it comes to allegedly unfair admissions practices.
A recent audit report blasted the public university for “improper influence in admissions decisions” by those in powerful places in the university system. The report also said that the system “has not treated applicants fairly or consistently.” It singled out the flagship campus for the University of California system in Berkeley for egregious violations.
The audit covered the 2013-2019 academic years and focused on the university system’s campuses in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Berkeley. The report discovered twenty-two applicants should not have been admitted as student-athletes because the applicants “did not have the athletic qualifications to compete at the university. Auditors found Berkeley’s campus admitted forty-two students who were referred to the admissions office through family or university connections, either through donors or relationships with university staff. The audit wrote that these forty-two applicants “did not demonstrate competitive qualifications for admission.”
It criticized the system for undermining “the fairness and integrity of its admissions process and deprived more qualified students of the opportunity for admission.” The university system, on paper, bars wealthy students’ admissions if only measured by family wealth.
But there is a political component to the scandal because one of the named figures in the audit is the husband of a U.S. Senator. Richard Blum, who is married to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is a member of the University of California’s Board of Regents. Also, Blum is a significant donor, having donated at least $15 million to the university. Auditors accused Blum of inappropriately writing a letter that eventually led to an unqualified applicant gaining admission to the Berkeley campus.
The Mercury News, a local newspaper in the Bay Area, wrote the following about Blum’s involvement:
“According to the audit, Blum sent a letter in support of a still-unidentified student to the chancellor after the student was placed on UC Berkeley’s waitlist. The chancellor’s office sent the letter to Cal’s development office, which forwarded it to the admissions office. And despite the fact that the applicant had around a 26 percent chance of being admitted based on the ratings assigned to their application, they were accepted.”
Blum said that “it’s a bunch of nonsense.”
Then, the Los Angeles Times obtained a copy of Blum’s letter and found that Blum called the applicant “outstanding.” Blum had directly written to Berkeley’s chancellor, Carol Christ, and added that the applicant should receive “every consideration.” The newspaper alleged that Blum violated a Board of Regents policy from 1996, which said that letters of recommendation cannot be accepted outside of the regular admissions process.
Blum released a statement that proclaimed his innocence. “Over the last 18 years, I have written more than a dozen letters of recommendation for applicants seeking admission to the University of California,” Blum wrote. “I forwarded those letters to the office of the chancellors. On no occasion did I receive feedback that that was not the appropriate protocol and that letters needed to be sent to the director of admissions. Moreover, I was never informed about whether any of the applicants for whom I wrote letters were later accepted for admission and I never inquired about the ultimate decisions in these cases. I respect the findings and concerns reflected in the audit. It was never my intention to circumvent or unfairly influence the admissions process. I do not intend to write letters of recommendation going forward.”