Special consideration in admissions for the rich and well-connected has been part of the UCLA culture for years, extending beyond University of California regents and state politicians to include friends and relatives of local political figures, university officials and major donors, a months-long Times investigation shows.
In some cases, UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young and his top aides were instrumental in securing spots for lesser qualified or rejected applicants who were sponsored by donors and other supporters. Thousands of confidential records, including electronic communications and memos, reviewed by The Times indicate that the special consideration extended to some of the region's most prominent people.
Among those whose relatives and friends received favorable treatment through what has been a backdoor admission process into UCLA are Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, movie producer Jon Peters, former UCLA football Coach Terry Donahue and Lawrence E. Irell, founder of a prestigious law firm.
In all, records show that since 1980, 900 individuals made more than 2,000 requests on behalf of applicants seeking undergraduate slots, dorm rooms, graduate admissions and entry into the school's highly coveted University Elementary School.
Most were for undergraduate admissions, however, and those requests had a better track record of getting applicants in than applicants who went through the normal process. Nearly 70% of the cases involving VIP students verified by The Times won undergraduate admission, compared to less than 50% for all undergraduate hopefuls, a computer analysis found.
More than 200 students were admitted after initially being rejected, and another 75 were admitted ahead of hundreds of others with better grades and higher Scholastic Assessment Test scores who were turned away.
One major avenue for these back-channel requests has been the university's development staff, responsible for raising millions of dollars in private funds, records show. To a lesser degree, Young and top officials also have served as conduits for the requests, including those from elected officials from the local to federal level.
Once such VIP requests went to UCLA, the would-be students were flagged as "special interest applicants" by the admissions office and their names put on special computer runs for careful and personal monitoring by Admissions Director Rae Lee Siporin, records show.
"Hundreds of people are called to my attention . . . anyone who contributes money to the university feels that they have some kind of connection and deserve [more than] the average applicant," Siporin said. "So every year there are hundreds of people that [think] they are going to get special attention. Do they all get it? No."
In an interview Wednesday, Young said he was unaware that the admissions office had such a designation for VIP candidates. But the chancellor, considered one of higher education's elder statesmen, defended the practice of giving "special consideration" to requests made by big donors and university supporters.
"People who give money and are associated with, and who are heavily involved [with the university] believe that they will get some proper considerations different than people who don't," Young said in his Murphy Hall office. "If you don't do that, it is going to reduce dramatically what [money] we raise.
"Should their children be admitted if they are not admissible?" he said. "The answer is no."
But in several cases last year, confidential records show that Young or his staff tried to do just that. In one instance, the chancellor overruled his own admissions staff in favor of the nephew of Saudi Arabia's former oil minister, a wealthy sheik whom UCLA has targeted for a large gift in its upcoming $1-billion fund-raising campaign.
Hisham M. Nazer's nephew applied for entrance for last fall but had a Scholastic Assessment Test score of 700, considered extremely low by UCLA standards. That prompted admissions officials to write the word "deny" twice in his file. Then Young weighed in. The denial was deleted and a new notation added to his file: "CEY [Young's initials] wants this st[udent] admitted!" The youth was offered a freshman spot for January but decided to attend an East Coast college instead.
Reached by telephone, Nazer's nephew said he was aware that his uncle had placed a phone call on his behalf but was told to expect no special treatment. "He told me, 'I know people. It might help to call,' " the nephew said.
Young said he could not recall getting a call but acknowledged that he was trying to cultivate Nazer as a contributor.
In another case, Young championed the application of his neighbor's son, a Westlake High School graduate with a 2.95 grade-point average and an 860 SAT. Those marks fell short of qualifying him as UC eligible--the top 12.5% of the state's graduating high school class--and admission officers wrote: "Not UC eligible." He was admitted, however, and started classes in January. Records do not say whether the student, who is Korean American, was admitted to UCLA through an exception for diversity.
Meanwhile, records also show that Young's office worked behind the scenes last year on behalf of another student, this time at the request of Yaroslavsky, who has represented the area that includes the Westwood school for 20 years as a public official.
The student--the son of prominent Los Angeles attorney Skip Miller, who has defended the politician and other public officials in lawsuits and raised money for his campaigns--was denied by UCLA as an out-of-state transfer. His grades were below the UCLA cutoff. But then Yaroslavsky wrote a May 1995 letter on his official county stationery to Young's chief of staff asking for help. "Obviously, this is of great importance to me," Yaroslavsky wrote.
The student was admitted. Six months before Yaroslavsky wrote his letter, the student donated $100 to the campaign of Barbara Yaroslavsky, the supervisor's wife who was making an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, records show.
Yaroslavsky said Wednesday that he was merely forwarding the material to UCLA officials so that they "could take a look at it. It's not of great importance to me whether they admit him or not." But, he added, "my letter of recommendation is, I hope, an added feather in the cap of the person I am recommending."
Attorney Miller said he believes that the supervisor's letter played no role in his son's eventual admission.
"He got in on his merit," Miller said, adding that his son's grades improved greatly right before entering UCLA. "It was not based on Yaroslavsky's clout."
Records also show that Young's office took the initiative in getting the daughter of then-Bruins football Coach Terry Donahue admitted in 1993 based upon a special request from the school's director of intercollegiate athletics.
Her 3.2 grade-point and 860 SAT score made her eligible for UC but were below more than 6,000 other students turned away from UCLA that same year, according to UCLA's statistics.
Donahue declined to discuss his daughter's admission other than to say that he felt that it was unfair to single him out.
The existence of preferential treatment in admissions at UCLA and other UC campuses came to light in recent days with disclosures by The Times that several regents who voted last year to eliminate affirmative action for minorities and women in admissions had privately tried to use their influence to get relatives, friends and children of business partners into the school, one of the most popular among the nine UC campuses.
Since then, state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) has said that he will hold investigatory hearings into the matter soon, and UC President Richard Atkinson has begun an internal review to determine the extent of such favoritism.
This week, a Brentwood couple filed suit seeking an injunction to stop the university from granting any more private admissions preferences such as those outlined by The Times. The same couple filed suit against UCLA last year when their daughter was denied admission to the Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School, where they accused officials of practicing "affirmative action" for the rich and famous by reserving slots for the children of potential donors. The facility is a laboratory school operated on the Westwood campus by the School of Education.
Martin Nemko, an Oakland-based expert in admissions and author of the book "How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University," said Wednesday that he does not believe that favoritism in admissions at public institutions such as UCLA is common.
"I don't think it's pervasive," he said. "I think it's very much the exception."
But Young, for one, said he doesn't know of a single private or public university where donors, major supporters and influential politicians are not given special treatment when they ask for help with admissions.
"How do you stop [the phone calls]?" Young asked, referring to calls from influential elected officials such as an Assembly speaker, governor or a major donor.
"No one from the lower-middle-class background I came from would ever have thought of picking up the telephone and calling the chancellor of UCLA," Young said. "They wouldn't now. I don't know that I like that about society as a general kind of philosophical issue, but it is a fact.
"People who are better educated, wealthier, more prominent socially are in the first place going to be more likely to ask things like that. They're going to be more likely to know somebody they can call. The person they call is going to be more likely to answer the phone, and that in and of itself creates a distinction."
The controversy over private admissions preferences strikes at the heart of the dilemma over how to allocate limited slots for undergraduates. At Berkeley and UCLA, the flagship campuses, the competition is particularly acute, and admissions officers must turn away thousands of qualified applicants each year.
That pressure became particularly acute during the 1980s, just as UCLA was making its mark in the private fund-raising realm. The result, said the school's former vice chancellor for university relations, was a surge in requests for admissions help from donors and other supporters who were shocked when their children were turned down even as the school was seeking their money.
For donors who already had proved their worth, UCLA's development office would pursue an "institutional needs admissions" for their children, said Alan F. Charles, the former official who ran the foundation and was the focal point for the backdoor system until he left in 1993.
"It was a way of saying thank you to people for their help," Charles said at his Oregon home.
He said there was never a quid pro quo. "There's a distinction between gratitude and bribery," he said. "If somebody came in and offered a gift to UCLA in order to get me to write a note in favor of supporting their kid's admission, I'd throw them out the window.
"But I considered it absolutely [normal] business for me to support the candidacy of kids whose parents were supporters of UCLA," he said, adding that his recommendations were not always followed by the admissions department.
Charles said he was "fully prepared to acknowledge that having a system like this may raise eyebrows, but I never kept it a secret," although there was no public debate or notice about it. It became a necessary consideration as public schools such as UCLA began competing for scarce financial resources with more experienced private universities such as Harvard, he said.
A review of UCLA documents shows that foundation officials sometimes took note of the fund-raising potential of the people they were helping.
"She has a low GPA and SAT scores," one development official wrote on a request for a 1986 applicant. "Her father just sold Miller's Outpost--major donor prospect." The student was admitted ahead of more than 4,000 students with better grades and SAT scores. The student's father declined comment this week.
Documents also show that development officers often graded the requests ranging from A to C before sending them to the admissions office for determination. A computer analysis of a sampling of the requests showed that those grades roughly corresponded to how much the requesting donor had given--and also how likely the admission would be.
In some instances, records show, development officers followed up aggressively to make sure their top requests were honored.
"Please, please, please, this one is very, very, very important to us," a development official pleaded in a 1994 communication, hoping to persuade the admissions office to reinstate admission for the stepdaughter of a former alumni association official. UCLA had withdrawn the student's offer because her high school grades had slipped.
"[Her father] has served long and hard for the alumni association. . . . Any chance this could be reviewed ASAP? I'll owe you one!" The offer was restored.
Those documents also showed, however, that some of the applicants recommended for special consideration were academically competitive even without help. In other cases, the back-channel access did no good.
In 1992, for example, Frank del Olmo, then-Times deputy editor of the editorial pages, wrote a letter on newspaper stationery to Young asking for "any help" that the chancellor could provide for the daughter of Janet Clayton, then an assistant editor, to be admitted to the elementary school.
Del Olmo, now assistant to the editor, said that Clayton asked for his assistance and that he referred to the editorial board in the letter because he hoped that "saying this is a person in a significant position at the L.A. Times would move [the matter] a little higher on [Young's] radar screen than the dozens of things he has to deal with on a given day."
The child was not admitted, and Clayton--now editor of the editorial pages--said she feels that the request was a mistake.
"If I had it to do over again, I would not," Clayton said. "The reason being is that it can be misconstrued as some sort of effort to link things that were never intended to be linked."
Among those receiving special attention at the university itself was Irell, founding partner of the prominent Irell and Manella law firm in Los Angeles, whose inquiries helped his granddaughter and two other students gain admission over the past 10 years. Two had been coded for rejection, and his granddaughter was admitted ahead of more than 5,000 others with superior academic records, according to confidential files.
Irell, now retired, said he wanted to make sure that the applications "didn't get lost in the shuffle."
"The reason I expected someone would look at it is because I was very active as the president of the UCLA Foundation and an active supporter in many ways," he said.
"I felt these three people were outstanding people and needed a little boost, especially at a time when affirmative action was cutting down on the number of openings, and people could easily be passed over. . . . "
The backdoor system also included requests for the University Elementary School. Documents show that many prominent people asked UCLA for help in getting their children and grandchildren into UES, and that the university reserved a number of prized slots as fund-raising tools.
Charles said that he worked out a "deal" with UES that allowed him to place the children of two or three donors into the school each year.
In court papers filed because of a lawsuit over admissions practices at the school, UCLA has acknowledged that it uses an "unpublicized" policy to accept the children of wealthy individuals with the aim of making them "pleased or gratified" enough to make donations.
Among those whose children were given reserved slots were movie producer Peters, actresses Sally Field and Ellen Barkin, as well as the grandchildren of DreamWorks SKG Music chief Mo Ostin and Sizzler Restaurant Chairman Jim Collins, records show. Fund-raising records show that in Peters' case, the producer promised to make a $175,000 donation over five years. Peters, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
What is not always clear is whether it was the donors or UCLA itself that elevated the cases for special consideration.
One local elected official recalled being surprised when UCLA reversed itself on an admissions decision involving his own child. The politician said he mentioned in passing at a party that his child had been turned down for UCLA but accepted at several other UC campuses.
A UCLA official heard the casual comment and took it upon himself to contact Young's office, the officeholder said. A UCLA administrator then contacted the official to tell him that the school would send a letter reversing the decision.
He recalled telling them that was unnecessary, but UCLA persisted, even though the teenager wanted to leave the Los Angeles area to go to another UC campus and had expressed only passing interest in UCLA.
The official remains puzzled, and his child attends another UC campus.
Times researchers Janet Lundblad, Michele Buttelman and Tracy Thomas contributed to this story. Frammolino's e-mail address is email@example.com and Gladstone's is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The Admissions Gantlet
Many are eligible for UCLA, but few are chosen. Most applicants meet University of California minimum requirements, having placed in the top 12.5% of their high school class. But with so many worthy candidates, UCLA can be selective, making the admissions gantlet especially difficult. Here is the fall 1995 process for the College of Letters and Science, which admits more than 80% of freshman--and how it is sometimes circumvented:
NORMAL ADMISSIONS PROCESS
1) For almost two-thirds of admissions offers, UCLA simply skimmed off the academic best. There were 5,586 academic admissions in 1995, averaging a 4.22 GPA and a 1288 SAT score. (A GPA can be greater than 4.0 when advanced placement courses are factored in).
2) UCLA then selected students with the highest rankings for grades weighed against supplemental factors such as income, disabilities, special talents and ethnicity. (UC regents voted to discontinue race-based considerations starting in 1997). In all, 3,293 students with an average 3.77 GPA and a 1033 SAT were admitted. Of those, 1,371 averaging a 3.53 GPA and 979 SAT, were selected from 6,500 applications subjected to intensive screening by volunteer readers.
3) Up to 6% of the slots can be filled by exception, accepting students who don't meet basic UC requirements but have potential for success, are disadvantaged, faced technical snafus or help promote diversity. There were 117 "special admits" in 1995, averaging a 3.13 GPA and a 971 SAT.
4) In 1995, the 879 applicants next in line were offered admission as "winter Bruins," to start a quarter late.
5) "Impacted" schools such as engineering and communication studies conduct yet another screening. Their requirements are even higher than for general freshmen.
6) More than half of the applicants were rejected.
7) The last recourse for rejected applicants is to write appeals, but their chances are slim. Only about 15% prevail. Noted an admissions officer in 1990: "As in past years, the basic approach was to change the decision only in exceptional cases. When a change seems warranted, we usually offered winter and were stingy with fall offers."
8) Each student offered admission must decide whether to accept UCLA's invitation. Many eventually choose to go to college elsewhere.
The Back Door
According to confidential admissions documents reviewed by The Times:
* Politicians, donors, alumni and celebrities "sponsor" applicants by bringing their names to the attention of high-ranking UCLA officials. Sometimes, they even give them the student's application.
* Some special requests go to Chancellor Charles E. Young's office, either to his personal attention, his top assistants or his vice chancellor for university relations.
* Most requests are received by the UCLA Development Office, where they are handicapped and ranked before a wish list is sent to the admissions office. Development Office officials, who sometimes lobby e-mail, are in constant touch to report the progress of applications back to major donors, potential contributors and favor-seekers.
* VIP names are kept on a separate list of special-interest applicants. Exempted from the normal admissions process, these students are tracked by special computer runs. Their cases are personally decided by the admissions director, who sometimes has to stretch the rules. On occasion, the chancellor has overruled the admissions director's decisions.
* Some special-interest students are rejected, but their appeals go far--a majority prevail.
SOURCE: UCLA Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Relations With Schools