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UC regent says his letter for Berkeley applicant wasn’t intended as unfair influence

UC Regent Richard Blum, second from right.
UC Regent Richard Blum, second from right, wrote an “inappropriate letter of support” to help a student applicant at UC Berkeley, according to a state audit.
(Los Angeles Times)

University of California Regent Richard Blum said Saturday he did not intend to unfairly influence the UC admissions process when he wrote what a state audit called an “inappropriate letter of support” to get a noncompetitive student admitted to UC Berkeley.

“It was never my intention to circumvent or unfairly influence the admissions process,” Blum, a San Francisco financier and husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said in a statement. “I do not intend to write letters of recommendation going forward.”

Blum’s statement came the morning after the California state auditor’s office released documents showing that the regent’s favored candidate was admitted from the waiting list after UC Berkeley’s fundraising and admissions offices met to discuss which applicants from that list would be approved. The offices had received Blum’s letter about the prospective student, who had been denied initial admission after receiving scores from application evaluators that indicated a 26% chance of acceptance, the audit said.

Blum’s intervention came as part of 64 cases identified in an 82-page state audit on UC’s admissions policies, which found that applicants were granted slots based on inappropriate factors, such as connections to donors, staff and alumni. Among them, 55 cases involved UC Berkeley, four were at UCLA, four at UC Santa Barbara and one at UC San Diego.

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Blum said he respected the findings and concerns raised in the audit but added that he had never been told his letters of recommendation were improper. He said he had written more than a dozen such letters for UC applicants over the last 18 years, submitting them to the chancellors’ offices.

“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,” he said. “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.”

The redacted documents showed that Blum sent the letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. Blum told Christ he wanted to “express my support” for an “outstanding” applicant on the waiting list who “embodies all the qualities we look for in our students.”

“Beyond college, I can see [the applicant] as a devoted alumnus who will greatly contribute to the CAL community,” Blum wrote. He asked Christ to give the student “every consideration” as a “worthy addition” to the undergraduate class.

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The date of the letter was redacted, but the other documents released indicate that Blum wrote it in the spring or summer of 2018, during Christ’s first year as chancellor and after regular admissions decisions for prospective freshmen were released in late March.

UC Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore declined to comment on Blum’s statement and the auditor emails because the matter is under review by the UC Office of the President’s ethics, compliance and audit services division. She said the chancellor’s administrative staff “routinely directs correspondence it receives to other campus offices, as appropriate, for response and action.”

Gilmore also said Berkeley officials had asked the auditor for the underlying documents that led to the findings “for several months now” but have not yet directly received any material.

Margarita Fernández, a spokeswoman for the state auditor’s office, said Friday that the documents show that UC Berkeley accepted the Blum letter “contrary to its admissions process and policy.” A 1996 Board of Regents policy allows members to send letters of recommendation, when appropriate, during the regular admissions process. But Blum sent his letter outside those bounds, after the applicant had been denied initial admission and was placed on the waiting list, the audit showed.

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UC policy allows letters of recommendation only if requested by admissions officials under specific circumstances that did not apply in the Blum case, Fernández said. She said the applicant had already submitted two other letters of recommendation — the maximum allowed under UC policy. Berkeley is not supposed to accept or consider letters of recommendation as part of the waitlist decision process, she said.

Yet the letter was not only accepted, it was discussed by high-level campus officials — treatment not afforded other applicants, Fernández said.

According to the emails, Christ’s executive assistant, Carolyn Koo, forwarded the letter from Blum — along with a letter from an unidentified regent emeritus advocating for a different student — to MiHi Ahn, executive vice president of the UC Berkeley Foundation, the university’s primary private fundraising arm. Koo asked Ahn to respond to Blum and the regent emeritus on behalf of Christ.

Blum, a UC Berkeley alumnus, has been an important contributor to the university over the years. In 2006, he donated $15 million to launch the Blum Center for Developing Economies to address global poverty and made subsequent contributions to expand that work.

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The regent emeritus, whose name was redacted from the documents, made a point of mentioning a potential forthcoming donation in the letter. “A small ps: my love for Berkeley recently led to my urging a ... client to donate” to Boalt Hall, the former name of the UC Berkeley law school. The redacted emails appeared to indicate that the applicant was not admitted.

Ahn sent an email to Amy Jarich, who at the time was assistant vice chancellor and director of admissions, alerting her to the two letters.

“I’m going to draft a letter of response that basically says, ‘there’s a bright line between us and admissions and we have no influence, but we will forward the letters to admissions.’ Just FYI ... of course everyone here knows the letters are not considered unless requested,” Ahn wrote.

In a second email to Jarich forwarding the letters, Ahn reiterated that she planned to draft a response to Blum and the regent emeritus from Christ’s office saying that “we have no influence but we will go ahead and forward the letter (but of course we are all well aware that these letters carry no weight). But we can just say we forwarded them.”

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Sometime after those emails were sent, Jarich discussed which students to admit from the waiting list with Greg Dubrow, then director of research and policy analysis in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. The emails show that Jarich modified Dubrow’s plan for prioritizing the wait-listed students, placing recommendations made by her and the staff on top.

Ahn also provided a list of favored students — showing that the university’s fundraising arm communicated with admissions officers during decision-making periods. Such practices are common among private universities, but UC officials have repeatedly said that donations do not affect an applicant’s chances of acceptance at the public research university system.

In annotated notes written in red on the emails, the auditor’s office said the exchanges showed that Jarich determined her selection strategy after she received the letters from regents. “It is therefore likely that the applicant recommended by the Regent would have been on Amy’s list that she placed at the top of the priorities,” the auditor’s notes said.

Fernández said additional emails showed that the directors of admissions and development met to discuss whom to accept from the waitlist after they received copies of Blum’s letter. The day after the meeting, Fernández said, Berkeley admitted the applicant.

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“These factors led us to conclude that the letter appears to have influenced UCB’s decision to admit this student,” Fernández wrote in an email to The Times.

Jarich left her position as admissions director in October 2018, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Dubrow left the admissions office in November 2018, his LinkedIn profile says, and is currently director of information strategy and analytics in the development and alumni relations division at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Berkeley has since hired a new director of undergraduate admissions, Olufemi “Femi” Ogundele.

Fernández said the communication between the Berkeley fundraising and admissions offices demonstrated by the emails underscores the pressing need for reform.

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“Ultimately, it is the UC system’s responsibility to ensure fairness in its admissions process, which is why, based on what we found in the audit, we recommended that all communications between admissions and fundraising about applicants or prospective applicants be strictly prohibited,” Fernández said.


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