Texas Southern moving past ‘pay-for-play’ admission scandal

Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston is dealing with the fallout of a pay-for-play admission scandal that allowed unqualified students to get into the law school, as well as awarded them hefty scholarships. 

The allegations rival the college admissions scandal that nabbed actress Felicity Huffman and others last year. While the school’s new dean has taken corrective action, the American Bar Association (ABA) is investigating the matter, along with the FBI and other authorities. The watchdog blog, Laws in Texas, called the scandal, “appalling” and argues that criminal indictments should be handed down.

The scandal centers around a former assistant dean who allegedly admitted unqualified students and gave them scholarships in return for financial kickbacks. At the same time, more than 500 applications of other prospective students — many of them qualified for admission — were never reviewed. 

Making the scandal even more alarming is that it comes at a historically black law school that has struggled to maintain academic standards and post strong bar pass rates. The scandal likely contributed to that. It’s unknown how long the scheme played out. 

It first came to light last fall when Joan Bullock, the new dean of the school, noticed that students who were not formally enrolled in the school were attending orientation and classes. After looking into it further, Bullock discovered that none of the students met admission requirements. She requested an audit. 

The school reached out to third-party investigators to assist with the internal investigation, and it identified that Edward Rene, who was assistant dean of admissions and financial aid, admitted at least 17 students and gave them scholarships totaling $430,000. None of the students met the school’s admissions requirements. 

Six of the students were found to have been in communication with Rene about “a financial impropriety scheme whereby these students were instructed to remit funds” — either cash payments or parts of their refunds — to the assistant dean in exchange for enrollment, financial aid or both, the internal audit found.

The students in question were not eligible for federal financial aid and “were granted scholarships large enough to receive substantial refunds,” the audit stated. The law school did not have a written policy for awarding scholarships, and only Rene had discretion over it. Rene had worked at the law school since 1999. 

One student, Shaboyd Cannon, claimed he gave the former assistant dean “approximately $16,200 as well as concert and airline tickets in order to obtain admission” to the law school, and that Rene instructed him to “remove character and fitness information from his application file in order to be admitted.” 

School officials said Cannon did not disclose his arrest record, which included two sexual assault cases that did not result in convictions. One took place while he was a law student at Southern University, which led to his expulsion from that school. 

Texas Southern revoked his admission to law school last fall and Cannon has since said he lied when he claimed he paid Rene $16,200. 

Bullock fired Rene in September and then made several other discoveries, including that a student allegedly paid $14,000 to the former assistant dean for admission to the law school. Possible theft or misappropriation of law school funds were also uncovered. 

"Particularly, application fees and seat deposits paid by students were being inappropriately deposited into a TSU Foundation fund in violation of the Texas General Appropriations Act," the document said. The dean "discovered $13,456.25 in cashier’s checks or money orders designated as deposits" to a law school program that were stashed under the former assistant dean's desk calendar. Nearly $32,000 in program deposits remains unaccounted for, the document said.

It was also discovered that admission officials failed to review more than 500 completed applications for the incoming class of 2019, including about 365 applicants who appeared to be "presumptive admits" based on their academic records and credentials.

“Many of these applicants had strong entering credentials and had even called [the] president and provost complaining that they had applied and received no response” from the law school, the audit said. “It was discovered that these applications were not acted upon at all.”

The scandal has already cost the president of the university his position. Austin Lane was fired for failing to report allegations of fraud in the university admissions process to law enforcement or the board of regents.

“A consequence of your actions, and in particular the dishonesty, misrepresentation, material omission, and intentional concealment aspects of your conduct, is injury to the trust placed in you by the board to manage and lead the university on a day-to-day basis,” the termination letter said.

Lane has maintained that he did nothing wrong, addressed the “pay-to-play” issue by firing Rene, and that it was the auditors responsibility to notify the board about the wrongdoing and not his. After his firing he received a settlement from the law school that does not accuse him of wrongdoing.

"I'm just happy I'm free and I'm moving on," Lane told the Texas Tribune. "I have nothing to respond to, I’m not there anymore, I wish them well, but I think it’s important for the record there was no wrongdoing on my part."

The audit was released in March, and the ABA posted a noncompliance letter in May. The law school has until August 1 to submit a report in hopes of clearing the noncompliance. The ABA will consider the written report at its August 2020 meeting. If the information provided demonstrates compliance with the standards, it will cancel a November hearing on the matter. 

In addition to the ABA and FBI, the Harris County district attorney's office, the Department of Education and the Texas Rangers have been briefed on the situation or undertaken investigations.

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