The University of Virginia has come under fire recently after documents revealed its fundraising office keeps a “watch list” tracking and possibly altering admissions decisions for children of prominent donors.
Now, the Richmond-based author who first obtained the documents is calling for a federal investigation.
”The documents clearly indicate admission chances were positively affected by the prospect or receipt” of donations to the university, said Jeff Thomas, who wrote the 2016 book “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power.”
He requested the public documents while researching that book. Looking at admissions statistics, he said he noticed a discrepancy between the overwhelming majority of students who had been at the top of their high school classes, and a much smaller number who came from the middle or lower ranks.
After looking through the documents, “I noticed there was a class-based affirmative action going on,” he said.
The university “strongly objects” to Thomas’s allegations, which were covered by the Washington Post earlier this month, university spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
”There is no evidence to support his speculation,” de Bruyn said. “You can’t buy your way into the University of Virginia.”
The 164 pages of documents, which Thomas shared with The Virginian-Pilot, are largely redacted. But the records detail parents’ affiliations with the university next to applicants’ names, along with priority status. A section titled “Why is this applicant recommended?” is blacked out.
Handwritten notes point to presumable donations. For example, one student was initially listed as denied admission. But a handwritten mark of “$500K” sits above a typed note: “must be on (wait list); mother BFF w/ (redacted) and sorority sister.” The applicant was then shown as being moved to the wait list.
For a different applicant being placed on the wait list, officials noted: “According to people who have talked to him, (redacted) livid about the (wait list) decision and holding future giving in the balance. Best to resolve quickly, if possible.”
Thomas filed a complaint Sunday with the U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Virginia, asking the office to look into the matter. He said it would’ve been a conflict of interest for the state to do so, because it could roil the public university “in a corruption scandal that may well implicate major political donors, legislators and members of the Board of Visitors.”
The documents span almost a decade and come from the advancement office, which oversees fundraising.
De Bruyn said the advancement office is “occasionally contacted by alumni, friends and supporters recommending students who have an interest in attending UVA.” He said the practice is common among such institutions, and noted the recommendations are separate from the admissions office, “which is charged with the sole responsibility of reviewing applications on a holistic basis for admission” and does not review the fundraising office’s watch list.
Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation that provides scholarships to low-income students, told the Washington Post it would be “shocking” to see coordination between fundraising and admissions staff.
But wealthy students often do get special treatment at prestigious colleges, Levy told the Post. Most students tend to come from top tax brackets.
“Until now colleges have insisted that it was accidental and happenstance,” Levy said. “But this puts a new light on it.”
The university’s student government is conducting its own investigation following the revelations, according to the Cavalier Daily student newspaper.
Thomas said the biggest concern is that qualified applicants could be rejected due to a possible “pay to play” practice at a public university.
“If you personally or your children were denied admission over the last 10 years, you can no longer assume that was based on merit,” he contends. “There’s a decent chance they were denied because their seat went, frankly, to an undeserving spoiled brat.”
This story originally appeared on PilotOnline.com.