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Donations influence admissions

By Robert Faturechi

Nov. 12, 2007 9:54 p.m.

UCLA’s elite orthodontics residency program has violated University of California policy and standards governing public schools by giving special consideration in admissions to major donors and their relatives.

Hundreds of pages of e-mails and internal documents obtained during a months-long Daily Bruin investigation, along with dozens of interviews, show that the program and the officials at its helm developed a system of preferential treatment over the past five years.

In this unprecedented practice within the School of Dentistry, applicants related to donors giving six-figure gifts were automatically advanced over other students despite their lower test scores and grades.

In one case, an applicant was told by a member of the admissions board that a $60,000 gift could greatly improve his chances.

Orthodontics is arguably the most competitive of dental specialties, and the program at UCLA is regarded as one of the nation’s best, typically accepting applicants with extensive research experience and top scores.

But in four of the last five years, major donors’ close relatives have landed one of six highly coveted residency spots in the program.

In 2006, real estate developer David Lee pledged $1 million to the school of dentistry. His niece was admitted into the orthodontics program soon after.

In 2005, Dr. Norman Nagel pledged half a million dollars. His son was admitted the next year.

In 2004, Dr. Bruce Molen pledged $400,000. His son was admitted the next year.

In 2003 and 2005, Dr. Thomas Bales helped lead major fundraising campaigns within the School of Dentistry, and in 2001, he pledged a half million dollars as well. The orthodontics clinic is named after him. In 2003, his daughter was admitted.

“I’ve been on this faculty for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said George Bernard, a professor in the School of Dentistry. “People are scared that residencies are being sold on the open market.”

E-mails obtained by The Bruin through sources within the school show the orthodontics program’s high admissions standards were not always applied to the relatives of major donors.

In a July 2006 e-mail to a prospective applicant, Bales, also a member of the admissions board, admitted that he accepted the son of Norman Nagel, who in 2005 donated half a million dollars to the school, despite the student’s substandard board scores: “We took Norm Nagel’s son Jeff from (the University of Pacific) this year on my call. … We just tell him to blame memory loss when/if someone asks him his national board scores!”

Bales declined to be interviewed for this story.

Mike McDonald, an active alumnus who has donated to the program in the past, said that program chair Eric Ting admitted in private conversations to a preferential admissions program for donors and their relatives as a way to increase revenue. Two faculty members, who wished to remain anonymous because they feared retribution from other faculty, said they also were specifically told by Ting about the details of such a program.

“There’s a legacy program. I heard that directly from his mouth. He didn’t realize there was something wrong with it. In fact, he defended it,” one of the faculty members said.

Ting rejected these claims in a July interview. Through his lawyer, he denied a follow-up interview in October.

In interviews, many faculty members expressed concerns about the academic qualifications of residents admitted after relatives made donations. Many worried that UCLA’s program would gain unfavorable press and lose its national reputation as a top-tier program.

Grades and national board scores were not available for all of the residents in question. But class rankings, provided to The Bruin through a source who had access to the records, ranked two of the residents in question at 46th and 54th in their classes of roughly 135 dentistry students. Both were far from the top 10 percentile of their class, which is a typical standing for accepted applicants.

Another accepted resident with ties to a major donation was said to have applied only to UCLA’s orthodontics program, an unusual choice because orthodontics programs are so competitive nationwide.

The resident was heard boasting about her admissions chances at an informational event, according to another applicant present for the event and other reliable sources within the School of Dentistry.

“It was almost like she knew she was going to get an interview,” said the applicant, who wished to remain anonymous because he plans on working in Southern California and fears backlash from the dentistry community. “I thought it was kind of interesting because you know how competitive it is, so it was kind of weird to hear her say that.”

With the exception of $500,000-donor Nagel, who said his donation did not affect his son’s admission status, none of the residents and donors implicated could be reached despite numerous attempts to contact them.

The last straw

Last November, Kent Ochiai, a standout graduate of the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, was on his way to interview for a position at his alma mater’s orthodontics program when he got a call from UCLA.

He’d been accepted.

Ochiai was so pleased that he broke the good news to the USC admissions board before the interview even came to a close.

He was going to be a Bruin.

The next day, he got another call ““ this time from Bales, a member of the admissions board for UCLA’s orthodontics program and the man for whom the orthodontics clinic is named.

In an incident confirmed by an internal university investigation and Ochiai himself, Bales told Ochiai that some members of the UCLA admissions board were wary about accepting him and that a donation of $60,000 might secure their support.

That phone call to Ochiai, who is now finishing the first year of his residency at UCLA, led to an investigation into admissions impropriety within the orthodontics program.

That investigation, led by the chancellor’s office, found the allegations that the program was reserving residency slots for the relatives of major donors could not be substantiated. There was “no credible and convincing evidence that deals were made or understandings reached to admit an applicant in return for donating money to the School,” according to a summary of that investigation’s final report.

Some faculty members cried cover-up.

Faculty member John Beumer resigned from his position as chair of the school’s Faculty Executive Committee, in protest of what he called a “mockery of the merit based traditions and social values that have made the University of California the best and most admired public university system in the world today.”

Beumer announced his resignation in a mass e-mail to all dentistry faculty.

“I find it impossible to remain as FEC chair, for in my mind, doing so would condone and make me complicit to these sordid affairs,” read the e-mail.

Many other faculty have chosen not to go public with their concerns because they say they fear retribution from the university and superiors within the school.

“People don’t want to stick their necks out because they’re afraid they’re going to get chopped off,” Bernard, a professor at the school, said.

The chancellor’s office has remained steadfast in denying allegations of admissions impropriety within the orthodontics program.

“The report did not substantiate any cases of individual wrongdoing. There were no regulations broken,” Executive Vice Chancellor Scott Waugh said. “The investigation did not find any evidence of explicit wrongdoing.”

Still, the investigation report included a series of recommendations for changes in admissions policy at the UCLA School of Dentistry. The report said the school should adopt a statement of basic values for the admissions process.

The report also suggested banning alumni fundraisers from participating on admissions boards. Darrell Spilsbury, former president of the Orthodontic Alumni Association, and Bales are fundraisers who have sat on the admissions board.

A subcommittee within the Faculty Executive Committee, a faculty senate body within the school, has implemented the investigation report’s recommendations.

No one has been reprimanded by the university.

A trend

As state support for UC has dwindled, officials at the elite public institution have increasingly been forced to make a tough decision: risk mediocrity or privatize.

Shifts toward the latter ““ including student fee increases, major corporate sponsorships and fundraising campaigns on an unprecedented scale ““ have been blasted by critics as a break from UC’s core identity as a public institution. Others say private support is the only way to stay competitive in the face of unreliable taxpayer support.

This dilemma is at the heart of the UCLA orthodontics program’s preferential admissions treatment for donors and their relatives.

State funding, which covered 32 percent of the School of Dentistry’s total expenditures in 2004, dropped to just 26 percent last year.

The cuts have pushed school officials to look toward private funding, a move that has convinced some that traditional UC standards simply are not practical anymore.

In a February e-mail to a faculty member, Spilsbury, an admissions board member last year, criticized UC’s devotion to focusing primarily on the state for funding.

“If you want to carry the flag for the UC way, more power to you. … If you want a small, poorly equipped clinic, where it survives solely on merits of students, go ahead. This is “˜the UC way.’ … This isn’t how businesses keep the competitive edge,” he said in the e-mail. “I will not take the position to serve as a moral police for the UC way.”

In the e-mail, Spilsbury added that he never allowed donation histories to affect his admissions evaluations. He could not be reached for comment despite numerous attempts.

Though he refused to comment on individuals, Norman Abrams, acting chancellor during the investigation into orthodontics admissions, said including alumni fundraisers in the admissions process is inappropriate.

“One would want to think long and hard about having an alumnus … who engages in significant fundraising on the admissions committee,” Abrams said.

The culture of preferential treatment for donors and their relatives in the orthodontics residency program is not the first such scandal in recent years that has blurred the line between public and private at UC.

In 1996, a Los Angeles Times investigation exposed a program of preferential treatment in both undergraduate and graduate admissions at UCLA for the friends and relatives of state officials and major donors.

In 2006, the UC came under fire after a series of media reports revealed an executive compensation scandal that included large bonuses and other perks for top university officials.

UC President Robert Dynes said then that the payment packages ““ many of which were approved without the knowledge of the UC Board of Regents ““ were needed in the face of state budget cuts to compete with private universities in recruiting qualified candidates for top positions.

Most recently, the UC has drawn sharp criticism for its increased reliance on corporate funding, most notably in the form of a $500 million grant from oil company BP to UC Berkeley. Many worry such grants surrender undue influence to private interests, compromising the integrity of university research.

“The university is digging everywhere it can to find new sources of revenue,” said John Simpson, a consumer advocate at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “In that process, they’re selling the soul of higher education to the highest bidder.”

Public universities across the nation are undergoing similar changes. At the University of Michigan, where taxpayer support covers just 18 percent of the academic budget, more than 40 percent of the most recent incoming class were not state residents.

At the University of Virginia, officials recently launched a campaign to raise $3 billion in private donations, with one leader calling the elite school “a privately funded public university.”

Many believe that the shift toward privatization is making UC less accessible to students from low-income and middle-class families, as it had in recent years within the orthodontics program at UCLA.

“I’m worried about students who don’t come from money, who work their ass off and think, “˜If I work hard, if I do everything right, I should get in,'” McDonald said. “But all of a sudden, guess what? There’s no spot for you because someone else took it because mom and dad have money.”

An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified Darrell Spilsbury’s position in the Orthodontic Alumni Association.

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Robert Faturechi
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