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State audit says UCSD inappropriately admitted ‘athlete’ as favor to Athletic Board member

A state audit alleges that UC San Diego inappropriately admitted an applicant under the false pretense of being an athlete.
(File)

An applicant allegedly was admitted despite not having proper athletic or academic qualifications.

The applicant wasn’t a star athlete and didn’t have the kind of grades needed for admission to a place like UC San Diego.

He or she got in anyway.

The reason, according to a 76-page report released Sept. 22 by the California State Auditor, was the applicant’s connection to an influential member of UCSD’s Athletic Board and a vulnerable admissions system that didn’t properly vet athletic talent. The student was admitted on the presumption of playing for a UCSD sports team, but never did.

An unidentified Tritons coach wrote in an email to Athletic Director Earl Edwards, excerpted in the audit, that the board member “had helped out with scholarships, etc., in the past, and if we could help [the board member], it may help the department. … [The] board member used me to get his family friend’s kid in UCSD … [who] wasn’t going to get in otherwise.”

The investigation of four UC campuses was requested by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee in the wake of the 2019 national admissions scandal in which more than 50 people were criminally indicted as part of a scheme to use athletic teams as a back door into prominent universities, whether or not the applicants actually played the sport.

UCLA and Cal were implicated in the federal probe, as was the University of San Diego and its men’s basketball program. UCSD was not.

The audit of Cal, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and UCSD identifies 22 instances between the 2013-14 and 2018-19 academic years in which applicants were “falsely designated … as student‑athlete recruits because of donations from or as favors to well-connected families.” The sports were soccer, crew, track and field, golf, water polo, swimming, basketball and tennis.

Cal had the most with 13. UCLA and UCSB had four each.

UCSD had one, which the audit says began “when the coach of one team (Coach 1) asked the coach of another team (Coach 2) to facilitate the admission of an applicant who was the friend of a UC San Diego Athletic Board member.”

The university’s Athletic Board consists of prominent alumni and local citizens who assist the athletic department with major fundraising and strategic planning.

The student, board member, coaches and their sports were not identified, but the audit references an email sent from Coach 2 to Edwards on an undisclosed date.

“Although Coach 2 noted that the applicant was not a normal recruit and ‘did not have the grades to get in on (their) own,’ he facilitated the admission of the applicant,” the audit states. “Coach 2 further stated in the email to the athletic director that he was ‘not happy to be used in that manner’ … and ‘would handle this differently if it wasn’t for (the applicant’s) relationship to the board member.’”

An athletic department representative declined to discuss specifics of the allegation or say whether the coaches involved are still on staff, instead referring to a three-paragraph statement.

“UC San Diego conducted a review of the one concern specific to UC San Diego mentioned in the CSA report,” the statement said, “and found no evidence that university personnel committed an improper governmental act or violated policy related to this incident. Although we concluded there were no policy violations, UC San Diego has implemented additional policies and procedures to ensure the continued transparency and integrity of the recruiting process.”

Responding to UCSD’s statement, a representative of the California State Auditor said via email: “We stand by our work and we provided the language from the email exchange in the report. … UCSD inappropriately admitted one applicant as a student-athlete.”

The audit cites the 22 incidents that had “definitive evidence” but suspects there might have been hundreds of others at the four schools, noting that it examined only a few teams per campus and found more than 400 athletes who did not appear on rosters after admission — including several with “questionable circumstances surrounding their admission whom we did not count in our total.”

The audit makes recommendations to tighten the admissions process for prospective athletes while noting the risk of growing dependence of lower-profile sports programs on outside contributions.

“Their reliance on donations to support the continued existence of their teams,” the audit states, “can put pressure on coaches to use their significant influence over the admissions process to falsely designate applicants as qualified athletes to cultivate a positive relationship with prospective or existing donors.” ◆