Time and again, as they took the hot seat during two recent legislative hearings on admissions favoritism, UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young and his top aides stressed that they never crossed an important ethical line: Admitting students in exchange for donations.
"We cannot identify a single instance of a quid pro quo, where a financial contribution or other favorable action on behalf of UCLA was contingent upon a student's admission," Young declared in a letter before the hearings. "I would deplore any such attempt to improperly influence the university."
But confidential documents show the relationship between money and admissions at UCLA has played out in more complex and subtle ways than a quid pro quo. And some legal experts say the school's defense of VIP admissions does not address the larger question of whether the process has been influenced by mounting pressures to woo and keep financial supporters.
To show gratitude toward big donors or to avoid jeopardizing future donations, UCLA officials routinely have given special handling to applications, and fund-raisers sometimes recommended that the university grant admission to students with ties to donors.
And several student applicants were admitted after UCLA fund-raising officials specifically referred to the six-figure contributions made by their parents or relatives, according to documents reviewed by The Times.
In 1992, a student whose admission was considered doubtful was eventually let in after a fund-raiser argued for "intervention" because her father was a prominent donor who helped solicit others for gifts, records show.
Such cases strike at the heart of issues raised by Times reports of favoritism in the admissions process at UCLA: Has an elite public institution been compromised by allowing some admissions to be influenced by contributions?
During recent hearings by the state Senate Select Committee on Higher Education, Young and other school officials repeatedly have denied that admissions involved any quid pro quo, a Latin phrase that means getting something for something.
But Robert C. Fellmeth, director of the San Diego-based Center for Public Interest Law, said Young "is mounting a narrow and largely irrelevant defense."
"Whenever you're accused of something, it's always better to pick out the one thing you're not doing and declare your innocence," said Fellmeth, whose nonprofit center trains University of San Diego law students about open government issues. "If I'm accused of shooting John with a high-powered rifle and I actually shot him with a handgun, I'd say, 'I never shot a high-powered rifle in my life!' "
The legislative hearings and an in-house inquiry ordered by UC President Richard Atkinson were prompted by Times reports in March that UC regents, politicians and donors had privately used their influence to get relatives, friends and others into UCLA, sometimes ahead of more qualified applicants.
University officials say only a "handful" of students were granted admission each year at the request of "important friends of UCLA," and fewer than a dozen in all were not eligible for UC.
On Friday, officials acknowledged that some of these admissions were made at the request of donors and potential donors.
"Some of these friends have contributed generously to UCLA, expanding educational opportunities for all students or improving research or patient care," a spokeswoman said. "Some have the potential to contribute generously to UCLA in the future and help us serve our students and the Los Angeles community better."
But the university never would trade donations for admissions, said Alan F. Charles, the retired vice chancellor who ran UCLA's fund-raising operation until 1993. Charles recalled he once threw a potential donor out of his office for offering $25,000 to get a child accepted as an undergraduate.
The former official said he nonetheless considered it proper to make recommendations to the admissions office for friends and relatives of major benefactors with track records of proven support.
"It was gratitude as opposed to a blandishment," Charles said. "It was a way of saying thank you to people for their help.
"I drew a line. It's a moral, philosophical line about which reasonable men may quarrel, [but] that was the line that I drew."
During the past 16 years, requests from donors often have overlapped the university's efforts to cultivate their support. While seeking large gifts, full-time fund-raisers took requests for admissions favors from donors and prospective donors, documents show.
"Student assistance request forms" were used to record whether the matter involved a major donor, a trustee of the private UCLA Foundation or a member of the Chancellor's Associates, a core benefactor group. The requests from donors were prioritized and then forwarded as a list to the admissions office.