Blago-Style Admissions

Chicago Tribune exposes extent of political influence on getting into U. of Illinois -- leaving university pledging to fix any problems and claiming that this goes on everywhere.
June 1, 2009

It's not selling a Senate seat, but the reputation of Illinois as a state where the politically influential get benefits to which they aren't entitled may be extended to college admissions. A series of articles starting Friday in the Chicago Tribune exposed the extent to which less qualified but politically connected applicants have been admitted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- sometimes over the objections of admissions officials.

The president of the University of Illinois spent Friday rushing to explain that, while he would attend to any problems in the admissions process, the preferential treatment some of his university’s well-connected applicants receive is common to “every highly selective institution.” But to the scale it happens at Illinois? Some college admissions experts say no.

According to a report the Tribune published Friday, the University of Illinois maintains an exclusive list of well-connected applicants who, apart from their backing by powerful players in the university community and Illinois politics, might otherwise prove lacking in qualifying credentials. Members of this list – dubbed “Category 1” on internal correspondence – on average have lower ACT scores and were ranked lower in their high school classes than other admitted applicants. Yet 77 percent of Category 1 students are given the green light to the university while the admission rate for average applicants is just 69 percent.

“This is an eye-opener to say the least,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “I think handing the admissions office an offer they can’t refuse is an all too common practice. Whether they are written or just understood, most schools have something like this. It’s not a new issue, but the scale and detail of [what the Tribune uncovered] seem to be perhaps without precedent.”

Of course other universities are not without admissions controversies. The University of Florida's College of Medicine is one example, where last spring an applicant was admitted by the dean without the backing of the Medical Selection Committee, which is widely out of line with standard practice. The advantaged applicant is the son of a major Republican fundraiser. But the case at the University of Illinois, admissions experts say, tops them all.

The Tribune combed through 1,800 pages of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, and discovered e-mails between admissions officials and university leadership who candidly discuss the admission of students – a relative of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s convicted fund raiser, Tony Rezko, was one – who, though under-qualified, were being “tracked” by university trustees, state lawmakers or other people the college seemed eager to please.

The Tribune found several cases of university leaders forcing the admission of these Category 1 students, sometimes even over the protests of admissions officials. Most of the more than 500 applicants who landed on the priority list in the past five years received backing from state lawmakers -- the Tribune's Sunday article revealed veiled threats from politicians who sought admission for favored applicants -- or university trustees. Children, neighbors, friends, vacation buddies – tickets to the circle of influence were pretty liberally granted by some of the power players the Tribune identified. Rep. Angelo Saviano even advertises help with college applications in his constituent newsletter.

Rezko’s relative was slated to be rejected, but a message from Illinois President B. Joseph White compelled admissions officials to change the verdict. In an e-mail sequence about another applicant, Keith Marshall, associate provost for enrollment management, wrote to Chancellor Richard Herman: “[h]ope we don’t take too big of a hit for putting him in ahead of more qualified students.”

Other correspondence indicates under-qualified students flagged as Category 1 are sometimes admitted late in the cycle to stave off raised eyebrows at the applicants’ high-caliber high schools. After a trustee expressed interest in a student who had already been denied admission, an admissions official wrote: “Please make sure that Dr. Herman knows that we will move this student in May or June. She has terrible credentials at a good school so we need to move her in as late as possible.”

Of course, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director in external relations for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, it is no secret universities sometimes argue that admission of academically subpar students benefits the institution in other ways – athletes and children of big potential donors fit that mold. Without conceding justification for that practice, Nassirian said bending the rules for no utilitarian purpose is worse. At that point, he said, “you wonder what the institution gains.”

Still, Nassirian said what is happening at Illinois is nothing new; it’s the university’s handling of inevitable outside pressure that is “just so over the top.”

“The fundamental pressures are not really unique to this one institution. We recognize that at public and private universities there are various quarters from which pressure for preferential treatment can come,” Nassirian said. “In general, the way you handle these kinds of pressures is with symbolic action without actually bending the rules. It’s mostly for appearances.”

Nassirian gave an example: As a matter of courtesy, he explained, a high-level university official might meet with the well-connected applicant and give him a private tour of the campus. “And then deny admission because he’s not qualified.”

“I can’t really think of other cases where children of the mighty and powerful actually gain admission to the top institutions [based on status],” he said. “I wouldn’t be nearly as offended if it was just the case that they were stroking someone’s ego.”

There is also the obvious consequence of more qualified applicants losing their spots at the university, and the university compromising its integrity by going back on stated policies, Nassirian said.

“It is unethical. It is unethical even in the case of private institutions, where a private donor is involved. It violates stated policies,” Nassirian said. “In a public institution, it’s even more egregious. The expenditure of public funds should not be predicated on influence of public officials.”

What’s more, Hawkins said, a university that breaks its ethical code and admits under-qualified students is likely “shooting itself in the foot.” The university sets high admission standards for a reason, and disregarding them not only jeopardizes integrity, it can hurt the college’s academic standing.

The potential impact on reputation is not lost on Illinois faculty members, according to the e-mails the Tribune dug up. Nor is it confined to the undergraduate college. Paul Pless, assistant dean of law school admission, wrote in one of the uncovered e-mails that he was concerned a student being forcibly admitted with a GPA and LSAT score well below the 25th percentile mark of the incoming class would hurt the law school’s status.

The law school would have to “admit at least 2 additional students to ensure there is no negative impact on the profile, and I can’t say for certain that even that will be enough,” Pless wrote. “Since we are so late in the process it will be unlikely that I will be able to find any single candidate that would have both the LSAT and the GPA to counteract [name redacted] numbers. By admitting [name redacted] we are putting in jeopardy the goal of increasing our median GPA to a 3.5.”

Despite concerns like this, the Tribune report shows university officials offering preferential treatment of well-connected applicants as if it were simply business as usual, possibly oblivious to any breach of ethics. But for Paul Schmitt, student trustee for the Urbana-Champaign campus, the secrecy surrounding influence-peddling by fellow trustees suggests they knew what they were doing was wrong.

“If there is any reason for fumigation of university leadership, this story is it,” he said.

Schmitt said the institution has to “do something to remove the Blagojevich taint that’s associated with our system of governance here.” The first step to that end, he continued, is thoroughly vetting all university appointments made by the former governor and installing new university officials who will reverse the culture of corruption being perpetuated in Illinois.

That, Nassirian said, might be difficult: “It might not be entirely within the power of the university leadership to completely alter the culture there. If significant players at the state level view themselves as entitled to special treatment,” he said, that is tough to change. “But they have the power to at least try to resist it, and they should.”

Hawkins advises they start immediately, as this story is likely “going to have legs for the long haul.”

“Illinois has been in the news quite a bit for corruption, and this story continues because of that,” Hawkins said. “Plus this is an absolutely dreadful time to have this story break, primarily because so many Americans are struggling to realize the dream of higher education. We’re talking about how much work needs to be done in terms of improving access, and this kind of story sets us back a great bit. It suggests that money talks and power talks.”

President White said in a statement Friday he would stress to admissions officials they should not succumb to outside pressure when granting entry into the university. Where there are problems in the admissions process, he said, it is something the university “can and will correct.”


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