Foxes Guard Illinois Henhouse

University of Illinois trustees have yet to condemn the president or chancellor for a widespread admissions scandal. Maybe that's because the trustees are implicated, too.

June 29, 2009

When state university leaders lose trust on issues of integrity, it's usually the job of trustees to show them the door. It’s not that simple, however, in Illinois – where nothing ever is.

As daily and damning reports illustrate, the admissions scandal at the University of Illinois has engulfed senior administrators, as well as some of the very trustees who would, under typical circumstances, be making heads roll. Therein lies the quandary: as faculty and lawmakers are learning firsthand, it’s hard for trustees who are themselves implicated in a scandal to fire anyone for their part in it.

Since the Chicago Tribune first broke the story of widespread political favoritism in the admissions process at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the tentacles of the scandal have reached into the highest corridors of power: The governor’s office, the system’s board of trustees, the system president and the campus chancellor have all – in one way or another – been connected to what the Tribune called Illinois’ “clout” list. But the two men at the top of the university's pyramid – system President B. Joseph White and campus Chancellor Richard Herman – have retained their jobs, and no trustee has publicly suggested that they step aside.

“Obviously it’s a huge problem,” said Cary Nelson, an English professor at Illinois and president of the American Association of University Professors. “The board is thoroughly implicated, or at least certain members are thoroughly implicated, and they cannot under those circumstances exercise independent judgment.”

With one exception, the current non-student trustees at Illinois were all appointed by either Gov. Rod Blagojevich or Gov. George Ryan, both of whom left the governor’s office in disgrace amid corruption charges. The scandals of the two preceding governors have prompted some movement in the Legislature to simply undo all appointments both men made while in office, including university trustee appointments.

While the legislation passed the House, it has been locked up in the Senate and is competing for attention with a large agenda of budget initiatives.

Rep. Mike Boland, chairman of the state House Higher Education Committee, supported the effort to undo the Blagojevich and Ryan appointments. Absent passage, however, Boland says he’d settle for the resignations of all those implicated in the admissions scandal.

“I called for the resignation of any of the trustees and actually even those higher administrators in the University of Illinois who are directly implicated in this,” he said Friday. “I don’t mean the paper pushers that just fill out the admissions forms; I’m not interested in that, but in particular the trustees. In my eyes they violated the reason they were appointed.”

Even trustees who aren't implicated have some answering to do, Boland added.

"I would say even in those who weren't [involved], what is the story here?" he said. "Did the others not know about it? Were they as naive as you might say the rest of us, thinking we have a meritocracy admissions [system] instead of, as it turns out, some episodes of favoritism?”

There are plenty of suggestions that trustees took advantage of their influence over the admissions process. Trustee Kenneth Schmidt, for instance, admitted in a 2006 e-mail that his forwarding of applicant names had reached “epidemic” proportions, adding that he’d like to "check up on my crop en masse,” the Tribune reported.

The communications office for Illinois' Board of Trustees did not respond to inquiries Friday.

Governor May Have Power to Oust

Absent from the conversation thus far are the powers of Gov. Pat Quinn, who replaced Blagojevich after his impeachment and serves as an ex officio trustee. The Illinois Constitution grants the governor power to “remove for incompetence, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office any officer who may be appointed by the Governor.” It’s unclear whether those powers would extend to officers Quinn did not personally appoint, however, and the governor’s office did not respond to queries on the matter.

Rather than calling for ousters, Quinn has formed a panel to investigate the admissions controversy. Asked whether Quinn had faith that trustees implicated in the scandal could be trusted to exercise their oversight duties – or hold administrators accountable – the governor’s press office issued a short statement.

“Governor Quinn looks forward to that panel’s report. Upon reviewing its findings, the governor will take appropriate action,” Marlena Jentz, Quinn’s deputy director of communications, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

Faculty Yet to Formally Condemn

With nearly each passing day, more stories have emerged about the depth of the “clout” scandal. Newly released e-mails, for instance, showed Chancellor Herman pressuring the law school to admit one of Blagojevich’s favored candidates in exchange for the governor securing jobs for five law graduates with subpar academic credentials. These revelations, however, have not provoked the sorts of formal faculty rebukes one might expect: No resolutions. No votes of no confidence. No formal condemnation of any kind.

So where’s the outrage? Nicholas Burbules, chairman of the Urbana-Champaign’s Faculty Senate executive committee, said he does not expect any formal statements until after the Quinn panel issues its report. That’s in part out of respect for the process, but also because the story has had so many twists and turns that faculty don’t want to point fingers until they better know where to point them, Burbules said.

“I think people are being very leery about saying anything until we have more information,” he said.

But once they see where to point fingers, faculty may find themselves pointing just about everywhere.

“The more that I hear about this, the more this seems to me a systemic problem,” Burbules said. “I’m not minimizing individual people’s individual responsibilities, but the more you look at this story the more it looks like a web … I don’t want to talk about blame, but I will say there is plenty of responsibility to go around.”

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