Damning Report on Illinois Scandal

State inquiry into "clout" admissions places the blame on both trustees and top administrators.
August 7, 2009

When the Chicago Tribune revealed in May that the University of Illinois had used a "clout" admissions system -- in which trustees and senior administrators pressured admissions officers on behalf of politically connected applicants -- the university insisted that its admissions system was fundamentally fair and running well.

B. Joseph White, president of the university system, issued a statement at the time in which he said that tracking applications from the politically connected applicants "does not and should not translate into inappropriate pressure for admission," that the numbers involved were small (160, he said), that the university "does not succumb to pressure." He noted, further, that the article "makes no assertion that unqualified individuals were admitted to the University. This must always be the case."

On Thursday, a special state panel created to investigate the allegations raised by the Tribune issued a report consistent with the newspaper's findings and raising questions about much of the university's initial statement playing down the articles. There were actually 800 applicants placed on the "clout list," senior university administrators did in fact routinely pressure admissions officers to admit them -- in a number of cases after decisions had been made to deny admission -- and applicants who were more qualified than those admitted were in some cases denied admission.

"In scores of instances, the influence of prominent individuals -- and the university’s refusal or inability to resist that influence -- operated to override the decisions of admissions professionals and resulted in the enrollment of students who did not meet the university’s admissions standards -- some by a considerable margin," the report says. "In this way, sponsorship by prominent individuals at times became a heavy thumb on the scale, giving advantage to clouted applicants, who were typically from affluent backgrounds, and unfairly disadvantaging those in the general applicant pool."

These admissions offers "resulted, at least in part, from pressure applied by sponsors that high-ranking university officials, in turn, channeled to subordinates involved in making admissions decisions. In so doing, these officials routinely did nothing to block or diffuse the pressure (or, worse, amplified it), and thereby signaled their own endorsement of the applicants," the report added.

The admissions system in which candidates with clout were considered separately "derived its lifeblood from the active participation of, and tone set by, those at the top of the university. Numerous persons -- both within and outside the university’s administration – bear responsibility for compromising the fairness and integrity of the admissions process."

The panel found that individual trustees "personally participated in admissions applications in a manner that demonstrated a disregard for University-sanctioned principles of ethical conduct and fair dealing and lapses in judgment." Further, the panel said that President White "failed to exercise appropriate oversight of persons who reported directly to him and who, on a regular basis, engaged in admissions related abuses" and "personally participated in admissions applications in a manner inconsistent with university-sanctioned principles of ethical conduct and fair dealing."

And the panel found that Richard Herman, chancellor of the flagship campus at Urbana-Champaign, "personally and extensively participated in admissions applications in a manner inconsistent with university-sanctioned principles of ethical conduct and fair dealing."

Given the extensive trustee involvement in the system, the commission called for the resignations of all members of the Board of Trustees who are gubernatorial appointed (two did so in the days leading up to the report and one did so just after the report was released). A reconstituted board, the investigative panel said, should conduct "a thorough and expeditious review of the university president, the UIUC chancellor, and other university administrators, with respect to the information set forth in this report."

To prevent future problems, the commission recommended that the university:

  • Eliminate the special admissions category it had used (but suspended amid the outcry over the Tribune's revelations) for politically connected applicants.
  • Create a "firewall" around admissions officers with policies that "prohibit the consideration of sponsorship by prominent individuals or other undue influence in the admissions process."
  • Evaluate whether an appeals process is needed for undergraduate admissions and, if it is needed, "ensure that it is fully transparent and accessible to all applicants."
  • Create a "process to respond to admissions-related inquiries from prominent individuals without breaching any 'firewall' established by the university."

In addition, the commission urged the General Assembly to "enact legislation that would create an inspector general dedicated exclusively to the state’s universities. Alternatively, the existing Office of Executive Inspector General should be afforded additional resources to enable the office to devote substantially more attention to these universities."

The university's administration and trustees issued a joint statement soon after the final report was released, pledging to carry out many of the recommendations, including eliminating "clout" admissions and establishing many of the reforms suggested by the commission.

"The university is committed to correcting problems with the admissions process. Effective immediately, we are moving forward with several significant changes to the University’s admissions process, all reflecting three key principles: The process must be fair to all applicants, the process must be transparent, and the process must offer equality of access," said the statement.

"The composition of the Board of Trustees is a matter Governor Quinn will address. The entire university community is committed to working with Trustees as we work together to regain the public trust," the statement said.

The Tribune reported that, at a press briefing after the report was released, President White said he agreed with its recommendations, saying that it was "a very good report." He said that the criticism the commission made of hm and of Herman was "proper," but said he would continue to lead the university.

At Urbana-Champaign, the outgoing and incoming chairs of the Faculty Senate have called a special meeting of the Senate Executive Committee for August 17 to meet with Chancellor Herman. "We will be considering what role the faculty, and especially the Senate, should play in admissions procedures in order to best protect the integrity of the admissions process. We will probably also discuss whether we would like to make some recommendation regarding the selection process and composition of the UI Board of Trustees," said Joyce Tolliver, the incoming Senate chair and associate professor of Spanish and gender and women's studies. "Our primary concern at this meeting will be with how best to move forward in the face of the current crisis."


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