Fallout from questionable admissions practices at the University of Illinois continued Sunday as a state representative called for the resignation of the school system's president and the trustees who meddled with student applications.
State Rep. Mike Boland (D-East Moline), chairman of the state House Higher Education Committee, said President B. Joseph White and other university leaders betrayed the public's confidence by giving preferential treatment to politically connected applicants.
"They were trusted to protect our university," Boland said. "In my eyes, they failed in that regard and they should resign."
A university spokesman said he does not expect any resignations and that the university is taking steps toward restoring "public confidence in the integrity and fairness of University of Illinois admissions."
Boland, whose name does not appear on the university's patronage list, also wants Gov. Pat Quinn to appoint a panel to investigate the shadow admissions systems chronicled in a recent Tribune series. After reviewing more than 1,800 documents, the Tribune found subpar applicants gained admission to the Urbana-Champaign campus with the sway of state legislators and university trustees during the last five years.
About 800 students' names have been placed on annual lists since 2005, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It's unknown how many would have qualified for entry on their own, but their acceptance rate is higher than average— even though records show patronage candidates, as a group, had lower average ACT scores and class ranks than all admitted students.
During the last five years, more than 100 politicians, most of them Springfield lawmakers, forwarded applicant names to the university's lobbyists, a practice that resulted in the students being placed on the clout list, university records show. However, Boland did not call for any elected officials to resign, saying they must answer to voters in the next election unlike the governor-appointed trustees.
The Tribune review found that trustees backed applicants who were friends, neighbors and relatives. Several trustees also said they forwarded requests from people they didn't know but who contacted them because of their position with the university.
While some trustees and lawmakers said they didn't realize there was a separate category for their requests, the records showed they needed only to forward a name and a few vital statistics to have the student placed in it.
Trustee Kenneth Schmidt repeatedly forwarded applicant names, even asking Chancellor Richard Herman when he could "check up on my crop en masse" in a 2006 e-mail. Trustee Larry Eppley passed along a request in 2005 from then- Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who wanted one of Tony Rezko's relatives admitted. And current board chair Niranjan Shah pushed for a student to be admitted to the MBA program even though Herman warned that school officials "had serious concerns about his ability to handle the academics."
"I am outraged trustees and individuals within the upper levels of the university administration are apparently actively helping under-qualified and unqualified students get admitted," Boland said. "Admissions to a public university, one of the best schools in the country, should be based on merit, not knowing a trustee or elected official."
The university suspended the clout list—known internally as Category I—last week and announced plans to appoint a panel to examine the process and suggest ways to avoid political pressure in future admissions decisions. The task force will report to university trustees, the same group whose bold and repeated admission requests fueled the Tribune's report.
Boland said the university cannot be trusted to investigate itself, especially after officials defended the list's usefulness as way of tracking inquiries.
"It should be an outside investigation so we can get to the bottom of this," he said.
Boland sent a letter to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D- Chicago) last week, asking permission to hold legislative hearings on Category I. Madigan—who is tied to more than 40 names on the clout list since 2005—has defended the practice as good constituent service and would need to approve Boland's request.
A U. of I. spokesman said the president and board of trustees would cooperate with the hearing process.
"The university will participate in any hearing the legislature decides to undertake, making ourselves available for testimony and providing whatever materials are requested," spokesman Tom Hardy said.
If Boland's hearing request is denied, he says he would like Quinn to initiate a public inquiry and subpoena documents, including the names of Category I applicants, to determine whether trustees or lawmakers had financial or political incentives for helping students. U. of I. officials redacted student names in documents released to the Tribune, citing privacy laws.
The governor's spokesman said Quinn will make an announcement about the U. of I. admissions controversy this week. Quinn does not appear on any of the clout lists maintained by the university.
Since the Tribune series ran, university officials have moved to restrict university lobbyists' access to the admission office's database after documents showed admissions officers feared the government affairs office was sharing confidential information with lawmakers and the families of well-connected students.
U. of I. also has promised to make an unadvertised appeals process—an option used to keep politically connected applications alive—more public.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun