State Sen. Chris Lauzen believed a student deserved admission to the University of Illinois law school in 2005, and he let the university's lobbyists know.
The school's dean thought otherwise.
"She won't hurt us terribly, but she certainly won't help us," then-Dean Heidi Hurd wrote to Chancellor Richard Herman. "She will almost certainly be denied admission if the process unfolds as we predict. But she can probably do the work. If you tell me we need to do this one, we will. We'll remember it though!"
"Please admit," the chancellor replied. "I understand no harm."
The e-mail exchange, one of hundreds received by the Tribune under a Freedom of Information Act request, embodies an ongoing power struggle between educators who want to protect the integrity of the state's most prestigious public university and administrators who also feel compelled to appease powerful lawmakers.
The Tribune on Friday reported evidence that subpar applicants gained admission to the U. of I. with the sway of state lawmakers and university trustees. The investigation revealed that acceptance decisions at times occurred over the objections of admissions officers in deference to power brokers.
University officials issued statements saying they "mostly get it right," but welcome the opportunity to address inequities outlined in the Tribune coverage.
Further analysis of the 1,800 documents reveals how intertwined admissions decisions were with political maneuverings in Springfield. The Tribune found instances in which the school's lobbyists overrule rejections, "blow up" at admissions staff and forward veiled threats from politicians who want candidates admitted.
Documents show both Democrats and Republicans asked lobbyists to track the status of more than 500 applicants, accounting for well more than half of the names on a clout list maintained during the past five years.
The list of students -- referred to by school officials as "Category I" applicants -- also includes requests and recommendations from Illinois congressmen, a U.S. senator, Downstate mayors and ex-Gov. James Thompson.
The Tribune reported Friday that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich submitted a request while in office, leading school officials to overturn the rejection of a relative of Antoin "Tony" Rezko, the influence peddler who was later convicted on public corruption charges.
Herman, who typically acts as the conduit between the university's admissions office and lobbyists, told the Tribune that inclusion on the list does not guarantee a positive outcome, nor does it mean the students wouldn't be accepted on their merits.
The clout list creates an awkward situation in which university officials are taking requests from legislators who hold the school's purse strings and trustees who are, in essence, their bosses.
"Do you think that if Barack Obama called me up and said, 'My nephew lives in Illinois and is applying,' -- I mean, this is the president of the United States calling me -- what am I supposed to do?" Herman asked rhetorically.
While the practice is common among legislators, they don't all do it.
"It's completely inappropriate," said state Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Hinckley), a member of the House Higher Education Committee, who said he refuses to push applicants. "You're being unfair to people who apply expecting an equitable system. It's clearly something that needs to be ended."
Lauzen (R-Aurora) contends his recommendation of the U. of I. applicant reflected his commitment to good constituent service. The senator said the candidate, who opted not to attend U. of I. and has graduated from another law school, was highly qualified and deserved admission.
He said the only upsetting parts about Dean Hurd's exchange with the chancellor are her tone in the e-mail and that she said she would remember the favor.
"If it were me, I'd fire her, maybe for insolence," Lauzen said. "If she doesn't believe the person is qualified, she should say no. Instead, she asks for a quid pro quo. Where are her ethics?"
Hurd, who still teaches at U. of I., could not be reached for comment.
Most names reach the clout list through the university's top two lobbyists, Richard Schoell and Terry McLennand, records show. The two are part of a government relations office that advocates for the university's interests, including funding, in Springfield. McLennand's e-mails, in particular, provide a detailed look at the lobbyists' machinations in admissions.
McLennand funneled most lawmaker requests through Herman. In one case, he suggested that the university's complicity in clouting admissions decisions could protect it from the passage of unfavorable laws -- what Pritchard later described as "blackmail."
"Again, thank you for your assistance, these cases do matter," McLennand wrote in a February 2009 e-mail in which he pushed for an applicant's rejection to be overturned. "Just in the last week, I have had discussions with two legislators who had considered drafting legislation with some form of automatic admission standards for the university."
Herman replied: "Surely [it] would not pass though we do not need the noise."
The student was admitted.
The unnamed lawmakers' alleged threat to change university policy proves there is a flaw in the system, Pritchard said. If legislators feel so emboldened by the process that they hint at retaliation, the practice needs to be revamped, he said.
"Certainly, it's a constituent service, but it doesn't make it right," he said. "It doesn't mean you should be participating in a form of blackmail."
Schoell, the university's executive director for government relations, denied he feels untoward pressure from lawmakers or has any role in the admissions process. Though they help legislators track names as a courtesy, he said, they do not push for candidates. Any documented references to lawmakers' urgency only reflect the politicians' desires to have quick responses for their constituents, he said.
"My job is to get back promptly or appropriately," Schoell said. "It's an exchange of information."
One e-mail exchange shows that admissions officers worried about McLennand's access to their database and worried he was divulging confidential information about students to lawmakers. The breach could give lawmakers and applicants "ammunition to use against us," wrote Keith Marshall, associate provost for enrollment management.
"I'm ... growing increasingly concerned that Terry is sharing too much information with legislators and the families of kids we're tracking," he wrote to Herman in February. "If I had my druthers, we would take away ... access from Terry and his staff. They ... do not have the necessary expertise to interpret the data they are viewing. Twice this year they have blown up at me because they believed we released admissions decisions before notifying them."
Schoell, who is McLennand's boss, said the problem has been addressed and that information is not shared with outside parties.
State Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) has candidates on the list, as do House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago). Cullerton declined to comment. Cross and Madigan said they see no problem with forwarding students' names.
University logs show Cross has submitted at least 10 names in the past five years, with eight known admissions. But Cross said he also has heard bad news from the government relations office.
"They have always been brutally honest with me," he said. "I'm fine with that."
Madigan, who has submitted the most requests of any lawmaker over the past five years, has pushed at least 34 names, with 6 known denials since 2005, records show. His spokesman, Steve Brown, shrugged off suggestions of an unfair advantage.
"A constituent calls and asks for someone to help get a street paved or curb replaced or a kid get into college," Brown said. "I think that's perfectly appropriate."
Some lawmakers said Category I allows them a chance to fix "mistakes."
Rep. James Brosnahan (D- Evergreen Park) inserted himself in the admissions process in February after a constituent was rejected despite having a 32 ACT score and a near-perfect grade-point average from Marist High School in Chicago. After the student lost his appeal -- an unadvertised option for those on the clout list -- Brosnahan and Sen. Edward Maloney (D-Chicago) pushed for a reversal.
"I would respectfully say our actions on this case do not sit well with several members," McLennand wrote in an e-mail to school officials. The student was admitted.
Brosnahan, who says he got involved after the student's mom wrote his office, believes the applicant's scores merited admission.
"I've never, in my 13 years in the legislature, heard of a kid with those credentials getting rejected from Liberal Arts at U. of I.," Brosnahan said. "Sometimes the university makes mistakes and it's up to public officials like myself and Sen. Maloney to help correct them."
The practice, however, stands to disenfranchise students who aren't politically savvy enough to seek their legislator's help.
"Any individual has a right to go to their representative of government, though I think there are some who elect not to or don't know it exists," Schoell said. "[But] the university admission process is fair, and it's impartial and it's governed by very good people."
The assurances offer little solace to U. of I. alum Gary Gasbarra. The Flossmoor man watched his son apply to the University of Illinois the first day the admissions office accepted applications two years ago, believing the teen's 32 ACT score and high class rank would gain him entry to the business school.
He had sent one child to his alma mater and thought Andy Gasbarra, who was "orange-and-blue everything," would be next. He wasn't.
The rejection stung anew Friday when Gasbarra learned of the influence some state lawmakers and university trustees wield in sponsoring applicants with weak academic credentials.
"These are employees for the state of Illinois, for the residents of Illinois, that shouldn't be doing this," he said. "This should not be part of standard operating procedure."
The younger Gasbarra now happily pledges his allegiance to Indiana University.
Tribune reporters John Chase and Tara Malone contributed to this report.
John Kass writes ... If college clout doesn't make you mad, read about lawmakers' political tuition program. PAGE 2Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun