Former presidents and chancellors of the University of Illinois are laying much of the blame for the current admissions scandal at the feet of trustees, calling for sweeping changes on the board and the way it is appointed.
A letter from four former U. of I. leaders to the commission investigating admissions abuses falls just short of calling for the governor to fire the trustees, but says that some of them are more interested in personal gain than the well-being of the university.
"It is within the Governor's power to alter the composition of the board and ... appoint a generation of Trustees who will create a new culture of governance," wrote former Presidents Stanley Ikenberry and James Stukel and former Chancellors Morton Weir and Michael Aiken.
An ongoing Chicago Tribune investigation has found that trustees meddled in the applications process nearly 100 times in the last three years alone. Some applicants, including trustees' relatives, were admitted over the objections of admissions staff.
Every member of the board took part except for Edward McMillan, who became a trustee just months ago.
The letter joins a growing chorus of public officials and educators calling for action against the eight trustees who placed students on the clout list. U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and state Rep. Mike Boland (D-East Moline), chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, have called for the board members' resignations.
The former university leaders said that while it's not new for the university to be pressured by outside interests, the response from the current administration is different. The Tribune investigation found that more than 800 well-connected undergraduate applicants received special consideration during the last five years, grouped together as "Category I." Dozens more applicants to law school and graduate programs also received preferential treatment.
"In the current circumstance the integrity of the admissions process has been compromised," they wrote. "While concern and anxiety on admissions decisions at selective campuses such as Urbana-Champaign are nothing new, the weakened capacity to withstand those pressures and safeguard the integrity of the University is more recent."
Their letter comes after Chancellor Richard Herman testified last week that some form of a tracking system for well-connected applicants has existed for "decades." He said that while he intended to act as a buffer between the powerful patrons and the admissions office, a system developed that was "not equitable and transparent."
The four former leaders served over a 26-year period combined, from 1979 to 2005.
They blamed the current situation on the patronage culture that evolved during the administrations of Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich. But they didn't exonerate U. of I. President B. Joseph White or Herman.
Weir, chancellor from 1988 to 1993, said he would have quit before caving to political influence.
"I would have objected strongly and hoped that would be enough," he said. "If they said, 'Admit or else,' I would have taken 'or else.' I wouldn't have stood for it."
He said he cannot recall an instance in which a trustee pressured him to accept a student or even mentioned a particular admissions case. Neither Gov. James Thompson nor Gov. Jim Edgar involved themselves in admissions beyond sending letters of recommendation, he said.
As chancellor, Weir said he never tracked students or asked for status reports of politically connected students, as documents suggest Herman has done for years. If university lobbyists forwarded requests from lawmakers, Weir said, they never crossed his desk.
"It's hard to imagine how this has happened," said Weir, now a trustee at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. "It's very important for universities to be high places of integrity. That's about all we have to go on."
Ikenberry said "none of us can remember an instance" in which they pressured an admissions officer to change a decision.
Ikenberry and the other former leaders suggested that Gov. Pat Quinn change the trustee-selection process to a system in which three members are chosen by the governor and six are elected by members of the alumni association.
U. of I. trustees were elected until 1996, when the governor was granted the authority to appoint them. Ikenberry said trustees have become more involved in day-to-day university matters since then.
"There is general concern that their intervention isn't just confined to admissions," said Ikenberry, president from 1979 to 1995.
Quinn spokesman Robert Reed said: "The governor's position has been that he thinks the Admissions Review Commission is doing an excellent job and he is looking forward to reading their recommendations."
U. of I. board Chairman Niranjan Shah, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Three trustees, Lawrence Eppley, David Dorris and Kenneth Schmidt, are scheduled to testify before the admissions panel Tuesday.
On Monday, the commission is expected to question national admissions experts and an associate dean from the U. of I.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun