The governor charged the commission with examining how lawmakers and trustees have used their political sway to help subpar applicants gain entry to the state's most prestigious public university."I'm sure we will end up with a policy here in Illinois that is better than what we have today," Quinn said.
However, the panel must work without subpoena power, leaving it at the mercy of school officials who have heavily censored records released to the public. Though pledging support for the investigation, a university spokesman would not say whether the Urbana-Champaign campus would provide the panel with unredacted copies.
Quinn's commission will be led by well-respected retired federal Judge Abner Mikva, who has often been consulted by politicians looking to boost their ethical credibility. Mikva also served as co-chair of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's transition team for ethics.
Even with Mikva's sterling reputation, government watchdogs question whether the seven-member panel can fix a system rooted in an Illinois-style clout list and political favors. In the last six months, Quinn has created two other blue-ribbon panels, but critics say neither has led to dramatic changes in the way the state conducts business.
In January, he appointed the Illinois Reform Commission to suggest ways to clean up state government. In the end, panel members criticized the General Assembly for not embracing their recommendations and complained about the governor's decision to cut a deal that they said weakened campaign contribution limits.
He also established the Taxpayer Accountability Board to find ways to cut government costs. Its report received an indifferent reception last week.
"In Illinois, they love to set up commissions," said Andy Shaw, executive director of the Chicago-based Better Government Association. "They enjoy ignoring them even more."
The newest commission comes in the wake of a Tribune investigation that found some applicants with weak academic credentials -- including a relative of convicted influence peddler Antoin "Tony" Rezko's -- gained admission after meddling from government officials and university trustees. In some cases, rejections were overturned at the urging of university lobbyists and despite the objections of admissions officers.
About 800 applicants in the last five years have landed on a clout list, known internally as Category I, with the help of power brokers. As a group, students admitted from the list had lower average test scores and class rankings than the average of all U. of I. freshmen.
The U. of I. canceled plans Wednesday to hold its own investigation.
President B. Joseph White said in a statement: "The Commission will have access to everybody and everything it needs to conduct its work. Any request or directive from the Commission is to be treated as the highest priority and responses are to be timely."
Quinn demanded similar cooperation from university trustees.
"If someone decides to get in the way of this commission, they are asking for big trouble from me," the governor said.
Like all Illinois governors since 1995, Quinn has the power to appoint nine of the school system's 13 board members. Three student trustees are elected on campus, and the governor is an ex-officio member. The Illinois Constitution allows him to remove appointees "for incompetence, neglect of duty, or malfeasance."
The governor said he did not know about Category I until reading about it in the Tribune. His name is not on the clout list from 2005 to 2009.
The new panel will have 60 days to issue a report, according to the executive order signed by the governor.
Former Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra said policy changes needn't wait until then. A former U. of I. professor who is president of Boise State University, Kustra said trustees can agree to stay out of admissions. The same directive could be given to university officials.
"If I were a board member, I would relish the thought of being removed from that pressure of being expected to deliver a special favor," Kustra said.
For some parents, like Nick Lucca of Lake Forest, the commission seems "a step in the right direction." Lucca remembers the surprise of his daughter's rejection from the U. of I. despite her being an honors student and gaining acceptance to other Big Ten schools. He questions the decision even more after learning about the clout list and said he believes that top administrators and admissions officers should be fired.
"These are educated and competent people who knew that what they were being asked to do was wrong and unfair," he said.
Despite the state's lousy record with blue-ribbon panels, Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Hinckley) said he believes that this one could make a difference, given the public outcry and Quinn's ability to implement its recommendations without legislative approval.
"This process could work," he said. "It offers hope."
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