As the University of Illinois' chief steward, President B. Joseph White has disavowed an admissions system found to have rewarded applicants backed by powerful patrons -- even though he, too, at times had sought special consideration for candidates.
The university's 16th president asked a subordinate to "flag" the application of a relative of former Chicago Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico, and asked for a "careful review" of an applicant endorsed by nationally syndicated columnist George Will, a Tribune examination of thousands of pages of records show.
White let colleagues know he had personal ties to applicants from North Carolina and Michigan, and as previously reported, he passed along an admissions recommendation from then- Gov. Rod Blagojevich for a relative of Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a Blagojevich fundraiser. The applicant, who was to be denied admission, was instead admitted.
White, who oversees the university's $4.1 billion budget and its three campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield, will take his turn testifying Monday before the Illinois Admissions Review Commission, which is investigating abuses at the state's public flagship campus following a Tribune investigation.
From the start, Commission Chairman Abner Mikva has said he is eager to hear from White, and he likely will seek to find out how much the top official knew about the admissions irregularities. White is bound to face some of the tough questions put to other witnesses, including whether anybody should lose a job or if laws or policies were violated.
White also may get questions about why he was trying to help out-of-state students. The Urbana-Champaign campus has seen the percentage of freshmen from Illinois drop during White's tenure to less than 83 percent in last fall's freshman class, a controversial change that has led to a public outcry.
In the last five years, more than 800 well-connected undergraduate applicants received special consideration, grouped together as "Category I." Dozens more applicants to law school and graduate programs also received preferential treatment.
The commission, meeting at the U. of I. campus in Urbana, also is expected to hear Monday from former Presidents Stanley Ikenberry and James Stukel. The former leaders wrote in a letter to the commission that outside influence is not new, but the systematic method of tracking such requests within the current administration is less resistant to pressure. They blamed the current board of trustees for being more interested in personal gain than the well-being of the university.
White declined to be interviewed for this story. But in an interview with the Tribune in May, he drew a line between inquiries that add information to applicants' files and efforts to bend the rules for candidates with subpar credentials.
"I would never support, and I have never supported, the admission of an unqualified candidate," White said, before the Tribune first reported that some under-qualified applicants were admitted at the request of elected officials, university trustees and other powerful people. "I would never support an applicant [jumping over] better-qualified applicants simply because of connections. Never."
Indeed, in the vast majority of cases where White's name appears in e-mails, he does not push back when told an applicant isn't going to be admitted. His language is in contrast to that of trustees, university lobbyists and Chancellor Richard Herman, who are more aggressive in their efforts to admit particular students.
In one instance, White's assistant told the president that the admissions office doubts an applicant will get admitted -- "unless you suggest they do so."
White responded: "Nothing to do except let [name redacted] know the decision with regret."
White's name was connected to 16 applicants during the last three years, including a case in which his name appears on a log next to a low-ranking student from Glenbrook South High School who was admitted this year, according to documents kept by the admissions office.
"I have personally never experienced inappropriate pressure. Nor have I ever directed the admission of a person other than on the merits," White told the Tribune. "We have to be crystal clear with our deans and admissions people that they are not to succumb to such pressure."
White has pledged to mend the admissions process at the state's most competitive public institution, even after he initially downplayed the problem, saying it affected only a small number of applicants. In a statement this month, he said: "We are committed to having a fair and transparent admissions process that is free from inappropriate interference and pressures."
He noted in the statement that the university has provided the state panel and media with more than 5,000 documents related to admissions.
A former University of Michigan dean and interim president who wrote a book on leadership, White joined the U. of I. four years ago with an ambitious plan to create an entirely online campus and make the Urbana-Champaign school the country's leading public research university. Born in Detroit and raised in Kalamazoo, Mich., White got a bachelor's degree in international economics from Georgetown University, an MBA from Harvard University and a PhD from the University of Michigan.
As the scandal evolved, White's name has arisen in discussions about who shoulders ultimate responsibility. But state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale), who has introduced a bill that would fire the entire board of trustees, said he hopes the scandal does not impact White's tenure at U. of I.
" Joe White is a world-class university president," said Dillard, who is running for governor. "One of the tragic things that could happen from all of this -- and I hope it doesn't lead to that -- is that he could lose his job."