As pressure mounted during the summer from an all-consuming admissions scandal, University of Illinois President B. Joseph White carried in his pocket a motivational card reminding him to "Keep Calm and Carry On."
And for several months, he did. He launched an overhaul of the admissions system. He publicly apologized for the abuses. He defended his record.
But on Wednesday, White announced he no longer could carry on as president. He said he will step down at the end of the year, forgoing a $475,000 retention bonus due in February and allowing a new board of trustees to choose a leader.
White's resignation is the latest fallout from revelations that the university had a formalized admissions system that allowed subpar but politically connected applicants to get in over more qualified candidates. Six trustees have already been replaced.
" Joe White has shown great leadership in this decision and leaves the university without the scars of a termination," said board Chairman Christopher Kennedy, who was appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn last month.
White, who teaches about ethics and leadership, will remain at the university as a business professor earning about $300,000 a year, as allowed in his contract. White also will continue to work on a fundraising campaign that was among his major initiatives.
The board, meanwhile, expects to pick an interim president within weeks and a permanent replacement by the start of next school year.
Kennedy said White's resignation is not an acknowledgment that he did anything wrong related to admissions. "He is a class act, and I think his decision today will contribute to his reputation," Kennedy said.
In deciding to resign, White, 62, consulted with supporters such as U. of I. basketball legends and accomplished businessmen David Downey and Mannie Jackson and then shared his decision with Quinn on Tuesday.
Both businessmen had urged White to stay several weeks ago at an awards banquet. Since then, the faculty and student senate issued the equivalent of a no-confidence vote in White and Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Richard Herman, and the new trustees seemed eager for different leadership. White recognized he could not save his job, said Downey, who called White "a great educator and a great leader."
"It got to the point where it seemed like he would not survive from a political standpoint," Downey said. "Sometimes it's better to leave on your own terms."
Quinn said White's decision "will move the university forward" beyond the admissions scandal.
After spending much of his career at the University of Michigan, White started at the U. of I. in 2005 with high ambitions. He tried to build a massive online campus, but the project never gained traction and led to much criticism.
White, hired in part for his fundraising skills, has spent considerable time on the university's Brilliant Futures campaign to raise $2.25 billion by December 2011. The university is more than $1.71 billion toward its goal.
He also avoided significant layoffs, a reduction in programs or furlough days despite the economy.
White did not respond to requests for comment, but wrote in his resignation letter that he was looking out for the university in deciding to forgo his bonus. "I am sensitive to the University's difficult financial situation and the sacrifices being made by faculty and staff," he wrote.
State Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, praised White for giving up the bonus pay.
"It speaks volumes about Joe White that he would give up a huge bonus because it wasn't in the university's best interest," he said.
White said throughout the summer that he would not resign and instead was focused on restoring public confidence in the state's top public school.
The state's Admissions Review Commission, appointed after the Chicago Tribune first reported the irregularities in May, criticized White for failing to oversee his subordinates and for acting unethically in forwarding admissions requests. In 2005, he forwarded a request initiated by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to admit a relative of convicted influence peddler Antoin "Tony" Rezko. The student, who was to be rejected, was instead admitted.
White has said he did not know Rezko and never forced an admission of an unqualified applicant.
Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said the admissions fallout had dragged on for months and become too much of a distraction.
"It is one thing when it is the summer. It is quite another thing when the campus is supposed to be fully engaged in the work of the university. So that continuing to be such a huge distraction to the university, I think, was a compelling factor," she said.
White's announcement was timed in part to the upcoming U. of I. Foundation celebration, a three-day event hosted by the university's fundraising arm to celebrate donors, his supporters said. He feared his tenuous status would divert attention from the focus of the events and make people uncomfortable.
"He didn't want to appear to be a lame duck or make passionate promises that he knew he couldn't keep," Jackson said.
It would have been difficult for White to survive last week's vote by faculty and student leaders, said Bob Kustra, a former Illinois lieutenant governor who is now president of Boise State University.
"I suspect he looked at whether or not he would ever be able to function as he intended to when he came to the university with this cloud hanging over his head," Kustra said.
On campus Wednesday, some students thought it proper that White resign, saying the buck should stop with the president. Others thought it a needless sacrifice. Stephanie Crosier, 21, a political science major from the south suburbs, said White's departure wouldn't change the political culture.
"People are offended (by preferential treatment) because they work really hard to get in here, but every college campus does it," she said.
Former U. of I. Trustee David Dorris said he has long had concerns about White's performance, including the failed online campus that cost more than $10 million and enrolled just a few hundred students. "His failures were more complex and more long-standing, and I think it's a good thing he's resigning," Dorris said.
White's announcement means the focus will now shift to Herman, who was at the center of the admissions scandal and did not return calls seeking comment.
Tribune reporters Monique Garcia and Kristen Mack contributed to this report.
INSIDE Will former President Stanley Ikenberry be tapped for interim role? PAGE 4 EDITORIAL White made the right move. Chancellor should be the next to go. PAGE 26