University of Illinois trustee Niranjan Shah, waits to testify before the committee investigating admissions abuses at the school. On Monday Shah became the second trustee to resing amid the allegations. (Phil Valasquez/Chicago Tribune)

University of Illinois trustee Niranjan Shah, waits to testify before the committee investigating admissions abuses at the school. On Monday Shah became the second trustee to resing amid the allegations. (Phil Valasquez/Chicago Tribune)

(WGN-AM)- Days before a state panel is set to blast him for his heavy-handedness in University of Illinois affairs, board Chairman Niranjan Shah resigned his powerful post Monday while accepting some blame for his role in a far-reaching admissions scandal.

An Oak Brook businessman and prolific political donor, Shah becomes the second university trustee to step down amid allegations that he overstepped his authority in meddling with undergraduate and graduate applications. Trustee Lawrence Eppley resigned last week, saying he wanted to restore public confidence in the Urbana-Champaign campus.

Shah's departure leaves behind a fractured board grappling with an uncertain future. The remaining seven governor-appointed members will be urged to submit their resignations when the Illinois Admissions Review Commission releases its report this week.

"I don't know who else might decide to resign, so it leaves the board in limbo," trustee Frances Carroll said. "My concern is we won't be able to do the business of the university if everyone is resigning."

Shah and fellow board members came under scrutiny following revelations of clout lists that gave well-connected applicants an admissions edge at the state's most selective public university. Records show that Shah's sway also influenced housing and employment decisions involving his relatives and at least one employee's child.

In a statement released shortly after his resignation, Shah said such actions were acceptable in the past, but acknowledged they are more difficult to condone in the current political climate.

"When I became a Trustee ... many of the stakeholders in the University of Illinois system -- Trustees, university administrators and staff, legislators and others -- operated under a set of rules and norms that seemed appropriate at the time," Shah said in a prepared statement. "Today, I recognize that those rules are changing with the times, and I think that change is a very good thing."

Shah told the commission that many of his most aggressive requests were written by a secretary at his Chicago-based engineering firm who embellished his intentions. He also pointed a finger at Chancellor Richard Herman and previous U. of I. President James Stukel, blaming them for facilitating his meddling rather than telling him it was wrong.

Pledging his commitment to a smooth transition, Shah indicated he would step down in 90 days or when his successor is appointed. Gov. Pat Quinn released a statement saying the search will begin immediately.

U. of I. spokesman Thomas Hardy said the school's operations will be unfazed by the resignations.

"We will be in a bit of transition period here, but we have gone through transitions in the past and have remained strong," he said.

If Shah hadn't resigned, he likely would have been asked to step down. The state panel intends to recommend this week that all trustees quit, allowing Quinn to decide who should stay. The commissioners had focused on Shah, saying he may have violated the Illinois Ethics Act rules against nepotism.

After learning of his resignation, Commissioner Maribeth Vander Weele said: "Clearly it was the right thing to do. Trustee Shah's actions were the most egregious of any trustees' [actions]."

Having grown up in an Indian village without electricity or running water, Shah testified that he prized his trustee position because it embodied his father's belief that education was the only route to equality. He went on to establish himself as one of the state's leading engineers and a powerful figure in political circles.

"His resignation is consistent with the Niranjan Shah that I have always known," trustee David Dorris said. "In difficult times, he has chosen to do what he believes is in the best interest of the University of Illinois."

Shah joined the board in 2003 after being appointed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He became chairman in January, the first Asian-American to hold the post.

He previously was a member of the state Board of Regents until it dissolved in 1995 and was a trustee of Northeastern Illinois University.

Shah hosted a fundraiser at his home for Blagojevich and dined with the former first couple in Springfield, state records show. He even spent a night at the governor's mansion.

Companies associated with Shah have received more than $30 million in state contracts since 2004 and contributed more than $53,000 to Blagojevich since 2000. His firm's records were subpoenaed last year as part of the pay-to-play probe of the former governor's administration. The firm has not been accused of wrongdoing.