Admissions scandal brings down University of Illinois president

B. Joseph White set to resign over system of preferences for politically connected applicants.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    In this Sept. 10 file photo, University of Illinois President B. Joseph White speaks to board members during a university Board of Trustees meeting in Champaign, Ill. On Wednesday, Illinois Gov. Pay Quinn said that White plans to resign.
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University of Illinois President B. Joseph White plans to resign, the latest casualty of a ballooning scandal at the state-run school over a tainted admissions process.

Since May, when news reports uncovered a system in which politically connected applicants were labeled "Category I," tracked separately, and given preference over more qualified candidates, six members of the university's Board of Trustees have been replaced and the Faculty Senate called for replacing both President White and Chancellor Richard Herman.

"This is totally voluntary," Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) said Wednesday of White's decision, noting that it is "designed to, I think, make sure that everyone in our state, in our country, our whole world, knows that the University of Illinois and its excellent reputation and its scholarship will continue."

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For some critics, the scandal is the latest example of a pervasive culture in Illinois of corruption and patronage – the same culture that brought down former Gov. Rod Blagojevich earlier this year and, previously, numerous other politicians at all levels.

"This was 'pay to play' at the highest levels of academia, where people are supposed to know better," says Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association (BGA), a Chicago-based watchdog group. "Joe White was an exemplary university president in many ways, but this was his Achilles' heel.... You can't preside over and passively sanction a skewed playing field in a public institution and not pay a price."

A Chicago Tribune investigation found that more than 800 undergraduate applicants over the past five years benefited from their political connections, and dozens more received special treatment by graduate programs. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where all the patronage took place, admits 14,000 to 15,000 freshmen a year.

In one case that's received a lot of attention, Governor Blagojevich backed an applicant – who had initially been denied admission – and White forwarded his name to Chancellor Herman. The student was a relative of Tony Rezko, the notorious convicted fundraiser for Blagojevich, and was ultimately accepted.

That politics influenced admissions at the university is, at one level, not surprising, says Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the university's Springfield campus, noting that legislators control the school's budget and that "there's a very long tradition of this kind of patronage politics that is very ingrained in Illinois politics and political culture." What is more surprising, he says, is that the practice was as institutionalized as it was, with lists and e-mails and a designated category for certain students. E-mails even show Herman, who is still chancellor, entering the political bargaining process, soliciting jobs for graduates in exchange for admitting a connected but unqualified candidate.

Last week, the Faculty Senate at Urbana-Champaign approved a resolution for both White and Herman to be replaced, overriding an earlier recommendation that the trustees investigate administrators but reserve judgment on the president and chancellor.

"I think it became untenable [at the Urbana-Champaign campus] in terms of the ongoing leadership," says Professor Redfield.

A three-member board committee will review behavior of other top administrators and report back in two months. The board has also adopted some admissions reforms, including eliminating clout lists and trustee involvement in the admissions process.

Ultimately, says Mr. Shaw of the BGA, the admissions process is likely to be cleaned up, though he has less hope for Illinois's broader political culture, and says he finds the scandal disheartening.

"It's one thing down at the cigar-chomping ward level where the machine politicians don't know any better way and this has been the coin of the realm for decades," Shaw says. "When you move into the ivory tower, you have a right to expect better behavior. But this is Illinois, and no one is surprised."

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

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