Taking Clout Out: Lessons from the Shadow Admissions Office

Ashley Thorne

Today Inside Higher Ed has an article by Scott Jaschik, “Damning Report on Illinois Scandal,” that seems to mark the closing of one of the summer’s biggest higher education stories. The story began when the Chicago Tribune published an exposé in late May of the admissions process at the University of Illinois. The Tribune’s inspection brought to light a “clout” list of prospective students with VIP political connections. For the last five years the list system had unfairly aided hundreds of candidates for admission at the University.  

One “clout” listee was a relative of Tony Rezko, the political fundraiser found guilty of fraud and bribery in the Blagojevich case last year. The relative was admitted, according to the Tribune, after the admissions department had decided to reject him, and “after U. of I. President B. Joseph White wrote an e-mail stating that the governor ‘has expressed his support, and would like to see admitted’ Rezko's relative and another applicant.” Other prospective students with “clout” were admitted in spite of falling short of the university’s regular standards.

At the time that the Tribune published its exposé, President White pooh-poohed the allegations:

...if we have had a problem with inappropriate pressures for admission from well-connected people, numbers from the Tribune article suggest it is a small one which does not corrupt the admissions system and which we can quickly correct. 

But a panel commissioned by the governor of Illinois to investigate the charges, the State of Illinois Admissions Review Commission, issued a 47-page-long report last week which confirms the Tribune’s claims. The executive summary begins, “For years, a shadow admissions process existed at the University of Illinois.” The panel found that top university leaders, the board of trustees as a whole, and individual trustees were guilty of unethical meddling with the admissions system.

Four former university leaders wrote to the commission before the report came out, blaming the admissions manipulation on the trustees and the governor’s power to appoint them. ACTA President Anne Neal responded to their complaints in an article in the Chicago Sun-Times. She agreed that the University needs new trustees, but argued that the current gubernatorial appointment system was still a good one: “better governors and better trustees—not different governance systems—are the key to change.”

The commission did call for the resignation of every member of the current board of trustees who was appointed by the governor (several have already resigned). It also urged the University to permanently abandon its practice of giving special treatment to well-connected students and to create a “firewall” to protect against future corruption. The University immediately responded with a press release promising to implement these recommendations and assuring:

The University is committed to correcting problems with the admissions process. Effective immediately, we are moving forward with several significant changes to the University’s admissions process, all reflecting three key principles: The process must be fair to all applicants, the process must be transparent, and the process must offer equality of access.

This time, faced with the overwhelming evidence against it, U Illinois admitted its wrongdoing. Fairness, transparency, and access are certainly good principles, and now the nation will be watching to see if the University will be true to its word.

What can we learn from the Illinois admissions scandal? First, we can apply its folly to broad concept of favoritism in higher education. Colleges and universities have historically embraced various kinds of unfair advantages; they award privileges to those of a particular race or gender, low-income students, children of alumni (legacy admissions), and as in this case, the politically connected.

NAS has written extensively about special preferences in college admissions. We believe students should be admitted based on merit, using publicly available standards of achievement. Otherwise the admissions process can easily devolve into a mess like the one at U Illinois. When colleges make factors which do nothing to predict students’ academic success the tipping point for admission, they only set themselves and their students up for failure. This applies to every type of preference, not just to the scandalous political type that drops names such as Blagojevich and Rezko. Last year, NAS President Peter Wood, in response to an article by Shikha Dalmia, gave an argument for why racial preferences are worse than legacy preferences (because of the racial preference fight’s “moral gravity” and deep roots in American history, and because it affects everyone). But even if legacy preference is a lesser evil, we would like to see every unfair admissions preference eliminated.

Second, U Illinois’s disgrace is a distinct proof of the need for transparency in higher education. Colleges and universities tend to breed behind-the-scenes political deals that harm the quality of education. Institutions of learning should instead be open about their operations, having nothing to hide. NAS often researches specific policies and programs in academe, not because we want to spy on the inner workings of a college, nor because we are McCarthyites, as many like to call us, but because we care about the quality and integrity of higher education, and we want to see freedom and the pursuit of truth thrive on our campuses.

We applaud the Chicago Tribune and the state commission for their careful examination of the facts, and we hope to see the University of Illinois learn from its dishonor.

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