Trustees | Trusteeship

Report Calls on All U. of Illinois Trustees to Resign

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  August 6, 2009 by Ashley C. Killough

After spending nearly two months investigating an admissions scandal laced with political favoritism at the University of Illinois, a state-appointed panel issued its final report on Thursday, calling for the resignation of all members of the Board of Trustees, an overhaul of the admissions process, and new ethics policies for the board.

The situation, experts say, is a classic case study of questions that arise when governing boards and administrators abuse their entrusted powers, not only with the public but with one another.

The Illinois report, prepared by an Admissions Review Commission appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn, says that since 2005, about 800 applicants with ties to trustees, politicians, and donors received preferential consideration for admission. The applicants’ names were flagged on an internal list known as “Category 1,” or the “clout list,” and were funneled through a pipeline supported by their well-connected sponsors.

It’s unclear how many of those students would have earned a spot on their own, but their acceptance rate was higher than average. For 2008-9, about 77 percent of Category 1 applicants were accepted, compared with 69 percent of other applicants.

After the Chicago Tribune exposed the practice in May, the issue snowballed into a highly public dispute. Records show that all of the trustees, with the exception of Edward L. McMillan, who joined the board in May, passed along “inquiries” to admissions officials about applicants on the clout list. Two of the trustees, including Board Chairman Niranjan S. Shah, have resigned in the last month.

The university system’s president, B. Joseph White, and the chancellor of its flagship campus at Urbana-Champaign, Richard Herman, were criticized in the report, but it did not call for their resignations.

In a news conference after the panel’s final meeting on Thursday, Mr. White said he strongly approved the report and embraced its recommendations.

“Now that we know the problems, our job is to fix the problems,” Mr. White said, adding that his goal is to make the university a national leader in admissions integrity. He announced that he will convene a meeting on August 12 in Urbana to outline admissions reforms, which include erecting a “fire wall” around the process to block out inquiries from prominent citizens.

“This has been a painful but, in my view, necessary chapter in the history of our 142-year-old institution,” he said. “What’s important is to know those problems and understand them in detail so we can fix them.”

Political Pull

The Admissions Review Commission looked at 9,000 pages of documents, interviewed more than 40 people, and conducted 12 public hearings this summer.

While some university officials justified the Category 1 list as a means of increasing diversity on the campus, the commission found that a vast majority of the special-consideration applicants were Caucasian. Of the 33 applicants who were admitted last year despite being initially denied by the university, over a third came from affluent areas in Illinois.

The university’s governmental-relations office was found responsible for 40 to 50 percent of Category 1 inquiries, while administrators and trustees were each responsible for 20 percent. The university’s foundation, alumni offices, and college deans made up the rest. Half of this year’s Category 1 applicants have ties to state lawmakers, the report said.

“I think a great number of administrators were frustrated with the practices going on, but they were unwilling or unable to do anything about it,” Bernard M. Judge, a member of the investigative panel, said in an interview. “Since the chancellor played an obvious role in it, and he’s their boss, I guess they felt constrained.”

The commission came down heavily on Chancellor Herman, who oversaw the clout list, and Mr. White, who had a lesser role in the process but still forwarded requests for applicants endorsed by politicians and other prominent figures. The Chicago Tribune reported that those figures included former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, the nationally syndicated columnist George Will, and a former president of the Chicago Board of Education, Gery J. Chico. Others whom the report faulted for meddling with applications were Heidi Hurd, former dean of the College of Law, and Larry DeBrock, dean of the College of Business.

The report made no mention of Linda P.B. Katehi, former provost at the Urbana-Champaign campus and now incoming chancellor of the University of California at Davis. Her appointment has drawn fire from some politicians in California, who have raised questions about her role in the admissions controversy.

The commission recommended that Illinois’s governor, Pat Quinn, a Democrat, replace the trustees with a new board that will seriously review the actions of Mr. White, Mr. Herman, and other administrators, and enforce ethics policies that prevent similar conduct from recurring.

“We’ve got a governor who’s a real straight guy. He’s not going to allow these abuses to go on,” Mr. Judge said. “Legislators aren’t going to make phone calls anymore because nobody’s going to answer the phone.”

Best Practices for Board Selection

In a letter to Abner Mikva, chairman of the commission, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges presented best practices for board selection. With the vast majority of public-university boards being appointed by governors, it’s too often the case, the letter says, that trustees are chosen only because of personal or political connections with the governor.

Should the governor decide to start clean with a new board of trustees, the effects on the university would be “overcomable,” said Richard Novak, senior vice president of the Richard T. Ingram Center for Public Trusteeship and Governance at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

There would be some institutional-memory loss and pressure on system staff, he said, but if the governor tapped the right people, they could easily catch up to speed.

But how to keep politics out of membership selection is the $64,000 question, Mr. Novak said. “You can never get all the politics out of it.”

He suggests nonpartisan screening committees that would vet potential appointees and make merit-based recommendations to the governor. A handful of states, such as Minnesota, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, have adopted that approach.

It’s fair, he says, for governors to meet with new trustees and talk from the beginning about their expectations and agendas in higher-education policy. “But that’s very different from a governor saying there are special favors involved down the road.”

Once on the board, trustees often forget they have collective power only, not individual power, says Mr. Novak. “It’s a gavel-to-gavel authority. When the meeting is over, it’s over,” he said. “Action only takes place in the boardroom.”

A Precarious Place for Presidents

Mr. White, who says he plans to continue leading the university, offered one piece of advice to fellow presidents: “Stay the heck out of admissions.”

Rita Bornstein, president emerita of Rollins College, would agree. “A president is between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “The board is a president’s most important constituency because it has the authority to fire that person. Presidents are very sensitive to that.”

Ms. Bornstein says the pressure presidents face from outside requests is pervasive. During the hearings, some trustees in Illinois argued that they were unaware they were doing anything wrong. Some seemed to assume such power was a “perk” of the job, the Chicago Tribune reported. “Legislators and board members and others have this feeling that they deserve extra consideration,” Ms. Bornstein said.

Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, says that while the issue in Illinois was “deplorable,” it offers a lesson in what she says is a larger issue of the affliction that seems to beset university governance in general.

“There tends to be some confusion in higher education. There’s a culture that focuses more on particular interests or university interests, where it should be on the public interest,” she said. “That was clearly lost here, not only for the trustees but for the administration, as well.”


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