As the book Color and Money makes clear, the University of Illinois is hardly alone in systematically lowering the bar on behalf of applicants with political connections. College lobbyists in state capitals say they must routinely accept requests to grease the skids for certain applicants from the state lawmakers that their institutions rely on for funds. College lobbyists in Washington similarly field requests from members of Congress to help applicants who might not gain admission on their own.
Two of the university administrators who oversaw the admissions practices examined in the Tribune investigation--the current president of the University of Illinois, B. Joseph White, and the former chancellor of university's Champaign-Urbana campus, Nancy Cantor--had maintained a similar mechanism for helping favored applicants circumvent merit-based admissions in their previous positions at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Under the point-based undergraduate admissions system ultimately rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2003 Gratz v. Bollinger decision, Michigan reserved the right to award any applicant a 20-point bonus--the equivalent of the different between a 3.0 GPA and a 4.0 GPA--on its 150-point scale. No formal justification for the bonus awards was given.
The Chicago Tribune first exposed clout-based admissions at the University of Illinois in an article published May 29. That article, based on an examination of university records obtained through the state's Freedom of Information Act, described how the university classified applicants with the backing of powerful people as "Category I," and admitted some of the objections of its own admissions officers while quietly reversing the rejections of others.
In summarizing its key findings, the newspaper said:
--University officials recognized that certain students were underqualified--but admitted them anyway.
--Admissions officers complained in vain as their recommendations were overruled.
--Trustees pushed for preferred students, some of whom were friends, neighbors and relatives.
--Lawmakers delivered admission requests to U. of I. lobbyists, whose jobs depend on pleasing the lawmakers.
--University officials delayed admissions notifications to weak candidates until the end of the school year to minimize the fallout at top feeder high schools.
The article noted that about half of this year's 160 Category I applicants have ties to state lawmakers, and "a 2009 log managed by the university's government affairs office tracked nearly 80 applicants pushed by politicians."
Accompanying the article were internal university e-mails revealing that administrators regarded many of the applicants they were admitting as well below par, and that the university's law school also admitted subpar applicants with clout. Among the undergraduate applicants who had rejections reversed was a relative of convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko whose case was championed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
In a separate article published on May 31, the Tribune described how former governors Blagojevich and James Thompson leaned on gubernatorially appointed trustees to get applicants admitted. A related May 31 article describing the mechanisms through which politicians got applicants admitted tells of "an ongoing power struggle between educators who want to protect the integrity of the state's most prestigious public university and administrators who also feel compelled to appease powerful lawmakers."
University officials initially downplayed the role that the so-called "clout list" played in admissions. In the face of widespread outrage, however, they quickly pledged to clean up the process. On June 1 the university told the newspaper it was suspending the use of a clout list in the admissions process and setting up a task force to find ways to rid the admissions process of undue political influence.