How UI's admissions have changed: Requests, pressures may have increased
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of continuing coverage of the issue of admissions favoritism at the University of Illinois.
URBANA – As a state legislator in the early 1970s, James Nowlan observed a top GOP official try repeatedly to get his daughter into the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
The man pestered the UI's then-lobbyist, Bill Rice, and made several other attempts to pressure the university – without success, Nowlan said.
"I may have been naive, but I perceived that admission to the University of Illinois was somehow sacrosanct, and not subject to pressure from politicians," said Nowlan, now a senior fellow with the UI Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
That perception, at least, has changed, he said.
The UI admissions process is under scrutiny after reports that some trustees, legislators and others wielded influence trying to win admission for favored students. University documents show the UI maintained a "Category I" list of applicants who had been championed by public officials, alumni and others. Of the 163 names on this year's list, more than 100 were admitted. UI officials contend only about a dozen students were accepted this year because they were on the list and said no unqualified student was accepted.
The UI has suspended use of the Category I list and created a task force to review the admissions process.
After interviewing more than a half-dozen former university insiders to learn how the UI's admissions process has changed over the years, The News-Gazette found that:
– Politics has played a part in admissions for years, but how officials have dealt with the pressure might have changed.
– The UI has become a more selective school, and therefore, students who would have been admitted a decade or two ago now face rejection. That fact alone may be driving up the number of people seeking help with admissions.
– The past two governors and their appointees have at times applied a heavy hand to the university, which might have been felt in the admissions process.
Former university administrators and trustees say contacts from powerful constituents are nothing new. The UI has monitored such inquiries for at least 25 years, though not with an official list, said Martha Moore, a longtime associate director of admissions who also headed that office before retiring in 2003.
As long as a school has selective admissions, "you're going to have pressure surrounding admissions," said former UI President Stanley Ikenberry, who served from 1979 to 1995.
"What is new, I think, is the volume of the inquiries appears to me to be up significantly. And the directness and the intensity of the pressure seems to be more. It may not be that the pressure from Springfield is greater, but the capacity of the institution to resist the pressure may be less than it used to be."
The role of a board of trustees, or a president or chancellor, is in part to "buffer" the institution against the outside world, and that seems to have faltered, he said.
"It's an issue every university deals with. What do you do when you get these contacts from the outside? Every university deals with them. Nobody to my knowledge ignores them," said Nicholas Burbules, a UI professor who chairs the Urbana Senate. The question, he said, is "how does this information get channeled appropriately?"
At private schools, too, it's not uncommon for trustees, wealthy alumni or friends to weigh in and ask for special consideration for a student, said Bill McClintick, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
"Whether the college is receptive to that varies dramatically, even in the private sector," he said. How a school responds often "depends on the leadership of the school," he said. If a student is close to being accepted, "that kind of nudge" from a trustee or donor is more likely to put the applicant over the top. If an applicant is nowhere close to being accepted, it's not likely to make a big difference, he said.
But with public universities, "the perception is everyone is on a level playing field," McClintick said.
"Most of us in the profession expect state universities would be less susceptible to that sort of thing, that they would hold the line and say 'as a public university it's our responsibility to treat everyone fairly,'" he said.
Ikenberry and his successor, James Stukel, said they dealt with very few admissions requests personally. Most inquiries would go through lobbyists or the campuses, they said. Ikenberry said he was involved in perhaps half a dozen cases a year, though he said UI lobbyists received more inquiries.
"There have always been requests from legislators. That's really nothing new," said Stukel, who retired in 2005.
Stukel said he was "stunned" at the size of the Category I list disclosed in the documents: 128 to 177 names in each of the last five years.
"I think 160 would easily be four or five times the volume that we experienced," Ikenberry said.
That might in part reflect the increasing selectivity of the UI, Ikenberry said. As admissions standards went up, and the number of applications rose, more good students were wait-listed or rejected.
"We are even harder to get into today than we were 20 years ago," Ikenberry said.
Politics and the UI
Others said the changing political landscape in Springfield, and a more meddlesome UI Board of Trustees, might be factors.
Long elected statewide, the board was changed to a gubernatorial-appointed body in 1995 because of concerns that politicians had become too involved in slating trustee candidates and other university matters.
One example: the flap over Stukel's appointment as chancellor of the Chicago campus in 1991. Gov. Jim Edgar and other state political leaders initially backed Paula Wolff, an aide to former Gov. Jim Thompson, for the position, but faculty at Chicago objected, and Edgar and most trustees eventually voted for Stukel.
Edgar made the first appointments to the board in 1996, leaving two elected trustees on the board – Democrat Tom Lamont and Republican Susan Gravenhorst – and naming Republican Roger Plummer of Chicago, then president of the UI Alumni Association Board.
Plummer was the only new trustee chosen by Edgar. Three years later, Senate Republicans blocked Edgar's next round of appointments as he was preparing to leave office, giving those choices to incoming Gov. George Ryan.
During his first two years on the board, Plummer said, "I never got one call from Jim Edgar to try to influence what I would do on the board." After that, "it was apparent to me that the influence that was coming from outside the board was real," he said.
Ryan kept one of Edgar's selections but also named Gerald Shea, his friend, longtime lobbyist and former Democratic legislator, to the board. At their first meeting, Shea told Plummer "the University of Illinois was just another state agency," Plummer said. "I took from that we were going to be run differently."
As they had before the change to an appointed board, trustees got more involved in budget decisions and other day-to-day operations that Plummer and others felt should be handled by the president and top administrators. Trustees in effect moved from a governance role to one of management, he said.
"It was clear that things were more intrusive once Gov. Ryan began to appoint people," Plummer said.
Shea argued the board was entitled to accountability in the budget process because it was public money, and the board members had a responsibility to the person who appointed them – the governor.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich was also not shy about criticizing trustees' proposed tuition hikes, reining in trustee travel budgets or advocating for line-item vetoes in university budgets.
"George Ryan was clearly a politico who believed in politics as a game of debits and credits, people trading favors," said Nowlan, a scholar of higher education governance. "And I think it carried over to the Blagojevich administration, probably in spades, based on what we read about Blagojevich and the trading of favors for contributions."
Scrutiny from trustees
Current UI trustee and former board Chairman Lawrence Eppley, appointed by Ryan in 2001, challenged that theory. He said he can't compare the board's role to the years before he served, but said past UI boards were also accused of being political. He said the trend for boards generally is to be more informed, and therefore they're seen as more active. Boards have a responsibility to make informed decisions, he said.
Eppley said he tried to allow board members more time to question administrators about agenda items, which also opened up the process to public scrutiny.
"I think we do more publicly than they probably used to, but the perception is just the opposite," he said. "People are always suspicious of the Blagojevich administration. They would be surprised how little we ever heard from them."
Eppley said he didn't notice a big increase in the number of admissions inquiries during his tenure on the board, estimating he dealt with about five a year.
But other trustees submitted many more, according to the documents.
'Brown folder' days
Former trustees, and both former UI presidents, said they were unaware of any Category I list.
"I'm sure people tried to keep track of things. I don't think there was any kind of central system," Ikenberry said.
Others said more sophisticated computer systems and the use of e-mail may have made the cases easier to track in recent years. UI spokesman Tom Hardy said the tracking system used to be called the "brown folder."
When he received a personal request, Ikenberry said typically he would first confirm that the student had applied and everything was in order, then let the applicant know it was under review. That kind of "status report" was appropriate, he said.
"What isn't permissible is to alter the outcome," he said.
He doesn't recall being asked to do that.
"It wasn't that I didn't feel pressure from time to time, but nobody ever said, 'Do this or else,'" he said. "When a high-ranking individual, regardless of who it is, has a son or daughter here who wants desperately to get in, obviously it would be great if that could happen. Often, it can't.
"But I never felt backed into a corner by anybody."
Ikenberry conceded that even receiving a letter or e-mail about a particular applicant from the head of the university, or a member of the board of trustees, places implicit pressure on an admissions officer.
"At the end of the day, I'd tell them to do whatever was right," he said. "I don't think anybody should ever direct that a particular student should be admitted. That's just crossing the line. I never did that."
Stukel said he would get questions at alumni events or legislative hearings about someone's friend or relative who'd applied to the UI.
"That goes on everywhere," he added. "How you handle it, though, is something we were always very, very careful with. It happened, but it was a rare thing. It didn't happen often, at least at my level."
The overriding issue was whether the student had met the UI's qualifications, he said. In the "rare event that we might try to do something at my level, it would be to deal with individuals on the waiting list. They'd been pre-qualified, so to speak," Stukel said.
Plummer estimated he took one or two inquiries in his six years as a trustee.
Gravenhorst said she would write a letter of recommendation to the Office of Admissions for students when asked, if she felt they met the UI's qualifications, "just like anybody would do."
"I was glad to do that, but I didn't exert any special pressure," she said. "It seems to have become more involved with the political realm."
If she didn't feel she could help a particular student, she tried to "finesse" it, perhaps begging off a dinner with a family.
A better system
Nowlan and Ikenberry applauded the UI's decision to suspend the Category I list and create the task force as important steps toward restoring public faith in the admissions system. Ikenberry said the task force recommendations should be taken seriously.
"I would hope that the I list could be eliminated permanently," he said.
The creation of the task force represents "a serious attempt to get real input and to do something," Burbules said. He supported the university action last week of suspending the Category I list and preventing government relations staff from accessing student admission information.
Also last week, faculty leaders met with White and Chancellor Richard Herman about the issue. The main tone at that meeting, according to Burbules, was, "Let's not spend a lot of time finger-pointing. ... We have a flawed system. Let's make it better not for the sake of PR (public relations), but we really do want to be fair to students. We need a process that's fair and perceived to be fair."
Nowlan said perceptions are critical.
"If parents perceive that their child is at a disadvantage because there is a political category that greases the skids for persons in that category, then that demeans the nature of the admissions process and the rectitude of the university. I hope that this Category I situation quickly fades away, and policies change."
Eppley said the goal is to create "a process that people can have confidence in. We thought we had one. People had questions about it, and we need to take a look at it."
"I have no doubt we'll come out of this with a better system," Burbules said.
News-Gazette reporter Christine des Garennes contributed to this report.