Raises followed ex-law school official's admissions efforts
CHAMPAIGN — A former admissions dean blamed for inflating entrance-exam scores and other student data to boost the University of Illinois College of Law's rankings worked for six years without a formal performance review and once received a 31 percent mid-year raise for recruiting top students.
Paul Pless, who resigned Friday as assistant dean for admissions after a two-month $1 million investigation by the university, was hired in July 2003, just two months after receiving his UI law degree.
Law school officials have little to say about his hiring, with then-Dean Heidi Hurd declining comment this week and current Dean Bruce Smith, who took office in 2009, referring questions to her.
But Smith and investigators said Pless was universally trusted and impressed administrators and faculty with admissions initiatives that appeared to get results.
Smith, who was named dean in February 2009, said Tuesday that he had no inkling of any problems with Pless until he got a call from UI investigators on the morning of Sept. 7 — 12 days after a tip had alerted the UI ethics office.
"That was the first I knew of a problem with reporting student profile data. I had no knowledge or suspicion," he said.
"He was very much respected and very much trusted, not only by me but also by prior deans, by our faculty, by our alumni, by our students ... and by the broader admissions community," Smith said.
That was reflected in a glowing performance review by Smith in September 2009, the first Pless ever received. He was rated "outstanding" in all categories, including knowledge, judgment, productivity, professional relationships, organization, reliability, supervision and overall performance.
"I don't think that assessment would be one that I would make now," Smith said Wednesday.
Campus legal counsel Scott Rice said it's not unusual for the college to hire recent law graduates for certain positions. The campus requires annual reviews for academic professionals, though it gives some discretion to individual colleges, he said.
In a report released Monday, investigators said Pless inflated the grade point averages and Law School Admission Test scores of the incoming class in six of the last seven years, and in some cases altered the acceptance rate to make the college appear more selective.
The report exonerated Smith and other deans but said the problem was a lack of auditing of the admissions data. Smith and others have pledged to correct that problem.
Pless' attorney, Martin Denis, said Tuesday that he and his client would have "no comment."
Documents show how a young administrator won the admiration of a series of deans bent on reclaiming the college's position as a top-20 law school, a stature it had lost during budget cuts in the early 1990s.
Pless joined the college as it was expanding scholarships in hopes of raising the median scores for its incoming law classes.
His first job was assistant director for admissions and financial aid, but it was short-term.
The former admissions dean left the college in May 2004, and Pless was promoted to director of admissions and financial aid, receiving a $20,000 raise to $58,500 a year.
Then-Dean Heidi Hurd said Pless had "proved himself to be a very energetic, sharp, thoughtful strategist who fully understands the complexities of attracting a talented and diverse student body."
Within a week his salary was bumped to $62,500, and by December 2004, he was given the title of assistant dean for admissions at an annual salary of $72,000.
It was during that recruiting year, investigators say, that Pless first altered data to improve admissions statistics. They found discrepancies in the 15 percent acceptance rate reported for the Class of 2008 (entering in fall 2005), which was later found to be 18 percent. Pless, they said, had underreported the number of students accepted to the college to appear more selective.
But the class overall showed significant improvement, with the median LSAT rising three points to 166, "the single largest LSAT increase ever achieved by a law school in a single year."
In September 2005, Hurd tried but failed to obtain a 15 percent mid-year raise for Pless, noting he had recruited the best incoming class in the history of the college "by a significant margin."
Pless had created an admission model that optimized criteria for incoming classes, from LSAT scores to net tuition revenue, she said.
"Had we been able to report this increase last year, holding all else equal, we would have moved from 26th to 20th in the U.S. News rankings," she noted.
She warned that Pless was earning $14,000 less than his predecessor and was in danger of being recruited away.
She tried again the following July, requesting a 31.8 percent "retention increase" in a letter to then-Provost Linda Katehi. She said Pless had proved himself "an immediate star" in his field, "in the hiring sights of every dean in America who wants to improve student rankings."
She said she was in "a fight" with another law school dean who had "wined and dined" Pless and offered him a salary increase. She proposed a salary of $98,000, still below his predecessor but about average for admissions deans.
The campus quickly agreed.
Pless made only slight changes for the next couple of years, but in 2008 (for the incoming Class of 2011) he inflated the scores of two individual students for the first time.
The college was turning its attention to improving GPA scores of incoming students, and Pless corresponded regularly with interim Deans Charles Tabb and Ralph Brubaker about the best balance of LSAT and GPA scores to use in admissions. The college set an ambitious goal of a median LSAT of 166 and a median GPA of 3.8.
When Smith, former associate dean, took over as dean in February 2009, Pless exchanged emails on the Class of 2012 applicants and the viability of enrolling a class with those numbers.
At a meeting with college visitors, Smith reported that he told Pless to "push the envelope, think outside the box, take some risk (sic) and do things differently" including striving for those numbers, the report said.
Smith said Wednesday that comment was in the context of broader recruitment efforts, such as aggressive scholarship initiatives and his own practice of teaching an undergraduate law class.
"This was not a statement about bending the rules, but initiatives we wanted to take to bring in great students," he said, noting the audience included "esteemed judges" and prominent alumni. "They were comfortable that it did not mean anything untoward."
Pless appeared to make the targets, improving the school's ranking to 21st, and his efforts got bolder, the report said.
By 2011, for the Class of 2014, he had changed the LSAT scores of 109 students and the GPAs of 58 students, making it appear to be the "most academically talented class in the school's history," the report said. Pless' salary was now up to $130,051.
After hearing the numbers in an Aug. 22 presentation by Pless, Hurd, now a UI law professor, congratulated him for "unbelievably impressive stats. ... without YOU this would not have happened. Not a chance. YOU are the reason this school will rise in the rankings, rise in national esteem, and rise on the merits beyond all other reasons."
Christine desGarennes contributed to this report.