CHICAGO — The falsification of student academic data by the University of Illinois College of Law was serious enough to justify probation or even removal from the list of law schools approved by the American Bar Association, an ABA report says.
The ABA chose not to take those steps because the UI reported the problem itself and took "immediate remedial action," but on Tuesday the association publicly censured the college and levied an unprecedented $250,000 fine.
"No matter what the competitive pressures, law schools must not cheat," the ABA said in its report. It called the UI's conduct "reprehensible and misleading to law school applicants, law students and law schools."
UI officials, who learned of the decision Tuesday, pledged to comply with the ruling, though they took issue with the fine.
"We are disappointed by the sanctions ... but relieved to put this difficult chapter behind us," a UI statement said.
An investigation by the university last fall, prompted by a whistleblower, found that the law school had published inflated median grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores for six entering law school classes over the last decade, in order to appear more competitive. The falsified scores were not used in admissions decisions.
The ABA section governing law school admissions determined that the UI had intentionally falsified the data for the entering class of 2005 and 2007 through 2011, violating standards requiring law schools to maintain sound admissions policies and publish "basic, accurate consumer information."
It's the first time the ABA, which accredits law schools, has fined a school for violating those standards. Villanova University was censured last year for similar violations but paid no financial penalty.
The sanctions require the UI law school to post the censure on its website for two years, distribute a "public corrective statement" to other law schools, and hire a compliance monitor to report to the ABA's accreditation committee on its admissions process and data for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic years.
The ABA also essentially ordered the law school to end an early admission program, known as "I Leap," that recruited students who had not taken the LSAT. The program's key objective was to admit students with high GPAs without having to count their LSAT scores — again, an effort to boost the law school's rankings, the report concluded. The ABA said it would never have granted a variance for the program had it known the true intent.
The UI's $1 million investigation, conducted with outside legal counsel Jones Day and the Duff & Phelps advisory firm, blamed an assistant dean for admissions, Paul Pless, for manipulating test scores and other data to preserve the college's top 25 national ranking. But it also chided college administrators for placing too much authority in Pless' hands and for lacking adequate oversight to "prevent, deter and detect" the problems.
Pless resigned last November just before the UI report became public after having been placed on administrative leave. But he had also received a series of substantial raises and glowing performance reviews from deans thrilled with his apparent admissions gains. Before he left, Pless earned a salary of $130,051.
The ABA agreed that the college lacked effective oversight but went further, saying the law school failed to acknowledge the connection between the reporting of false data and its aggressive admissions goals and its concentration of authority for admissions decisions "in a single individual who stood to gain personally and professionally from meeting or exceeding the established goals."
The report noted that the college's 2006 strategic plan aimed to reclaim the law school's top-20 national ranking, setting a five-year goal of admitting a class with a median LSAT of 168 and a median GPA of 3.7. The college argued those goals aligned with its overall priorities, but emails suggested "a strategic approach designed to maximize rankings," the report said.
The law school exaggerated the number of applicants or undercounted the number of admissions offers to improve its acceptance rate, and inflated median LSAT or grade-point statistics, the report said. The data were reported to the ABA and U.S. News & World Report and disseminated in marketing materials.
In one 2008 email to an acquaintance, outlined in the UI's investigative report last fall, Pless bragged about the I Leap program:
"I am a maverick and a reformer so I started a new program for U of I undergrads to apply in their junior year and we don't require the LSAT. We have additional essays and an interview instead. That way, I can trap about 20 of the little bastards with high GPA's that count and no LSAT score to count against my median. It is quite ingenious."
The law school admitted 17 students under the I Leap program last fall, and 13 in each of the previous two years.
At a hearing this spring, the College of Law accepted the accreditation committee's recommendation for a public censure and outside data monitoring, but argued against the $250,000 sanction. The college said it was inconsistent with a previous case and the fine was disproportionate to the violations, UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Tuesday.
The ABA said the monetary penalty addresses the harm to the reputation and standing of legal education and the legal profession.
"The conduct of the College of Law undermined and continues to undermine confidence in the accreditation process," the report said.
The money will go toward monitoring and enhancing compliance with the data reporting and publication requirements for approved law schools.
UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the university will select a compliance monitor in conjunction with the ABA, which has to approve it, and take "appropriate measures to comply and move forward."
"This seems like a soft punishment for years and years of lying," said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a Tennessee organization that advocates for more information about legal education.
A more appropriate punishment would have been to strip the college of its accreditation, he said. The ABA's censure does not get at "why this is happening in first place, why a supposedly rogue admissions dean felt the need to do this," he said. "Law schools across the country, Illinois included, have this culture of competitiveness that trumps the interest of students and the people who the students are going to serve when they graduate."
Kaler noted that the UI immediately reported the irregularities to the ABA when it was alerted to the problem last fall, cooperated with the ABA review, is "in full compliance with applicable ABA standards, and has taken corrective action intended to prevent such issues in the future."
College of Law Dean Bruce Smith was unavailable for comment Tuesday, according to Melissa Englund, the College of Law's director of communications.
She expressed disappointment in the sanctions but said college administrators were looking forward to sharing details of the institutional compliance plan "designed to be the most rigorous and comprehensive in the nation."
"With this chapter behind us, we will emerge with our core institutional qualities — a world-class faculty, outstanding students, superb staff, innovative programs, and accomplished alumni — even stronger than before," England said in a written statement.
The UI has been an ABA-accredited law school since 1923.
UI hit with several punishments
— For two years, the University of Illinois College of Law must prominently post the censure on its website's home page. The censure also will be displayed for two years on the webpage of the American Bar Association's Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
— The law school will issue a public statement of correction to be distributed to all ABA-approved law schools. That statement will describe good practices in data reporting. The law school will make available the compliance plan that the college has adopted to ensure data submissions are accurate.
— The law school will hire an independent compliance monitor for at least two years and that monitor will report directly to ABA's accreditation committee. The committee has the authority to extend the reporting requirement for more years if needed. The monitor's first report should be submitted by May 1, 2013.
— The law school will pay $250,000 by Sept. 15, 2012, with the proceeds to be placed in a separate, designated fund and used by the ABA for monitoring and enhancing compliance with the data reporting and publication requirements of the Standards by all ABA-approved law schools. "This monetary sanction addresses the harm to the reputation and standing of legal education and the profession resulting from the College of Law's violations of the Standards," according to the ABA.
— The ABA terminated the law school's variance of Standard 503, granted to the college in June 2009 for its Illinois Law Early Action Program (iLEAP). The variance paved the way for the law school to have an admissions program to recruit students who had not taken the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT.