UI doesn't appear linked to latest college-admissions scandal

UI doesn't appear linked to latest college-admissions scandal

URBANA — News of an admissions bribery scandal targeting some of the nation's top universities contained no mention of the University of Illinois, much to the relief of administrators who remember all too well the 2009 "Category I" controversy.

Chancellor Robert Jones and Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson said they have no indication of any UI involvement in the scheme announced Tuesday, in which a consultant allegedly helped wealthy parents bribe college coaches and other insiders to get their children into top schools.

"My first question was, 'Well, I hope we sat this one out,'" Chancellor Robert Jones said half-jokingly Wednesday. "And it looks like we did."

But they want to review UI procedures to ensure the university is protected from similar attempts.

"We don't have any indication that we've been a victim or a source for this," Wilson said. But "the way some of this was done was particularly unusual, and I want to make sure that we've got the processes in place."

The UI installed a "firewall" to prevent outside meddling in admissions decisions following the Category I scandal. Investigators found the UI had admitted scores of politically connected students over five years ahead of more-qualified applicants, under pressure from trustees, legislators and others. The UI kept a "Category I" list to track applicants with powerful backers.

But the protections installed in 2009 dealt with a different question — people trying to influence the process through legislators and others with political clout, Wilson said.

In the national scheme announced Tuesday, prosecutors said a college entrance consultant bribed coaches or athletic administrators to make it appear students were athletic recruits, even creating fake credentials and photos. He also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students and paid off insiders at testing centers to correct students' answers.

"These influences are very challenging, and I think we're going to have to do a deep dive and make sure that we're protected in that way," Wilson said.

Jones said the UI has "no way of knowing if anyone ever approached us about this. I suspect not," noting that it involved mostly East Coast and West Coast schools, many of them private.

In the 2009 case at the UI, a statewide commission was appointed to investigate admissions abuses revealed in media reports, eventually leading to the resignations of the UI president, chancellor and nearly the entire UI Board of Trustees.

The commission suggested reforms to make the admissions process transparent, including a written appeals process open to all students.

The UI abolished its "Category I" system and adopted several reforms. It publicly posted its admissions criteria on the Office of Undergraduate Admissions website; formalized its appeals process and posted it on the website; and created an ethical code for every campus employee, prohibiting outside influence on admissions decisions.

It also created the "firewall" around admissions, allowing only the applicant or his parent, guardian, spouse or guidance counselor to communicate with admissions staff about the student's status. Third parties — including trustees, government officials and other UI employees — were banned from contact, and any inquiries had to be logged for review by the campus Senate Admissions Committee.

An intensive faculty review the following year found the "firewall" appeared to have worked, with only a small number of inquiries made, most of them innocuous.

Most of the UI employees named in the scandal — administrators who passed along requests to help "clouted" applicants or lower-level employees ordered to do so — are no longer at the UI.