URBANA – The chairman of a state commission that investigated University of Illinois admissions abuses says the state may want to appoint a new panel to look into reports that House Speaker Michael Madigan exerted influence on behalf of political allies and campaign donors.
But Abner Mikva, the former federal judge who headed the commission, insists top UI officials bear most of the blame.
Meanwhile, UI spokesman Thomas Hardy said revelations about Madigan pressuring administrators to accept unqualified applicants are "history" and do not reflect a university that has ousted a president and chancellor and most of its then-trustees, while enacting strict new reforms.
The comments came in response to a Wednesday Chicago Tribune story charging that Madigan helped relatives of politicians, allies and donors who contributed $115,200 to his campaign funds get into the Urbana and Chicago campuses, even if they had substandard grades.
"In the end these are public officials, and they ought to know better than to put pressure on other public officials," said Mikva, who chaired the Illinois Admissions Review Commission, adding that legislators should put their own "firewall" between donors and admissions.
"I still don't think that is the center of the problem," Mikva said. "There will always be pressure from various groups in and out of government. The question is how is that pressure is responded to."
Mikva said he thinks the new UI Board of Trustees – appointed after most of the old board resigned under pressure following the commission's scathing report – will act as a buffer between the admissions office and outside pressure.
But a University of Chicago professor who has written critically about the Mikva commission said Wednesday that the administrators had been put under extreme pressures by politicians and donors.
"What did anyone really think state university officials were going to do when pressured by one of the most powerful politicians in the state? Tell him to 'get lost'? said Brian Leiter, the John P. Wilson Professor of Law and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago.
"That Mikva Commission didn't uncover or even bother to really investigate the misconduct by politicians like Madigan is itself a scandal," Leiter told The News-Gazette.
In his analysis of the Mikva Commission's finding, Leiter wrote:
"The problem confronting the commission, of course, was in part that the actual wrongdoers wouldn't, for the most part, appear. In a footnote on page 11, we learn that of the 10 state legislators asked to appear before the commission, only three did so – while none of the legislators with leadership positions in the House or Senate who used their 'clout' to get special consideration for candidates deigned to appear. This is like investigating the consequences of extortion without looking into the behavior of the extorters.
"Here is what a real investigation might have uncovered: that university officials knew from many years of bitter experience that failure to 'jump' when 'inquiries' came from state senators, governors, House minority leaders and so on would have ramifications for the university – not for the officials who rebuffed the inquiries, but for the students and faculty of the university, whose salaries, curriculum and extracurricular opportunities depend heavily on public funding," Leiter continued.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown dismissed the Tribune's report, saying, "There was no pressure exerted by Michael Madigan" on behalf of any student. He said those who wound up attending the UI have graduated or are making progress toward a degree, though the Tribune cited one student who later left the university. In cases where Madigan was informed that someone wasn't qualified, "he went out and told the parents that."
Brown also said the donations cited by the newspaper were collected over more than a decade and played "no role" in any actions by the speaker.
A Mikva commissioner with extensive investigative experience, Maribeth VanderWeele, reiterated Wednesday that "the chairman felt strongly that the university needed to resist pressure."
But, she added, "every legislator, including Michael Madigan, has an obligation to ensure their actions are beyond reproach and didn't cross the line in influencing the administrators."
The Mikva commission asked both Madigan and state Senate President John Cullerton to testify last summer, along with other legislators, but neither appeared before the panel. The only legislators to testify were state Rep. Mike Boland, who was not among the dozens of lawmakers seeking admissions help from the UI; state Sen. Chris Lauzen, R-Aurora, who sought an update on a 2005 UI law school candidate who was later admitted; and state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, who testified that his inquiries dealt mostly with applicants who'd been displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Brown had said last fall that Madigan didn't believe he needed to testify, and he reiterated that point Wednesday.
"We provided all the information we had at the time. There didn't appear to be anything we could add," he said.
Mikva said he hadn't expected Madigan or Cullerton to testify personally. The panel had no legal power to compel witnesses, and he said it didn't pursue the matter because commissioners felt the onus was on UI trustees and high-level administrators who failed to protect the admissions office from outside pressure. Mikva criticized former UI Chancellor Richard Herman for "intervening and overruling" admissions officers.
"We hoped that by putting in new people" the problems would be resolved, he said.
The commission looked at who was applying the pressure, including alumni, donors, legislators and trustees, Mikva said. But every university faces similar pressures, and it's up to top university officials to resist them, he said.
"The pressure will continue," he said. "The question is not who is pressuring, but how the pressure is responded to."
Mikva, who served as a state legislator years ago, said he received calls from constituents asking for help getting their children into the university.
"All I ever did was send a letter saying, consistent with your policies, I urge you to look at so-and so," he said. He assumed at the time that would not be interpreted as pressure, but looking back, "I probably wouldn't have sent any letters at all."
Hardy said the issue remains "in the rear-view mirror."
"We accepted the (Mikva) report. We implemented all the reforms that were suggested. We made substantial personnel changes," he said. "There is no more Category I list or anything approaching it. Campus admissions does keep a log, posted publicly, if there are instances where people are requesting information about an applicant."
"As far as we're concerned, this is old news, history."
A spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn said he had no immediate comment on the revelations or whether he might appoint another review commission.
House Republican Leader Tom Cross, who was also asked to testify before the commission last summer, declined comment Wednesday through a spokeswoman, citing end-of-session business in Springfield.