CHAMPAIGN — Testifying before a state admissions review panel in 2009, Paul Pless described the incoming class at the University of Illinois College of Law as the "best class that we've ever had."
The admissions dean went on to tell Chairman Abner Mikva that the improvement in student academic credentials resulted from better recruiting, expanded scholarships and a "reputational bounce" from hiring top professors.
"I think hopefully I get better at my job every year," added Pless, who was praised at the time for resisting outside pressure to place underqualified but politically connected applicants in the law school.
Before his testimony, a new investigative report says, Pless had increased the Law School Admission Test scores of two students in the class of 2011 and within a few months would alter the test score of one student and the grade-point averages of 12 in the class of 2012.
The changes were the basis of inflated median scores for those classes in the college's annual report to the American Bar Association and U.S. News and World Report — a practice continued for two more years until it was uncovered in August, according to the report prepared by UI lawyers and outside investigators.
Pless operated in relative isolation from other College of Law officials in part, ironically, because of changes recommended by the Illinois Admissions Review Commission to protect the admissions dean from outside influence. Starting in 2003, the college also had moved away from faculty involvement in admissions decisions to speed up the process.
The changes focused "all admissions review and decision-making authority" in Pless, as admissions dean — something the school is reconsidering.
"There was a very strong separation in various aspects of the admissions office, particularly for the post-2009 period," dean Bruce Smith said this month. "That's something we're going to need to revisit and square with the recommendations we now have."
The investigative report released Monday recommended that the college develop new control procedures for compiling and reporting data in the admissions office and elsewhere. That includes "effective segregation of duties."
"While we acknowledge the need, in an extraordinarily competitive and often time-sensitive environment, for the Admissions Office to be nimble and prompt in making admissions-related decisions (e.g., decisions to admit, scholarship awards) and otherwise responding to applicant inquiries and concerns, a revamped control regime should avoid excessive concentration of decision-making authority in any single individual, and responsibility for compiling, computing, and verifying data should be appropriately distributed across a sufficient number of individuals to ensure full compliance with applicable rules and guidelines," the report said.
The 2009 Admissions Review Commission, in fact, had also concluded that the college's "single decision-maker approach" left it vulnerable to outside pressures. The panel suggested creating a more "robust" and inclusive admissions process, similar to the committee-based system used by the UI College of Medicine, "on the premise that it is easier to override the intent of a single person as opposed to the collective intent of multiple persons."
The College of Law did institute a "firewall" that prohibited even the college dean from attempting to influence admissions decisions, as the state commission suggested. But it did not follow the panel's other recommendation, to make the process more inclusive, the latest report said.
Smith said the college viewed the firewall as the core recommendation of both the 2009 report and a follow-up review by the campus, and afterward it observed an "extremely rigid" separation between the law admissions office and other college activities, including the dean's office and alumni. In particular, data from the Law School Admissions Council, which provides applicants' test scores and grade point averages to law schools, was "kept within that office," he said.
Smith doesn't see the firewall as a cause of the law school's most recent troubles, but added, "In light of this 2011 report, we will need to find a set of procedures that continues to respect the integrity of the decision-making process, but provides much stronger oversight of pieces of that work, including scholarships and data complication."
He said the college will likely return to an admissions system with more faculty input.
Campus legal counsel Scott Rice said investigators this fall looked at the firewall in the context of what might have prevented the most recent problems with inflated data. But he said the concern in 2009 about concentration of authority was in a different context. "We didn't find any incidence of external influence (here)," he said.
He expects the firewall to continue, but with "appropriate checks and balances to ensure that the information we report is transparent and accurate."
The 2009 commission had investigated reports of connected students being admitted to the UI over more qualified applicants. That included 24 so-called "special interest" candidates admitted to the law school who were backed by trustees and others via former Chancellor Richard Herman, over the objections of Pless and former Dean Heidi Hurd, testimony showed.
Pless strongly protested the admission of one student in a 2006 email to Hurd because of the consequences it would have on academic statistics: "I can't state strongly enough the negative impact this will have on the profile of the incoming class," he wrote, adding that he'd have to admit two more students with higher credentials to offset the lower marks of the applicant in question.
"By admitting (this applicant) we are putting in jeopardy the goal of increasing our median GPA to a 3.5," he wrote.
Investigators in 2009 praised Pless for resisting efforts to overturn admissions decisions, and Smith for steering the college away from special-interest admissions.
Smith, who had been dean for only a few months at the time, testified that he would resign rather than do something unethical, admit underqualified students or violate the UI's code of conduct.
Smith said the college is working now with Duff & Phelps, the forensic auditing group, on steps to ensure "data integrity and compliance."
The college will set up a system to verify "foundational data" used in admissions reports, including checks by internal law school staff and by independent auditors outside the law school, he said.
Also under consideration is adding or redeploying staff to the law school admissions office, but nothing is final, he said. Those changes will be made public "in coming days once the appropriate human-resources steps have been taken," he said.
The UI will also set up a process to choose an outside auditor for the college's annual data reports, Rice said.
"If there is a recommendation in this report, we will execute it and we will share the plan with the campus community and others," Smith said.
Attorney Ted Chung was lead counsel for the state's 2009 Admissions Review Commission and, now with Jones Day, assisted with the university's recent investigation.
Whereas the Category I scandal was uncovered by newspaper reports, in this case the university "did a very effective job of self-policing," Chung said recently.
The UI's whistle-blower program worked "exceptionally well," he said, noting the Aug. 26 tip about inaccurate data was taken seriously at the highest levels and investigated quickly and thoroughly.
Investigators interviewed 23 university and College of Law employees and reviewed nearly 125,000 documents. UI officials estimate the inquiry will cost $1 million, though not all invoices are in yet, said spokesman Tom Hardy.
This story appeared in print on Nov. 13.