For those of you not in Illinois, the Chicago Tribune has been working on a long-form investigative journalism story about the University of Illinois now-defunct “Category I” admissions track that gave preferential treatment to applicants who were connected to influential people and lawmakers. The newspaper uncovered a system that allowed lawmakers to put in special requests on behalf of prospective students whose applications got individual attention and appeal possibilities not available to unconnected students.
The scandal had wide-ranging consequences, including the resignation of the University president and several members of the board of trustees. Since then (fall 2009), the Tribune has continued to investigate, trying to find direct evidence of correlation between influence, money, political backing, and the admissions tampering.
What I find most interesting is the fact that pretty much everyone involved who made the actual requests finds nothing wrong with having done so. Two quotes from last Sunday’s article:
Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, asked about the application of a relative of Sam Borek, a Chicago real estate and banking lawyer who has given his campaigns more than $15,000 since 1995.
Lang said he became involved in the matter after Borek, who also is Lang’s former college roommate, called to say his family member was worried about getting into U. of I. despite a stellar academic record. Lang said he reviewed the relative’s grades and contacted the university.
The student was admitted, and Lang said there was no special treatment. He likened his involvement to calling a village hall on behalf of a resident who needs a pothole fixed.
No lawmakers who spoke to the Tribune believed they crossed the line by getting involved with the admissions process. They also said they didn’t know their inquiries would lead to applicants getting tracked through a special system.Bernard Judge, a member of the state Admissions Review Commission that investigated the university’s system, said the school shoulders the blame for the situation because it tried to appease lawmakers who control their funding.
“Their budgets were getting cut each year, and they weren’t getting the money promised to them,” he said. “They were trying to protect themselves, but they created a system that allowed all of this to happen.”
Commission member Ricardo Estrada, a new U. of I. trustee, said influential people including elected officials should have stayed out of the process, and the public should be able to decide if their inquiries were benign.
The issue, of course, is equality of access. If influential lawmakers (particularly those who control the University’s purse strings) are allowed to interfere with the admissions process, even by calling to inquire, it means people who have access to those lawmakers get unequal treatment in the admissions process.
And as to the idea that this constitutes “no special treatment” — it’s just plain not true. If lawmakers didn’t believe calling gave special consideration to the people they inquired about, they wouldn’t do it. And in a system where there are limited slots, the individuals who don’t have a lawmaker to call on their behalf but had won an admissions spot (or a higher spot on the list) lose out because of this influence.
Regarding the pothole repair example given above, a village hall that operates this way is just as corrupt, by my way of thinking. There should be a standard rule for setting a repair schedule of potholes, based on street usage, age of the street, and probably the order that pothole was reported in. Any village hall that lets a city commissioner override the priorities assigned by the street repair folks gives unequal access to people friendly with city commissioners. The fact that Lang (or most legislators) see this as an okay way to do business indicates just how corrupt local government is in Illinois.
Finally, I find it disingenuous to blame the people in admissions for building this secondary tracking system — it actually was a really good way to cover their asses. If legislators want special treatment for connected applicants, making it a formal part of the system actually meant that if it was wrong to do — and surely it was — it would be open to public scrutiny. By doing what their bosses told them to do, they are going with the idea that the legislature’s interference is accepted and appropriate, so why hide it?