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University Of Illinois President Scrambling To Control Fallout, Protect Trustees

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CHAMPAIGN -- The University of Illinois scrambled Friday to explain how politically connected applicants with less-than-stellar resumes -- including the relative of a convicted fundraiser for ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- gained entry into the school over more qualified students.

University President Joseph White said he plans to make clear to employees that no one should feel pressured to admit prospective students because the governor or anyone else with political clout takes an interest.

The scandal -- reported Friday by the Chicago Tribune -- riled state lawmakers. One said he wants any university trustee involved in trying to influence admissions to resign and another said he would press to end political appointments to public university trustee boards.

The university, considered one of the top public universities in the country, keeps a little-known list of applicants tracked by politicians and university trustees. The Tribune said the list often results in the admission of clout-heavy students over those with better qualifications.

"I'm putting out a communication today to the university community that makes it crystal clear that admissions are to be based on merit only and that our people are not to succumb to pressure to admit," White told The Associated Press Friday.

The list included a relative of convicted political fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko who got accepted to the school after then-Gov. Blagojevich made a request, according to the Tribune. The newspaper says Rezko's relative was supposed to be denied admission before Blagojevich interceded.

A manageable problem

Spokesman Thomas Hardy said Friday the problem was manageable and that likely only a handful of students at the university's flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign are what he called questionable admissions.

"We don't want a small number of questionable cases to lead to misperceptions about the quality of our process, the quality of our incoming class," Hardy said. "The insinuation of pressure, either applied or implied, we need to eliminate that."

Hardy said the list -- dubbed "Category I" -- contains more than 100 potential students each year whose applications legislators and trustees have been asked to check on by constituents, typically parents or other relatives of the applicants. This year, there are about 160 on the list, he said.

He said only some of those are admitted and noted that other universities keep similar lists.

The Tribune says 1,800 pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show 77 percent of the 800 students placed on list since 2005 for admittance to the Urbana-Champaign campus were accepted. Meanwhile, the acceptance rate among other applicants stood at 69 percent.

The Urbana campus typically gets 23,000 or more applications for about 7,000 seats. This year there were 26,000.

Students accepted from the list who were freshman in 2008 on average ranked in the 76th percentile of their high school class, the Tribune said. The same year, the average high school ranking among all freshman was in the 88th percentile.

The Tribune said records also show that candidates from the list on average have lower ACT scores than all admitted students.

Neighbors, friends and the children of housekeepers to influential people have landed on the list, along with those from families that vacation in Hawaii with lawmakers, according to the newspaper.

Democratic Rep. Mike Boland of East Moline, chairman of the state House Higher Education Committee, was livid about the revelations.

"This is really outrageous," he said, adding that he would call for the resignation of any trustee involved in trying to influence the admissions reported by the Tribune. Boland also plans to research legislation to punish people in government who try to get unqualified applicants into universities.

"Universities should be off base as far as any kind of political influence. That should be a meritocracy. You either make it on your merits or you don't," Boland said.

Lawmaker reaction

State Sen. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican and a U of I graduate, said the scandal proves the school's trustees should be chosen by university alumni, rather than appointed by the governor.

The University of Illinois generally does a good job on admissions, but "if there are widespread abuses, we would attempt to rectify the situation," said State Sen. Edward Maloney, a Chicago Democrat who heads the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Maloney said he has previously inquired about why a student wasn't admitted.

"I've never said 'put this kid in,"' Maloney said.

Rezko, a Blagojevich fundraiser, was convicted of shaking down businesses that wanted to do state work for campaign contributions. His relative was accepted over the objections of an admissions officer after White wrote in an e-mail that Blagojevich "has expressed his support, and would like to see" the person admitted, according to the Tribune.

The newspaper says the e-mail was sent to a university chancellor, who forwarded the message to the admissions officer. That person replied that the applicant's credentials were subpar.

"He's actually pretty low," the newspaper says the admissions officer wrote in an e-mail. "Let me know when the denial letter can go out."

White said that it's important for the university to track requests so admissions officers can make informed decisions, according to the Tribune.

"I would never support admission of a student over better-qualified students simply because of connections and pressure," he told the newspaper.

White wouldn't discuss specific cases.

University trustee David Dorris said he typically gets a few requests a year from constituents to check on applications. He said he checks on them but tells university officials, "Do not give them any advantage."

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Information from: the Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com

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