Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New panel to look into UI admissions

By Hilary Russell
The exchange of contracts for political contributions, known as “pay-to-play” politics, may have extended itself into academic life. Only this time, people are accused of trying to use clout to influence the acceptance of certain students into the University of Illinois, and contributions to political campaigns may have helped. The accusation is that low-test scores and inadequate grades may have been cast aside in lieu of political favors.

Today, at the University of Illinois Chicago, Gov. Pat Quinn signed an executive order forming a seven-member investigative panel to look into allegations that a select number of students were not accepted based on grades and test scores.

“This is [being] done so that the public understands that when someone is admitted to this institution, it is done on their abilities and on their merit and qualifications,” Quinn said. “Politics, preferential treatment and undue influence have no role whatsoever to play.”

Two members on the panel include a former federal judge and a key inspector general who exposed alleged wrongdoing in the administration of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

In early June, the Chicago Tribune reported that during a five-year-period, almost 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students, dubbed “Category I,” were not accepted at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana based on their own accords. The Tribune’s investigation alleges that parents, family friends or relatives paid for certain students to get in.

In fact, the Tribune reported that without the help of some influential insiders, including particular politicians, students who had not met the school’s criteria most likely would not have been accepted otherwise.

. The longstanding tradition of statewide political corruption comes at a time when Illinois residents are leery about business as usual in state government. Quinn, already facing the state’s bleak economic outlook, now must address allegations of academic corruption in the state’s largest public university.

In an attempt to assure the public that the admissions process at the state’s public universities will be fair to all, Quinn gave the new panel 60 days, or until August 8, to report findings to him.

Quoting former President Abraham Lincoln, Quinn said, “On the one side are the movers and the shakers; on the other are the moved and the shaken. And the difference is a good education.”

The man who is chairing the commission was a recipient of the university’s Ethics in Government award. Retired federal Judge Abner Mikva also is a former professor, Illinois House member, congressman and, most recently, the director of a legal aid clinic in Chicago.

One of the panel members joining him, Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott, is no stranger to the politics of Illinois. She was Blagojevich’s first inspector general, a position he created to review ethics reform in government. In 2003, she issued a report charging that Joe Cini, supervisor for the governor’s patronage office, orchestrated the exchange of jobs in the Department of Employment Security for politically motivated contributions. Scott is a partner with the law firm Mayer Brown LLP in Chicago. In addition to serving as executive inspector general, she worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago.

They are joined by:

  • Ted Chung, Quinn’s general counsel.
  • Ricardo Estrada, executive director of the Erie Neighborhood House, a community service organization helping low-income families in Chicago.
  • Charles Scholz, a private practice attorney and former mayor of Quincy.
  • Doris Lowry, President of the Aspen Pine Group Inc., a management consulting firm in Chicago, and has a master’s degree in theological studies.
  • Bernard Judge, former editor and publisher of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
  • Martha Vander Weele, president of Vander Weele Group, a corporate investigations firm in Chicago.

University President B. Joseph White said the university will support the panel in its investigation, and is using its own in-house counsel, Thomas R. Bearrows, to handle the university’s working association with the commission. “I am mandating complete and full cooperation with the commission from every member of the university community,” White said. “The commission will have access to everybody and everything it needs to conduct its work. Any request or directive from the commission is to be treated as the highest priority and responses are to be timely.”

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