University of Illinois tarnished by clout
by Norm Winick
It’s become apparent that the influence of former Governors Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan extended well beyond the political arena. Under their regimes, some special applicants to the University of Illinois allegedly could be beneficiaries of “clout” and put on a list of “category I” students whose admission was almost guaranteed despite their academic achievements.
Some witnesses at the hearings into the matter have claimed that this “clout” list has existed for decades.
The man who supervised admission policies at the University of Illinois during much of the previous period was Chancellor Morton Weir, now Chancellor Emeritus.
Weir is a 1955 Knox College graduate and a life trustee of Knox. He agreed to answer questions about the well-publicized scandal.
How many years did you work for the University of Illinois? What were they?
“Except for about 18 months as an administrator at Boys Town, I was at the UI from 1960 until I retired from the chancellorship in 1993. Then I worked part time for the UI Foundation (fund raising) until 2000.”
For how many of those did you have a role in some capacity in admissions?
“I was Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs (now called Provost) from 1971 through 1979. The Director of Admissions reported to me. I was Vice President for Academic Affairs (a system-level position) from 1982-1988. I had no direct responsibility for admissions but would have known if there was pressure being applied to the campuses concerning admissions. I was Interim Chancellor at UIUC [University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign] during 1987-88 and Chancellor from 1988-1993. The Director of Admissions reported to the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, who in turn reported to me.”
Have you been called to testify before the panel investigating the matter?
“No, I have not been called to testify.”
When did the clout list become known to you? Did everyone involved with admissions and academic standards know about it? Did connected folks call you to get names included and/or what was the process?
“I only heard about the ‘clout’ list when this scandal began to erupt in the past few weeks. I do not know who in the university knew about it. When I was Vice Chancellor and also Chancellor, I would get occasional calls, mainly from alumni but occasionally from trustees, inquiring about the status of applicants. Most were about applicants who had been denied. In each case, I would ask someone to look into the case so that I would be knowledgeable about it. FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] regulations would allow me to tell the inquirer very little, but typically I would contact the person who had made the inquiry, confirm that the student had been denied, and advise that he or she should consider enrolling in a community college and, with a good record there, apply to transfer to the UI. No undue pressure was ever brought upon me and I never asked that a decision be changed nor tried to influence a decision. Usually, the inquirer would say something like ‘well, if that’s the way it is…’ I can recall no instance in which the inquiry was about law school applicants — all were undergraduates. There was no list during my years in administration. I did not even make notes of the conversations.”
Who could get names on the list? Did the rank of the person recommending a student (or their academic abilities) have any impact? (That is, was everyone on the list treated the same or were there subcategories?) What percentage of them would have been admitted anyway?
“I have no answers to these questions because there was no list and no pressure was ever brought.”
What other kinds of students were frequently admitted who did not meet the standard admissions criteria and how did they compare to the Category I students? (Athletes, musicians, legacies, General Assembly scholarship recipients, minorities, foreign students, etc.)
“UIUC has admitted students in certain special categories whose records were not as strong as others, but who were sought after for other reasons (athletes, musicians, minorities). None were below the minima that had been established by the campus (or at least they should not have been), but some were below the average of all admitted students. We have never kept this a secret. I cannot compare their quality to the Category I applicants because there was no Category I list during my time, by that name or any other.”
Once enrolled, did Category Is get any special treatment? Were exceptions made for them so they would succeed? Were accommodations made for other subprime admitted students (such as athletes)?
“Again, I have no information on this question because there was no Category I group during the years I was in administration. As far as I can recall, the only accommodations made for other ‘subprime’ students (as you call them) were the tutoring programs for athletes who needed help. This was funded by the (now) Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.”
Since you also were acting President of Knox College for a time, were you aware of a similar system in place for alums or trustees (or others) to get special treatment by admissions for a particular student? Or, if you prefer to keep it more general, Are you aware of any similar systems for special enrollment consideration at any other colleges or universities, public or private?
“I know of no similar situation at Knox. I have heard that some prestigious private schools do have special categories for the children or grandchildren of alumni or donors, but I have no first-hand knowledge of this.”
Has the media overblown this “scandal?”
“I believe the Tribune has gone over the top on this, but I can understand their concern and the outrage that some have expressed. Universities really have only one thing that is sacrosanct, and that is their integrity. When it is violated, it is very serious indeed.”
What would you like to add?
“Your questions make it clear that you believed that this situation was in existence for a long time. That is one reason I signed the letter that was sent to the Mikva Commission. When some testimony indicated that this has been in place ‘for decades,’ it implied that I was involved in a similar way. That made me very angry. If a trustee or politician had pressured me to admit a student that otherwise would not be admitted, I would have refused. And, as I told the Tribune reporter, if I was told to admit the student ‘or else,’ I would have chosen ‘or else.’ These things simply did not happen while I was in administration. Of course, as our letter to the Commission says, things had become incredibly political during the Ryan and Blagojevich administrations, and I am very sad that the corruption they engendered has sullied the reputation of the University.”