Legacy lives on at “Clout U”

The big news out of the Land of Lincoln this week—well, other than this—was the resignation, on Tuesday, of University of Illinois chancellor Richard Herman on the heels of a series of Chicago Tribune reports about his school’s admissions policies. Herman’s resignation wasn’t all that unexpected—the U of I’s system president and six trustees had already been forced out during a rare bit of housekeeping in Illinois politics—but brought some finality to an episode that’s become known as as “Clout U.”

The scandal that toppled Herman stemmed from a Tribune investigation revealing the existence of a “clout list,” in which hundreds of unqualified students were admitted to the state’s flagship campus at the behest of powerful politicians: Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, state treasurer and senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias, and, of course, then-governor Rod Blagojevich, were among those pushing for individual students. In the most over-the-top example, Blago pressured U of I President B. Joseph White to secure the admittance of a relative of Chicago heavyweight Antonin “Tony” Rezko (you may remember him as Obama’s “slum landlord”):

“White’s message to the university chancellor was passed on to admissions officials on the same day they entered a rejection decision for the Rezko relative. ‘He’s actually pretty low,’ replied an admissions officer, referring to the applicant’s ACT score and other credentials. ‘Let me know when the denial letter can go out.’

Instead, the relative was admitted.”

In particularly egregious cases, acceptances were timed so as to cause the least suspicion among fellow applicants who attended the same high school; some clout list applicants were waitlisted until the end of the school year, when such a decision might raise fewer eyebrows. A few legislators even used their power to effectively bypass the admissions office altogether, dolling out special state-sponsored tuition scholarships to favored applicants and thereby ensuring their acceptance.

It was all pretty juicy stuff, but not the kind of association that one generally wants for a state’s premier institution. Lawsuits and a state investigation followed shortly thereafter, and now, with Herman returning to his spot on the faculty, things look to be calming down a bit. The Tribune editorialized on Wednesday that “[Herman’s] decision removes the last major distraction on the U. of I.’s road to redemption.”

Well, not quite.

Unfortunately for the Trib—not to mention high school seniors from Cairo to Calumet City—U of I’s spotty admissions practices will live on long after the clout list bites the dust, because the Urbana-Champaign campus, like many of its peer institutions, evaluates its applicants on the critical metric of whether or not their parents went to the U of I. The university’s admissions page states: “Being a legacy can be considered during the admissions process; however, your academic performance, test scores, and essays carry the most weight for admission.”

At a public university, any preference on the basis of where one’s parents went to school—a characteristic that disproportionately benefits more affluent students at the expense of, say, a student whose parents didn’t go to college at all—flies in the face of that school’s core mission, and does taxpayers and high school students a real disservice.

Higher education scandals, as a rule, become much more interesting when crooked machine politicians are involved. But when you take away Blago and Rezko, the effect is the same: giving a student preferential treatment because of who his daddy is—whether he’s a crooked machine politician or just another proud ex-Illini—we can all agree, is a poor admissions policy.

Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy is a reporter in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Mother Jones.