Illinois corruption includes state’s largest school systems

The University of Illinois and Chicago’s best public schools are charged with granting admission to children of donors and the well connected.

By MARK GUARINO  |  Christian Science Monitor Correspondent/August 7, 2009 edition

Chicago — The two largest public school systems in Illinois are under scrutiny, with federal prosecutors investigating links between important admissions decisions and political clout.

The University of Illinois and the Chicago Public School system are involved in separate cases that involve possible manipulation of the admissions process by state power brokers, which in the university case, includes disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich and convicted influence dealer Tony Rezko.

A report published Thursday by the Illinois Reform Commission said unqualified students were accepted to the University of Illinois’ most elite programs including law, business, and medicine as the result of a “shadow admissions process.” Between 2003 and 2007, for example, the college of law wrongly admitted about 24 politically-connected applicants in exchange for scholarship money, according to the report.

The report recommends that University Chancellor Richard Herman and all nine trustees at the University of Illinois voluntarily submit their resignations; three trustees had already done so by Friday. The remaining trustees have been given until Sept. 11 to resign.

On Friday Illinois Governor Pat Quinn said the scandal threatened to diminish the university’s “reputation of one of the greatest institutions on planet earth.” “The university’s interests have to be paramount,” in reforming it, says Gov. Quinn.

Thomas Hardy, executive director of the office of university relations, said Mr. Herman is not resigning but instead is convening a university-wide “admissions summit meeting” next Wednesday to discuss reform measures he wants in place before the admissions cycle starts in September.

Mr. Hardy says, “There’s no evidence [the connected students] took the seats of other students, it’s just that they were added in.” However, Hardy adds, “one is too many.”

“We acknowledge that and accept responsibility for what’s gone on, and we’re going to be responsible for fixing the situation and moving forward,” he said.

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies corruption, says the scandal will not hurt the university’s academic reputation, but it will come into play in future state budget decisions.

“With the public we have lost prestige, and with the state legislature we have lost prestige,” Mr. Simpson says. “Although there’s plenty of time to repair that, it depends on what happens next.”

In a separate development, federal prosecutors issued a subpoena in late July to Chicago Public School Board President Michael Scott as part of an investigation to determine whether principals at the city’s nine highly competitive high schools improperly selected students based on clout rather than academic achievement. Prosecutors are seeking all correspondence related to applicants who applied and were accepted, plus all related material including test scores and recommendations.

City school officials would not comment, nor would Justice Department officials in Chicago.
Simpson says the findings will be of high interest to Chicago parents because of the intense competition that takes place each year to get into the best schools.

“If it’s a rigged system then … it means their child was denied the right to go to a good school. It really matters to them,” he says.

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