University Of Illinois Panel Chair Resigns

The chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, Niranjan Shah, resigned Monday, the second board member to resign in a week after the school admitted to keeping a so-called "clout list." The school has been embroiled in a scandal involving admissions practices that gave preference to well-connected students.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Illinois, the state's flagship public university is embroiled in an admissions scandal. Today, the chairman of the university's board of trustees resigned. He's the second trustee to quit. Officials at the University of Illinois have acknowledged keeping a so-called clout list and admitting well-connected applicants over other more qualified students.

NPR's Cheryl Corley joins us now from Chicago. And, Cheryl, tell us more about this clout list and how this scandal started.

CHERYL CORLEY: Well, this clout list was called the Category I list and it was a way that the University of Illinois really tracked students who had ties to people with influence. And ultimately it meant that those potential students who had that designation might have been able to get into the university even if they were borderline, as far as meeting the university requirements, while other students may have been rejected.

This all started with an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, at least the revealing factors of it. And now a special commission appointed by Governor Pat Quinn has been conducting its own investigation. And during some hearings, folks from the university basically confirmed that that Category I list did exist.

And now we have two people have resigned: one U of I trustee last week and now the chairman of the board, Niranjan Shah. And the governor has accepted those resignations and says a search for new trustees is underway. And a spokesman for the university, Tom Hardy, had this to say today about that.

Mr. TOM HARDY (Spokesman, University of Illinois): The admissions process overall works very well for the University of Illinois - it has and it will continue to do so. To the extent that there are problems and certainly they've been documented, the university's leadership stands ready and it will be job one to reform those problems.

BLOCK: And, Cheryl, some of those problems are tied directly to the chairman of the board who resigned today. Is that right?

CORLEY: Absolutely. He's the head of an engineering firm, just been named chairman in January and served on the board before for a six-year term. Apparently he had intervened on a relative's behalf after she forgot to apply for an honors program and stepped in when she had problems with a housing assignment.

And he told the state commission investigating the admissions process that he did advocate for some applicants, but he didn't believe that he had done anything wrong and said he strongly supported the establishment of that commission to investigate the college's admission practices.

BLOCK: Well, what is the state commission expected to recommend?

CORLEY: Well, the state commission might be - well, the chairman of the commission has recommended that the board of trustees should change. There are nine commissioners, nine trustees on the U of I board. We don't know if that will actually come to pass or if that will be the true recommendation. But their report is expected to come out as early as the end of this week.

BLOCK: And how big a scandal is this for the University of Illinois? And how widespread is it beyond that university?

CORLEY: Well, it's pretty big. I mean, I put that question to a person from the - Kevin Casey(ph). He's the policy director of the D.C.-based think tank Education Sector. And so I asked him, I said, well, isn't this something that we see through with a number of schools? And he said that there's a difference between private and public universities. So that's one difference. But he says Illinois' troubles are not very surprising.

Mr. KEVIN CAREY (Policy Director, Education Sector): I suspect most of our, if not all - the public universities engage in some sort of similar practices. I think the big difference in Illinois is most of them are smart enough not to write it down and give it a name. But I think they all do it.

BLOCK: So a problem well beyond Illinois.

NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago. Thanks very much.

CORLEY: You're welcome.

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