Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has created a special commission to investigate allegations that the University of Illinois gave some students preferential treatment in the admissions process based on their political connections.
The state of Illinois is embroiled in yet another political scandal. This one involves the University of Illinois and allegations that students with political clout were admitted to the school over other, more qualified applicants.
When William Jones graduated from high school three years ago, he thought he had done what he had to do to get into University of Illinois that fall.
"I was mostly an A student. A's, with a couple of B's. I got a 29 on my ACT," Jones said. "So when I originally applied to U of I, I guess I cockily thought I was a shoo-in, but apparently not."
Jones scored high enough to get on Illinois' waiting list before ultimately being denied. His Plan B was to go to the University of Iowa, where he paid out-of-state tuition.
"It's almost double the cost," he said.
Jones was able to transfer to Illinois after two years. Standing outside a summer class he is taking at University of Illinois' Chicago campus, he said his struggle on the waiting list and difficulties transferring did not bother him at all — until he saw recent newspaper stories revealing that the University of Illinois keeps a so-called "clout list," and that prospective students with powerful sponsors were often admitted over more qualified applicants.
"The fact that I was on this waiting list of short people makes me feel like I was really screwed, actually," Jones said. "It means that I was this close and on the border of getting in and I didn't, and I got a feeling if that clout list didn't exist, I probably would've gotten in U of I originally."
University of Illinois officials now acknowledge that they actually created a special classification to track the applications of students with clout, called "Category I."
The university's former associate director of admissions, Abel Montoya, testified Monday before a special state commission investigating the scandal. Montoya said his decisions to deny admission to certain unqualified applicants were sometimes overturned.
"I asked, 'Why in the world are we admitting this student who is so low?' And my director told me," Montoya said.
Montoya explained how the Category I system worked: Each office on campus that deals with influential people, whether it be donor, alumni or political relations, had a designated liaison who would let Montoya know whenever a powerful person inquired about a particular applicant. Montoya said he would then mark that applicant's file as Category I, and he made sure the file's label reflected the applicant's clout as well.
"A red stripe would go through the middle so it would stand out from other applications," Montoya said.
There may have been more than 150 red-striped applications a year, out of more than 25,000 applications to the university overall. In the highly competitive college admissions game, that red stripe was often the extra push a borderline student needed to get admitted.
A Lobbyist's Inquiry
University of Illinois' top lobbyist Richard Schoell testified that he often inquired about the status of certain applicants on behalf of lawmakers and other public officials, and he admits occasionally noting just how important some of those officials were within state government. However, he denies trying to get unqualified students admitted. He also denies that those public officials threatened to withhold funding from the university if a particular student did not get in.
"I never said to anybody, 'You must take this kid,' " Schoell said. "But, I do agree, as I look back, the appearance of that or just the role I have could have compromised the situation."
A University of Illinois spokesman says the school is cooperating with the investigation.
Federal authorities are looking into what role former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and top fundraiser Tony Rezko may have had in getting students into the university.
While Illinois is not alone in having the rich and powerful trying to influence public university admissions, experts say the scale to which it appears to have been done in Illinois puts the state in a class by itself.
A Lesson Learned?
It remains unclear whether University of Illinois' clout list broke any state laws or school policies. The special state commission will continue its investigation into August, when it is due to report its findings to the governor.
Regardless of the outcome, the once denied 21-year-old William Jones, who will be a senior at University of Illinois in the fall, said he is getting something out of it.
"I'm starting to learn it's more about who you know. It's not about how hard you work. It's not about necessarily how intelligent you are. It's about who you know and the connections you have."
Call it a free lesson in Illinois politics 101.