Monday, June 01, 2009

Rezko University?

That's what an editorial in the Chicago Tribune is dubbing the University of Illinois after an expose' by the newspaper about the role of political clout in approving admissions to the University of Illinois. When a cousin of convicted political fixer Tony Rezko wanted in to the university after being denied admission, a letter from Gov. Rod Blagojevich was all it took to fix the problem for the Rezko cousin. University of Illinois President Joseph White personally wrote an e-mail to the admissions director noting the governer's support and how he would like to see admitted Rezko's relative and another applicant. Here's part of what the editorial says:

Friday's Tribune carried the first of several stories exposing one U. of I. admissions outrage after another. This is the sort of rank favoritism that infuriates people who play by the rules, but never seems to penetrate the consciences of those in positions of power who rationalize peddling -- or benefiting from -- their influence.

The girl who studies like a tigress through high school and thinks she'll get fair consideration from the U. of I.? The middle-class boy whose family earns too much to qualify for a scholarship yet too little to afford an out-of-state school, and thus has a shot at attending only one of this nation's premier publics -- Illinois' flagship university? Neither applicant will have an equal chance against a high school senior who'll be clouted into the U. of I.

The university president responded to the Tribune's report with a dissembling statement as egregious as his school's role in this admissions scheme. "First and most important, all admissions to the University of Illinois should be based on merit. . . ." B. Joseph White said. "[T]he Tribune makes no assertion that unqualified individuals were admitted to the University."

False. As Friday's paper reported, the Tribune's investigation found that "University officials recognized that certain students were underqualified -- but admitted them anyway. . . . University officials delayed admissions notification to weak candidates until the end of the school year to minimize the fallout at top feeder high schools." That is, to hide blatant injustice.

White also tried to spin the customary defenses of public officials caught playing favorites: What happens here is no different than what happens at other schools; not that many applicants benefited; I think we deserve the public's trust.

No, Mr. White. Neither you nor any other state official can justify cheating even one applicant. The questions here are grave:

-- Is the role of political clout in admissions noxious but perfectly legal? Or . . .

-- Have university or other state officials conveyed a valuable public asset -- admission to the U. of I. -- to clouted applicants?

-- Admissions officers legally can choose applicants on the basis of grades, athletic skills or certain other variables. But have officials defrauded tens of thousands of applicants by hiding from them a shadow enrollment system that secretly penalizes those without clout?

-- Have Illinois taxpayers been deprived of the honest services of public officials -- in Springfield or Urbana-Champaign -- who have participated in a long-term illegality?

These are the kind of questions that have to be asked every time public officials appear to be treating the people's valuable assets as their own.

And if White is correct that this sort of thing happens at other public universities, we hope someone will ask tough questions at those schools too. Students who apply for admission at the U. of I. or elsewhere don't deserve entrenched and systematic mistreatment from officials they trust to be fair.

Does this happen in Indiana? When I was in law school at IU--Indianapolis School of Law, there was no shortage of students who either had political clout or came from families with political clout. Whether the status of their political clout had anything to do with their admission to the law school is open for speculation. Though I did find a special reception the former Dean of the law school threw especially for those with perceived political clout a little too obvious. The purpose of that special reception was to develop a winning legislative strategy for obtaining state funding for a new law school building. The new law school got built, but with the help of a lot of private donations, as well as public funds.

Illinois also allows state lawmakers to award scholarships to the state's universities. This has always been a highly-politicized program. Some lawmakers give the scholarships to their own kids and relatives, or find another lawmaker to give scholarships to their relatives. Others recipients are just loyal political hacks. Chicago Tribune political reporter John Kass has more on the absurdity of a corrupt Chicago pol giving away one of his scholarships to the son of a former Chicago city worker now in federal prison on a bribery conviction charge.

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