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  The Cancer of Corruption Metastasizes: The UIUC Admissions Scandal

By Ken Andersen

The Environment

Illinois has long been noted for the frequency and significance of corruption both at the state level and in Chicago. The willingness of the electorate to tolerate the level of corruption is a mystery. The emphasis on “Pay to Play” became particularly acute under our recently indicted “Blago” but preceded him and inevitably will continue at some level after him. Corruption seems to be the heritage of the state.
The Chicago Tribune has long cast a critical eye on the University of Illinois seeking to discover malfeasance. It found what it was seeking in the admissions scandal but gave little emphasis to the external actors who brought the pressures that caused the problem. It missed the more fundamental issue of numerous other instances of improper interference in University and Campus affairs, granted a more difficult story to unearth and to interpret for the general public.

The Unreported Story

For more than a decade certain members of the Board of Trustees and the Office of the Governor have tried, sometimes successfully, to intervene in the internal management of the University, issues that should have been handled by the administration and faculty. This was notable with Jerry Shea as a Trustee appointed by Governor Ryan but the pattern intensified with actions of and appointments by Blagojevich. Note statements by U of I President White to the UIUC Senate on September 14, 2009. “I said no when I was told Governor Blagojevich’s office wanted an IGPA research report killed rather than published.” “I said no when a senior aide to Governor Blagojevich told me the administration was at war and I was in their army.” “I have worked to insulate this University from external pressures in an extremely difficult and intensely political environment.” Blagojevich appointed Trustees who “paid to play” or had no previous ties to the University, and who were willing to give undue consideration to the Governor’s wishes. The admissions issue is but one example of this improper interference and from an insider’s perspective, not the most important example. This is not to deny the unfairness to students and to the citizens of Illinois that took place in the admissions process.

The Internal Actors

Inevitably the focus of attention fell upon the Board of Trustees, President White and Chancellor Herman. While the Trustees may not all have been culpable in the admissions debacle they have tolerated actions by members of the Board—particularly its chairs— that extended far beyond their proper role in this and other matters. All but two of the immediate past Board have resigned and a new Board put in place by Governor Quinn. Many question the credibility of the two who refused to resign. The Governor chose not to press that issue of their resignations in the face of threatened lawsuits that would have prolonged the agony of the University.


President White announced his resignation on September 23, 2009, effective December 31. As the Mikva report makes clear, White did not know of the details that led to the admissions issues. One key emphasis in bringing White to the University was fundraising as part of the Brilliant Futures Campaign. White has been successful in this. While many faculty questioned his “Global Campus Initiative,” it was more in the implementation than the concept where White was faulted. Some feel he did not do enough in monitoring the campuses. White may not have had or may not have heeded input from individuals that he should have while placing too much trust in some individuals. These are mistakes of leadership rather than ethical failures. To hold him responsible for the admissions scandal is to reach beyond what the evidence warrants. His resignation at significant personal financial cost and his efforts to reform the admissions process are commendable. (White will remain at the University as a faculty member and continue in fundraising efforts.)

The designation of much-loved and respected former President Stanley Ikenberry as interim president has huge support in the University and community. He and White show every evidence of mutual respect and the ability to work together.


The tapes garnered by “The Chicago Tribune” through the Freedom of Information Act show that Herman was intimately involved in the admissions scandal. The pattern of involvement began when he was Provost and moved with him as Chancellor. Perhaps the best explanation for his involvement is to stress the ethicists’ focus on “the slippery slope.” In short, one makes a choice that at best is a minor slip, one that all of us make at times. But then there comes a pressure to make a slightly bigger misstep, and that leads to a third, a fourth, a fifth and ultimately the slide down the slippery slope to a new unethical behavior pattern. One need not question Herman’s view that he was doing his best to protect the University from outside pressures but his acts inevitably led to continued pressures as he apparently became the “go to person” to get someone admitted. Word does get around.

Interestingly, the Tribune ran a one-day story that did not fit the theme of the admission scandal but highlighted an end result of “the slippery slope.” Page 1 of the July 21, 2009, edition reported that Herman or campus officials at his direction provided money to assist in securing a visa, paid moving expenses, sought and created an $115,000 position using campus reserve funds for a Dutch citizen who later became the son-in law of Board of Trustees Chair Shah. The individual left the position for a higher paying one in about ten months, four months of which were spent in training and the remainder largely doing “research.” (Shah had emailed Herman on May 23, 2007, referencing the employment, “We need to make this happen.”)

Herman remains as UIUC Chancellor as of the writing of this editorial. It would seem the question is not, “Will he resign?” but “When and under what circumstances will he resign?” Herman stresses the many good things that have happened on his “watch” and there have been many.

What to conclude?

1. Apparently, the responsibility to resist improper influence falls on the target. After all, it is the nature of politicians to ask for favors and use the old-boy network.

2. Always remain conscious of the slippery slope. As Aristotle noted, each choice opens a different range of future choices eliminating some, adding others. Choose the right one, the morally good one.

3. While the press unearths some scandals and explores some issues, it may fasten on one ”story line” and neglect other more important issues. The Tribune ran with a story that the public could easily understand but the complexity of improper interference in the whole of the academic sphere of the University is much more difficult to report and much more difficult for a non-academic to understand and appreciate its importance.

4. Good intentions and motivations may not result in a wise, ethical decision. We are left to muddle through, do the best we can, and live with the consequences but must ensure to give ample weight to the ethics of our actions.