The Chicago Tribune reported that in the last five years, hundreds of students have been unfairly admitted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of connections with state politicians (Clout goes to college, 05/29/2009). Throughout Chicagoland, I’m sure there were many students who thought the same thing I did — no shit.

The news couldn’t have been too startling for anyone. Universities all over the country probably have their own clout lists, and our very own University could be one of them. But even if the story wasn’t shocking, the Tribune’s relentless coverage is admirable for calling attention to a practice that has become too normal. If the University of Illinois can reform its admissions system to assure that such a practice doesn’t occur in the future, it could set a precedent for other universities to do the same.

Perhaps you’re asking, “Reform? Why not just fire the individuals responsible and move on?” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. No university wants to anger the people who control its funds, whether they are state legislators or large donors. This is why the practice of special consideration is so common, as Bob Kustra, president of Boise State University, noted in an op-ed piece in the Tribune (Deny admission to politics, 06/01/2009).

The relationship between Illinois politicians and U of I officials needs to change. Whether or not it does depends largely on the success of two efforts — an investigative panel initiated by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and a lawsuit that the Tribune will bring against U of I.

Quinn has been criticized for creating two other panels in the past few months that have achieved little, so expectations for this one are fairly low. And the panel doesn’t have subpoena power, so whether or not to comply will be up to U of I officials who probably won’t feel like sharing much information.

The Tribune’s efforts are more promising. The paper is filing a suit against U of I for refusing to provide the GPA’s and ACT scores of certain students, which they claim is illegal under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. If the Tribune’s case is successful, U of I may be required by law to reveal the students’ information. Such a revelation might pressure U of I to stop denying that there is an admissions problem.

Despite the legal commotion, the Tribune hasn’t raised as many eyebrows as it hoped. In the past three weeks of coverage, most of the angry responses to the news have come from rejected students and their parents. The paper has attempted to portray the student body as outraged as well, but a June 8 blogpost by Chelsea Fiddyment on the U of I student newspaper’s website reported otherwise, claiming that U of I students simply didn’t react strongly to the news. The story didn’t receive much attention outside of Chicago, either.

It seems those who are not personally affected are apathetic to the effects of political pressure on admissions decisions. I, for one, am guilty of such apathy. But it’s already been built into our culture. Political corruption is a regular part of public discourse, especially in Illinois. The Rod Blagojevich scandal should have made that clear to the rest of the country. And the college admissions process becomes more puzzling every year as families pay more money for private counselors and college guides to decipher what the universities are looking for. Hell, I assume that clout lists and political corruption exist at most colleges.

But I would be delighted if that changed.

The best solution to the situation has come from Kustra, who suggested in his contribution to the Tribune that all universities should “adopt a policy that forbids university officials … from even discussing admissions decisions with public officials.” That way, universities can avoid politicians’ ultimatums. A policy change banning clout lists wouldn’t completely eliminate political meddling, but a university president who receives an ambiguous phone call regarding an admissions request would have a legitimate excuse to reject it on the spot.

No matter how bored Chicagoans become of the news, the Tribune should continue to pressure U of I to drop their clout list daily. With no one else caring much about it, the Tribune may be the only hope to change this unfair policy, not only for U of I, but for the rest of the country as well.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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