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The University of Clout

"Politicians exerted their influence at the University of Illinois to boost admissions prospects for the relatives of lobbyists, fundraisers, a union leader and other connected applicants," the Tribune reported over the weekend.

"The first broad analysis of who benefited from the school's clout lists shows that a number of lawmakers championed applicants whose relatives donated to their campaigns or represented groups that regularly made political contributions.

"Family members of at least three lawmakers also were part of the now-abandoned secret system, known as Category I, a separate admissions track that allowed some subpar students to get admitted to the state's flagship university."

Well that makes sense, since we obviously have subpar legislators.

*

"About 60 politicians backed students seeking admission to the Urbana-Champaign campus in 2008 and 2009, according to records kept by the university's governmental relations office, which tracked the inquiries from lawmakers and other politically connected individuals. U. of I. trustees and donors also tried to help applicants."

*

"Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, asked about a relative of real estate broker and lawyer Steven Samuels, who has attended Cullerton political fundraisers and is a former legal client.

"Samuels' business partner told Cullerton in 2009 that Samuels' relative, a student with a high ACT score and stellar grades, had been wait-listed, said Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon.

"'When the Senate president heard that, he wondered why a student of that caliber was wait-listed,' Phelon said. 'It was not a demand for action.'"

Oh please, Rikeesha. I'm not even going to dignify that with a snide remark.

*

"U. of I. staffers took Cullerton's inquiry in a different light, however.

"Terry McLennand, the U. of I. official who handled many of the requests, asked then-Chancellor Richard Herman to help. 'The (Senate) President thought this students scores seemed a little high for wait list and asked if we could intervene and admit the student at this time rather then waiting for the April decision date,' he wrote."

It was not a demand for action, though. It was a strongly worded request accompanied by a wink hard enough to be heard through the phone.

"The student was admitted in April, according to university records.

"Samuels said he has referred others to Cullerton's law firm for tax appeal work and that he has made small donations to Cullerton's campaign fund. State records show he gave $250 in 2007 and $500 in 2008.

"'I didn't ask (Cullerton) to do anything on behalf of me,' Samuels said. 'You're doing your job, but I am offended by this call. I don't think anything was done that was improper.'

Samuels is offended by the Tribune's call, but not Cullerton's.

*

"Cullerton made eight admissions requests from 2005 to 2009, of which at least seven of the students were admitted."

Did we mention that Cullerton is the state senate president? I'm sure no one else needed to.

"The Tribune previously uncovered the names of politically connected applicants tied to House Speaker Michael Madigan, who made more requests than any other politician. In recent years, the Chicago Democrat helped political allies and donors who contributed $115,200 to campaign funds he controls. He helped relatives of a Chicago alderman, a high-ranking Chicago police official, campaign workers and his family members.

"But powerful Democrats were not the only ones who got involved in admissions.

"House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego helped a lobbyist's relative gain admission after the student was initially denied. In an email exchange with university officials in February 2009, a top Cross aide asked U. of I. to reconsider the application of a family member of lobbyist Bruce Simon, who regularly gives to Democrats and Republicans, including Cross and House GOP organizations.

"McLennand responded with detailed instructions on how to navigate a then-unadvertised appeal process, with tips on what information to include. The university did not typically offer other denied applicants the chance to appeal, but the connected Category I students were encouraged to. The university now allows anyone to appeal.

"'This is a very challenging year for applicants, both in terms of numbers and the qualifications; so we can't promise anything, but we will push it as best we can,' McLennand wrote to Cross' aide. The student was admitted, according to a student directory."

McLennand pushed as best he could. That's what they teach you to do at the University of Illinois.

"In a statement, Cross described Simon, who does not live in his district, as an acquaintance and said Simon's political donations were unrelated to his intervention. Cross said he could recall no other instances in which he asked the university to overturn an admissions decision.

"'In Rep. Cross' 20 years, he only recalls a few times when an inquiry has been made, but doesn't recall the exact conversations,' a statement from his office said. Cross inquired about 13 applicants from 2005 to 2009, records show. Ten of them were admitted.

"Simon said his relative was well-qualified, and he encouraged future applicants to appeal.

"McLennand declined to comment on the Cullerton and Cross inquiries."

It's none of our business.

*

Finally:

"Officials routinely described their involvement as providing a constituent service, however the Tribune found many applicants did not live in the lawmakers' districts."

*

The Tribune has been on this story for a long time - and God bless 'em. ChicagoTalks also conducted an investigation of its own - see "The Scholarship Scam."

After I posted that in 2009, Madigan's spokesman, Steve Brown, sent me an e-mail and the following exchange occurred:

BROWN: [A] handful of questions. Guess the statistics speak for themselves. Most scholarships, actually nearly all, are awarded properly. BTW none of this works focuses on how well the students perform both in school and in professional, post college life.

ME: My contention would be that no scholarships awarded by elected office-holders are awarded properly. Pols shouldn't be in the business of awarding education scholarships, and the only reason why they are is to give them one more political perk to leverage. The program simply shouldn't exist.

BROWN: Your conclusion on the existence of the program is totally illogical and if carried forward would suggest that politicians should make no decisions. That should make the desk jockeys of the state excited, but is a setback for democracy.

ME: I really don't get what you're saying. Why should legislators award
scholarships? That's a perversion of democracy, as we see by the chicanery here. Leave the scholarships to the universities and colleges. It's that simple.

BROWN: My point is simple . . . the possible chicanery is minimal at best and while I am a fan of zero tolerance, I think further review would show the good outweighs the evil. I say possible because I know from long experience that not every donation/scholarship family is some quid pro quo.

Furthermore none if these stories even tries to determine the success of the students in class or upon graduation.

Finally if you have spent time around academics you should know they spend a lot of time maneuvering the system to get their darlings special treatment. Of course most academics get free tuition their kids.

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Lastly, just to show how ridiculous the whole thing is, state Rep. Ken Dunkin's application for a legislative scholarship doesn't seem to contemplate that a high school student could just google the answers to such silly questions as who the lieutenant governor is and what the three branches of government are (trick question - there are only two: The House of Madigan and The Hall of Rahm).

But there I go taking the process seriously. Ken Dunkin has no business deciding who gets to attend the university. That's why they have a little something called the admissions office, and legislators should stay the hell away from it.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on February 28, 2012


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