By Stacy St. Clair, Jodi S. Cohen and Robert Becker
State Sen. Chris Lauzen believed a student deserved admission to the
University of Illinois law school in 2005, and he let the university's
The school's dean thought otherwise.
"She won't hurt us terribly, but she certainly won't help us,"
then-Dean Heidi Hurd wrote to Chancellor Richard Herman. "She will almost
certainly be denied admission if the process unfolds as we predict. But she
can probably do the work. If you tell me we need to do this one, we will.
We'll remember it though!"
"Please admit," the chancellor replied. "I understand no
The e-mail exchange, one of hundreds received by the Tribune under a Freedom
of Information Act request, embodies an ongoing power struggle between
educators who want to protect the integrity of the state's most prestigious
public university and administrators who also feel compelled to appease
The Tribune on Friday reported evidence that subpar applicants gained
admission to the U. of I. with the sway of state lawmakers and university
trustees. The investigation revealed that acceptance decisions at times
occurred over the objections of admissions officers in deference to power
University officials issued statements saying they "mostly get it
right," but welcome the opportunity to address inequities outlined in the
Further analysis of the 1,800 documents reveals how intertwined admissions
decisions were with political maneuverings in Springfield. The Tribune found
instances in which the school's lobbyists overrule rejections, "blow
up" at admissions staff and forward veiled threats from politicians who
want candidates admitted.
Documents show both Democrats and Republicans asked lobbyists to track the
status of more than 500 applicants, accounting for well more than half of the
names on a clout list maintained during the past five years.
The list of students -- referred to by school officials as "Category
I" applicants -- also includes requests and recommendations from Illinois
congressmen, a U.S. senator, Downstate mayors and ex-Gov. James Thompson.
The Tribune reported Friday that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich submitted a
request while in office, leading school officials to overturn the rejection of
a relative of Antoin
, the influence peddler who was later convicted on
public corruption charges.
Herman, who typically acts as the conduit between the university's admissions
office and lobbyists, told the Tribune that inclusion on the list does not
guarantee a positive outcome, nor does it mean the students wouldn't be
accepted on their merits.
The clout list creates an awkward situation in which university officials are
taking requests from legislators who hold the school's purse strings and
trustees who are, in essence, their bosses.
"Do you think that if Barack Obama called me up and said, 'My nephew
lives in Illinois and is applying,' -- I mean, this is the president of the
United States calling me -- what am I supposed to do?" Herman asked
While the practice is common among legislators, they don't all do it.
"It's completely inappropriate," said state Rep. Robert Pritchard
(R-Hinckley), a member of the House Higher Education Committee, who said he
refuses to push applicants. "You're being unfair to people who apply
expecting an equitable system. It's clearly something that needs to be
Lauzen (R-Aurora) contends his recommendation of the U. of I. applicant
reflected his commitment to good constituent service. The senator said the
candidate, who opted not to attend U. of I. and has graduated from another law
school, was highly qualified and deserved admission.
He said the only upsetting parts about Dean Hurd's exchange with the
chancellor are her tone in the e-mail and that she said she would remember the
"If it were me, I'd fire her, maybe for insolence," Lauzen said.
"If she doesn't believe the person is qualified, she should say no.
Instead, she asks for a quid pro quo. Where are her ethics?"
Hurd, who still teaches at U. of I., could not be reached for comment.
Most names reach the clout list through the university's top two lobbyists,
Richard Schoell and Terry McLennand, records show. The two are part of a
government relations office that advocates for the university's interests,
including funding, in Springfield. McLennand's e-mails, in particular, provide
a detailed look at the lobbyists' machinations in admissions.
McLennand funneled most lawmaker requests through Herman. In one case, he
suggested that the university's complicity in clouting admissions decisions
could protect it from the passage of unfavorable laws -- what Pritchard later
described as "blackmail."
"Again, thank you for your assistance, these cases do matter,"
McLennand wrote in a February 2009 e-mail in which he pushed for an
applicant's rejection to be overturned. "Just in the last week, I have
had discussions with two legislators who had considered drafting legislation
with some form of automatic admission standards for the university."
Herman replied: "Surely [it] would not pass though we do not need the
The student was admitted.
The unnamed lawmakers' alleged threat to change university policy proves there
is a flaw in the system, Pritchard said. If legislators feel so emboldened by
the process that they hint at retaliation, the practice needs to be revamped,
"Certainly, it's a constituent service, but it doesn't make it
right," he said. "It doesn't mean you should be participating in a
form of blackmail."
Schoell, the university's executive director for government relations, denied
he feels untoward pressure from lawmakers or has any role in the admissions
process. Though they help legislators track names as a courtesy, he said, they
do not push for candidates. Any documented references to lawmakers' urgency
only reflect the politicians' desires to have quick responses for their
constituents, he said.
"My job is to get back promptly or appropriately," Schoell said.
"It's an exchange of information."
One e-mail exchange shows that admissions officers worried about McLennand's
access to their database and worried he was divulging confidential information
about students to lawmakers. The breach could give lawmakers and applicants
"ammunition to use against us," wrote Keith Marshall, associate
provost for enrollment management.
"I'm ... growing increasingly concerned that Terry is sharing too much
information with legislators and the families of kids we're tracking," he
wrote to Herman in February. "If I had my druthers, we would take away
... access from Terry and his staff. They ... do not have the necessary
expertise to interpret the data they are viewing. Twice this year they have
blown up at me because they believed we released admissions decisions before
Schoell, who is McLennand's boss, said the problem has been addressed and that
information is not shared with outside parties.
State Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) has candidates on the list,
as do House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) and House Speaker Michael
Madigan (D-Chicago). Cullerton declined to comment. Cross and Madigan said
they see no problem with forwarding students' names.
University logs show Cross has submitted at least 10 names in the past five
years, with eight known admissions. But Cross said he also has heard bad news
from the government relations office.
"They have always been brutally honest with me," he said. "I'm
fine with that."
Madigan, who has submitted the most requests of any lawmaker over the past
five years, has pushed at least 34 names, with 6 known denials since 2005,
records show. His spokesman, Steve Brown, shrugged off suggestions of an
"A constituent calls and asks for someone to help get a street paved or
curb replaced or a kid get into college," Brown said. "I think
that's perfectly appropriate."
Some lawmakers said Category I allows them a chance to fix
Rep. James Brosnahan (D- Evergreen Park) inserted himself in the admissions
process in February after a constituent was rejected despite having a 32 ACT
score and a near-perfect grade-point average from Marist High School in
Chicago. After the student lost his appeal -- an unadvertised option for those
on the clout list -- Brosnahan and Sen. Edward Maloney (D-Chicago) pushed for
"I would respectfully say our actions on this case do not sit well with
several members," McLennand wrote in an e-mail to school officials. The
student was admitted.
Brosnahan, who says he got involved after the student's mom wrote his office,
believes the applicant's scores merited admission.
"I've never, in my 13 years in the legislature, heard of a kid with those
credentials getting rejected from Liberal Arts at U. of I.," Brosnahan
said. "Sometimes the university makes mistakes and it's up to public
officials like myself and Sen. Maloney to help correct them."
The practice, however, stands to disenfranchise students who aren't
politically savvy enough to seek their legislator's help.
"Any individual has a right to go to their representative of government,
though I think there are
who elect not to or don't know it exists," Schoell said. "[But] the
university admission process is fair, and it's impartial and it's governed by
very good people."
The assurances offer little solace to U. of I. alum Gary Gasbarra. The
Flossmoor man watched his son apply to the University of Illinois the first
day the admissions office accepted applications two years ago, believing the
teen's 32 ACT score and high class rank would gain him entry to the business
He had sent one child to his alma mater and thought Andy Gasbarra, who was
"orange-and-blue everything," would be next. He wasn't.
The rejection stung anew Friday when Gasbarra learned of the influence some
state lawmakers and university trustees wield in sponsoring applicants with
weak academic credentials.
"These are employees for the state of Illinois, for the residents of
Illinois, that shouldn't be doing this," he said. "This should not
be part of standard operating procedure."
The younger Gasbarra now happily pledges his allegiance to Indiana University.
Tribune reporters John Chase and Tara Malone contributed to this report.