TO: Governor Pat Quinn and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees
FROM: University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign Senate
DATE: August 31, 2009
Now that the Admissions Review Commission (the “Mikva Commission”) has issued its report, it is important for our duly elected faculty and student governance bodies to address the issues raised by its investigation and findings.
The University of Illinois is a great public institution, a world-class university with a proud history of excellence. The recent disclosures of unsavory admissions practices, serious as they are, do not reflect on the overall integrity and quality of our academic endeavor – or the more than 140 years of service faculty and administrators at this university have given to the people of Illinois, the nation, and the world.
Painful as they have been, these disclosures have provided an opportunity to re-examine processes and ways of doing business that evolved, gradually and often in secret, at our campus, university, and Board of Trustee levels.
The errors of judgment and failures of responsibility that have been documented by the Admissions Review Commission are indefensible. To their credit, both President White and Chancellor Herman have apologized for their activities and expressed remorse for the harm done to this institution.
These activities, however, also need to be seen in context. This President and Chancellor did not invent “clout” as a factor influencing campus admissions; it has been a longstanding problem at this university as at nearly every university, public and private. But the scope and severity of the problem at Illinois clearly grew in recent years, for a number of reasons.
For us, this scandal reveals the features of a web of moral responsibility, with each party undertaking actions that pressured and impinged upon the options of others. A full and fair accounting needs to take into consideration not only the actions of the President and the Chancellor, but also those of two former governors, several state legislators, and other public officials, including some Trustees. Alumni and donors who asked for special favors bear some responsibility, as do the students, or more often the parents of the students, who used connections to solicit favorable treatment. The faculty also bear responsibility in this matter; when we withdraw from involvement in and oversight of admissions, we abdicate an important academic duty. The problematic admissions practices and abuses that have come to light undoubtedly would have been uncovered and addressed early on if faculty had been in a position to become aware of them.
Over time, the perception that “this is just how things work” became self-fulfilling and corrupting. Even principled and well-intentioned people found themselves doing things that were wrong. Small compromises grew into patterns of conduct.
This does not justify what cannot be justified. It does, however, set a context in which simple calls for blame and scapegoating need to be viewed with skepticism. There is plenty of blame to spread around.
We need to find a way to re-establish the fairness and integrity of our admissions process, both in its mechanisms and in its public reputation. Faculty and student governance groups must help lead the university out of this crisis. This position statement represents our initial contribution to that conversation – a conversation we know will continue over weeks to come.
Reforming the Admissions Process
It is clear that the policies and procedures for admissions on this campus need reform. The existence of a preferred status for some students, the lack of an adequate and fair appeals process, an absence of transparency, and failure to abide by our own admissions rules, all need to be addressed. The UIUC Senate Executive Committee has approved a resolution from the Senate Committee on Admissions (Appendix A) identifying key principles for such changes.
First, the principle of campus autonomy over academic matters means that, while accepting good ideas from any sources, the final decisions on admissions processes must rest with our campuses.
Second, as with all academic matters, we expect full involvement of relevant faculty groups in the process of reform.
Third, a primary goal must be to insulate the Office of Admissions from any inappropriate influences, whether from within the campus or outside it. This should include a Code of Conduct for Admissions for the entire university system, and a similar set of restrictions passed and adopted by the Board of Trustees, on the model of that used by the University of California Board of Regents.
Fourth, the campus should formalize and make public its admissions procedures in a manner available to everyone. These procedures vary among undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, and these differences should be made clear. Wherever feasible, especially at the graduate and professional school levels, we believe that faculty review of applications should play a part in the admissions process.
Fifth, clearer guidelines must be put in place about who can appropriately make inquiries about the status of student applications, for what purposes, and how they are to be handled and responded to.
Finally, the campus should establish an oversight board for admissions, which can hear reports of abuse and forward concerns to the relevant campus or university officials.
Reforming the Board of Trustees
The UIUC Senate Executive Committee has approved a resolution (Appendix B) calling for changes in the ways in which the members of the Board of Trustees are chosen.
First, to ensure that future appointees have a strong understanding of and commitment to the principles that drive our university, the resolution calls for the creation of a Task Force on the Selection of Trustees, including representatives of campus government, leaders in higher education from outside the university, and citizens to review nominees and advise the Governor on their qualifications.
Second, the resolution calls for the development of a more detailed proposal concerning the composition and membership of the Board, including the addition of some form of faculty representation. Some of these changes would require legislative action.
We believe that if these proposals had been in place previously, the problems now confronting the Board, both in the area of admissions and other matters, would have been less likely to have arisen.
We also plan to forward a recommendation on the proposal to establish a new Inspector General position for higher education. This is an important proposal, with a number of potentially serious ramifications, but since it is not being implemented immediately we would like to take the time to give these issues careful consideration before responding. We strongly urge that before any decision is made on this matter, relevant campus and university governance bodies have an opportunity to provide such advice.
Addressing the Issue of Administrative Responsibility
As we have said, our campus will create a model system for admissions that strengthens all the areas of weakness that have been pointed out by the Admissions Review Commission and others. But the other aspect of the controversy is much more difficult: rebuilding public trust and confidence in our campus and university, and reforming the perception of the integrity of its administrative processes, including its admissions processes.
The Admissions Review Commission recommends that a newly empanelled Board of Trustees undertake a review of the President and Chancellor. They are empowered to hire and fire senior administrators – and we are not. Nevertheless, we expect that the considered views of the faculty and student members of the UIUC Senate should carry some influence in this process.
In thinking about appropriate next steps, it seems to us that a distinction needs to be made. Some have argued that it is due punishment for these two leaders to lose their positions as a result of the mistakes they made. In our view, their immediate dismissal would be disproportionate and imprudent. It would be disproportionate because an error of judgment, even a series of errors, should not necessarily outweigh an overall record of service to the institution. As the Admissions Review Commission has documented, when confronted with outside pressure campus and university administrators made the wrong call, not just once but repeatedly. These choices might have been made with an eye toward what these leaders thought would be best for the institution – maintaining good relations with state officials, donors, and others – but we fervently wish that a different set of choices had been made.
We believe that a more constructive way to approach this issue is not with a view toward punishment, but rather in terms of what is necessary to re-establish trust in this institution. Remedying this problem will require more than just putting new admissions policies and practices in place – because the failures that brought us to this point were not simply the result of flawed policies. They occurred because of the conscious choices of people and their acquiescence in activities they should have known were improper. There is no conceivable way for those who oversaw and actively participated in that process to give sufficient credibility to a newly reformed process.
Therefore, we believe that an orderly transition to new leadership for both of these positions is in the best interests of this campus, and the university.
We are aware that, as we express our views from this campus, any decision affecting the President needs to be addressed by each of the campuses. We stand ready to engage with our colleagues from Chicago and Springfield in that conversation.
There also remains the question of timing and sequence. Immediate dismissal of both of these officials would be imprudent; and their simultaneous immediate resignations would not be in the best interests of the campus and university. The prospect of running a campus with no experienced Provost and no experienced Chancellor, and a university system with no experienced President and a new Board of Trustees, all at the same time, is simply unthinkable. Refilling all of these positions at once, when each search relies partly on a decision made at the next higher level, is unrealistic and unworkable. In the midst of a major budgetary crisis, moreover, we need experienced leadership – and we do believe that the President and Chancellor have the experience to lead us through the transition. Continuity and stability in the management of the institution must be ensured. Yet these considerations need to be reconciled with the need for a transition in both positions – and for that transition to be made in a timely manner.
The wisest and most realistic approach, in our view, is one that negotiates a staggered schedule of transition to new leadership, within a relatively short time frame. There are detailed questions of sequencing to be worked out in relation to the terms of the President’s and Chancellor’s contracts. These are clearly matters that the newly empanelled Board of Trustees will need to negotiate with the principals.
We have discussed these issues with the President and Chancellor, and both have expressed their readiness to do what is necessary to re-establish trust in the institution.
An important consideration, if these positions are to be vacated and then refilled, is the order in which to do so. While this is ultimately the new Board’s decision, as we have made clear, we hope that faculty advice and consultation can help the Board to make this decision in a way that serves and protects the campuses and university system as a whole. In general, it seems to us that changes to more senior positions need to be resolved before positions that report to them can be searched and filled, and the timing must be sufficient to ensure that effective, thorough searches can be completed. For this campus, a search for a new Provost is currently under way. We question the wisdom of proceeding with that search before we have a new Chancellor in place.
Looking ahead, our campus will do all we can to reassert and live up to our shared commitment to the highest principles of academic integrity in all aspects of our administrative operations, as well as in our teaching, research, and public service. We are moving rapidly to ensure that our admissions processes treat all future applicants in a fair, equitable, and transparent manner, and that will establish a firewall between those processes and future attempts at outside influence. We believe that we will emerge a stronger and better institution for having undergone this painful process.
Meanwhile, we will continue to do the outstanding work, as faculty and students, that has given the University of Illinois its reputation for excellence as a great land-grant university. We hope that nothing which has transpired in this controversy causes people to doubt that.