Proft Calls For 'Merit-Based Opportunity' Admissions for University System

U of I Admissions officer looked for red stripe I Illinois Review - June 30, 2009


We cannot solve Illinois' problems simply with better management or incremental change. Illinois has systemic problems that require systemic change, because what we have in Illinois are "fixed" systems; systems that are designed to work for the politically connected and against the people in Illinois who play by the rules and pay the freight for state government.

Sadly, we must add our higher education institutions to the long list of Illinois systems that aren't broken, but fixed. This week the Admissions Review Commission convened by Governor Quinn will meet to continue their investigation into the clout-heavy admissions process at the University of Illinois and possibly our other 11 public universities.

As this matter has unfolded over the last several weeks, the information that has come to light is disturbing but not surprising.

With the release of 130-pages worth of emails from University of Illinois admissions officers, administrators and higher-ups, we have confirmation of what we all assumed was true: that there is one set of standards for the admission of the children of the politically-connected and another set of standards for the admission of everyone else.

No one in power wants to defend the practice in place at the University of Illinois of admitting unqualified but politically-connected students, but no one in power has proposed changing it either. The politicians are not saying the very system of admissions as it was conceived is the problem; that the system was designed to give politicians access to university administrators and admissions officials.

Instead, now that the fix has been brought to light, the politicians want to point the finger at those who were under an implicit threat to do what the politicians told them to do. The calls from the politicians in Springfield, like East Moline State Rep. Mike Boland, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee , has been as predictable as it has been self-serving. Boland and others have called for the resignation of certain administrators and board trustees, because politicians need scapegoats.

If anyone should have to resign, it should be those who applied the pressure, not those who succumbed to it. In FY 2009, higher education institutions received $2.4 billion in state general funds. This means every request from a state legislator to university admissions staff comes with an implied threat relative to the state funding of that university.

We must an end to a system that is rigged for the politically connected even as it is financed by the people who play by the rules in Illinois. Applicants to the University of Illinois or any other state university should have confidence that the bar for admissions is based on what you know, not you know and what you have done as a student, not what your parents have done to sustain the state's current political power structure.

For that to happen, university officials must be able to consider each applicant without fear of pressure from state legislators or other political influence-peddlers.

For example, consider how the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducts its auditions. Musicians are asked to play before a panel of judges, much as university applicants are asked to show their academic and extracurricular achievements. But here's the difference: The musicians are asked to play behind a curtain, so that the judges can only hear the artist's music. This removes any incentive or even possibility that a judge will consider anything other than a musician's ability.

There is no reason why we cannot apply this policy for university admissions.

So today I propose that Illinois' public institutions of higher learning adopt a "Merit-Based Opportunity" standard for all admissions. Each application that reaches the admissions office will have the applicant's name replaced with an identification number. Like a CSO judge, all that an admissions officer will be able to discern from an application is the student's academic and extracurricular achievements – as it should be. This proposal means that even if a politically-connected individual were to demand special consideration for a particular applicant, the admission officer would be unable to comply.

The practice of using randomly assigned numbers instead of names is already the standard in many instances. For example, when I was in law school, I would go to the Registrar's office to get my test number for final exams. I would write my randomly-generated test number on the exam, not my name, not my social security number. Thus, the professor did not know whose paper he was grading, giving the process a greater degree of impartiality, which is what we are also putatively striving for with admissions.

Illinois' public universities have a fiduciary responsibility to Illinois taxpayers to make academic achievement not political access the standard by which applicants will or will not gain admission.

Simply getting rid of university officials who went along to get along will not do that. It is not fundamentally a personnel problem. It is a system problem. U. of I. admissions was designed so that it could be influenced by politicians and their sponsors. The system needs to be redesigned.

Under my vision for admission policy, the phrase "Straight from the G", a phrase contained in an apologetic email from the U. of I. chancellor to college's then-law school dean explaining why they had to admit unqualified students, no longer carries any influence at public universities. The Governor has no business deciding who will or will not be admitted by executive fiat.

Under my vision for admissions policy, the people who play by the rules in Illinois, the families that told their children to take their studies seriously so they could get into a good state university, can have their faith restored that admittance into an Illinois state university funded in part by their tax dollars will go to those with the requisite scholastic record.

These are young people's lives we are talking about.

So frustrated was former Illinois Law School Dean Heidi Hurd by the influence-peddling and favor exchanges going on in admissions, she, obviously a Democrat, wrote in an email to U. of I. Chancellor Richard Herman, "Sheeshk. It's enough to make one want to be a Republican."

Indeed, what the Democrats in Chicago and the political establishment in Springfield have done to our state and our state universities should be enough to make every one want to be a Republican.

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