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White denies Tribune’s corruption reports; student trustee: some “will need to go down”

University President B. Joseph White denied a Chicago Tribune report of corrupt admissions practices at the University to The Daily Illini, late Thursday night.

The Tribune reported that White played a role in a “secret clout list” and admitted students to the University based on their relationships with politicians, lobbyists or school trustees. The report included a relative of convicted Antoin “Tony” Rezko and that White had fowarded the admissions request on behalf of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

This information was according to 1,800 pages of documents obtained by the Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act.

“There’s no secret clout list,” White said. “The Tribune invented the term ‘secret clout list.'”

University spokesman Thomas Hardy confirmed to The Associated Press that the list of applicants tracked by politicians and trustees, also called “Category I,” exists, however. He said each year it contains about 100 potential students whose applications legislators and trustees have been asked to check on by constituents, typically parents or other relatives of the applicants.

Hardy said other universities keep similar lists.

“The idea that I would forward an expression of interest on the part of a candidate is possible, that is something I do,” White said. “That does not constitute either pressure for admission or an opinion on my part that a person should be admitted.”

White said he does not comment on any individual admissions cases out of respect for the candidate. The University president added that he has never had any communications with Rezko and that he met Blagojevich possibly three times over the past four years.

“I would be willing to bet that there are some people that, in all honestly, will need to go down for the betterment of the University, and that’s a fact of life,” said Paul Schmitt, outgoing student trustee. “I’m not pointing fingers to any of my colleagues, but we have to be a little bit realistic about the political culture in the state of Illinois.”

President White also responded to the story in a press release Friday afternoon.

“First and most important, all admissions to the University of Illinois should be based on merit,” White said, according to the release. “There will be many inquiries and expressions of support and interest for applicants, including from powerful people, but it is our job to manage a merit-based system and not succumb to pressure.”

White said the problem mentioned in the Tribune article is small in comparison to the size of the number of applicants to the University. He said that there may have been 13 more applicants on the Category I list that were admitted, versus the standard rate, as the Tribune article reports that the rate of admissions for all applicants was 69 percent, and the rate for those in Category 1 was 77 percent.

“The University of Illinois depends on the trust of the people of Illinois. I think that trust is deserved,” White added. “To the extent we have had instances of admissions officers or others experiencing and succumbing to inappropriate pressure for admission of less qualified over more qualified candidates, this is a problem that we can and will correct.”

University Trustee David Dorris told The AP that he typically gets a few requests a year from constituents to check on applications. He said he checks on them but tells university officials, “Do not give them any advantage.”

Dorris was not sure if trustees will meet regarding the report or what action, if any, they might take.

“The important thing is that this scandal is making a public university the subject of political favoritism,” Schmitt said. “If this is true it only highlights and underscores the necessity of a fumigation of this board of trustees based on the Blagojevich and George Ryan trustees.”

Schmitt added that any trustee who is honest would not mind going through a vetting and fumigation process and later being reappointed to the Board.

“This is an opportunity for the University to move forward and move beyond the culture of secrecy and nonopenness that has been accused against governance at this University,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Read the Chicago Tribune’s full investigation

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